Choosing what to cover first on Horror week was a little tricky. Other than Halloween 3 on October 31st I hadn’t set out a schedule. I don’t like to think too far ahead. Brings me out in hives. Eventually I decided that if I was going to start Horror Week with a bang I may as well go with the most bat-shit insane of the 5 films I’ll be reviewing over the coming week. When it comes to insanity on film you don’t get much more insanityer than Dario Argento. To call him an unconventional director would be a slight understatement. They guy always has, and always will, live in a cinematic world of his own. The sort of world where a serial killer can be hunted down by a wheelchair bound biologist with a Chimp for a nurse and a 14 year old girl with the psychic power to communicate with insects. And that’s Phenomena ladies and gents! Click the link for the review!
As I just blew your mind grapes with, the plot to Phenomena is a little out there. In full it’s about a girl named Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) who’s been sent to boarding school is Switzerland. Soon after arriving she find herself sleepwalking and narrowly avoiding being killed. I turns out young girls in this town have been getting murdered all the time and Jennifer’s psychic ability is causing her to sleepwalk when the killer is on the prowl. She meets a biologist specialising in insects named John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) who believes Jennifer may be able to communicate with his insects, specifically a breed that just love the taste of rotting flesh. Which is handy because no-one knows where the bodies of the missing girls are. See, the 14 year old girl is gonna go find the bodies with the help of her insect pals. Obviously everyone at the school thinks she’s mental and want her locked up. Will Jennifer find the killer before she’s put into a padded cell? Probably, you should watch to find out.
Phenomena could easily be written off by some as an odd 80s horror movie that was probably made by a crew whilst drunk. This may be partially true. But, that would likely mean you’re unfamiliar with the auteur that is Dario Argento. His films exist in a world that is just to the left of ours where hokey scenarios can be played 100% straight and Donald Pleasence can have a chimp for a nurse and you just accept it. There’s always a strange otherworldly tone to his films that is likely the effect of Argento coming from the world of Giallo cinema. Giallo is like the Italian version of American pulp novels but way more interested in fantastical situations and eroticism. Nothing in Italian horror is normal and the fact Argento got to bring some of that to English speaking audiences is really quite amazing and brilliant.
What some people fail to see is that an Argento film represents as much of himself as Miyazaki or Tim Burton films represent themselves today. Jennifer tells a story of how her mother abandoned her family at Christmas, a story that actually happened to Argento. He’s always had a love of breaking glass, reusing it in many of his films. He revels in the technical trickery capable on film, often using some clever tricks to show grotesque violence with the actor’s face in shot long before CGI made these effects a breeze. He’s a stylist first and foremost but, especially during the 70s and 80s, his films never forgot to tell a story. A really bizarre story.
Phenomena may not sell everyone with it’s production quality but you can tell the people working on this put their hearts into making everything work. So while almost all the dialogue has been dubbed in ADR and that the performances regularly come across as more wooden than a matchstick model of a tree you still will feel the love. Jennifer Connelly is especially catatonic in this film. To be fair this was one of her first films and similar arguments could be made against her performance in Labyrinth. Yeah that’s right, I insinuated that Labyrinth may not be perfect! Donald Pleasence, meanwhile, starts off with some sort of Scottish accent and quickly gets bored of that, settling into a kindly old man voice instead, possibly out of boredom. I do like to imagine that he got up to all sorts of hijinks with his new chimpanzee friend on the set though. And yet, despite the poorly delivered dialogue and the oddly structured conversations, you just kind of accept them because they just fit the world we’ve been drawn into.
Musically the film is as schizophrenic as you’d expect a film about a girl that talks to bees to be. The soundtrack features a mixture of typical 80s horror synth from Goblin and, in his début, Simon Boswell. Goblin is the master of synth based horror scores and lengthy Prog Rock albums. If you’ve seen an Italian horror from this period you’re probably familiar with their work. At other points in the film, usually during quite slow scenes, Argento makes the odd choice to just play some heavy metal. And why not? In one scene were seeing a dead body being wheeled out, people are looking on in shock and Jennifer runs away scared… all set to Motorhead’s Locomotive, which is not a sad song at all. Iron Maiden, Andi Sex Gang and Frankie Goes To Hollywood all crop up in the film’s soundtrack at some point just to add to the oddness.
So whilst Phenomena isn’t a technical marvel of a film, whilst it has a script that sounds like it was written by someone for whom English was a second language (which it was) and whilst the performances and music is just plain strange… Phenomena still rocks. The high level of creativity and the giving of zero shits that this film displays are truly admirable. The plot is insane. The scenarios regularly come out of left field. Despite everything the film is enjoyable, memorable and, at times, kind of brilliant. It’s not Argento’s best work, that’s a hard debate to settle, but it is a film that you just have to see in order to witness something that would never exist today. Argento always gave you everything he could back at this point of his career. His love for horror and the fantastical shine through, in much the same way as it does for Guillermo Del Toro today. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where a director’s passions lie, but in Phenomena you can see that it’s entirely in the love of the film.