The craziest Argento film, and that’s saying something…this review contains SPOILERS.
Of all the films made during Dario Argento’s gold run of cinema (1975-1987), Phenomena is arguably the one with the most mixed fan reactions. Some people love it for the fact that it’s all over the place, and others hate it for those very same reasons.
Let me get my opinion out there straight away – I adore it.
With the 1980’s in full swing, this saw Argento fully embrace the atmospheres and quirks of the decade – this is probably his most 1980’s movie of all his 1980’s movies – and then he threw in inimitable, mad quirks of his own. You know, chimps, insects, Iron Maiden, mutant children, telepathy, that sort of thing. It’s a delightfully, brilliantly bonkers and strange mix. Because of this, some have referred to Phenomena as something akin to an Argento greatest hits package. That’s not a bad description, but there are things in this movie that are unique to this movie, and so I’m loathe to consider this a mere retread of past glories. So, where were we back in 1985? Well, after the return to giallo that was 1982’s Tenebrae, Argento went back to the supernatural ambience of Suspiria and Inferno, albeit with one foot still rooted in the real world (relatively, anyway) by attempting to explain this film’s specific phenomena (cross-species telepathy) with science. It’s still pretty crazy stuff though, and what I love about this film is just how eccentric it is, yet it’s also played dead straight. It could all fall apart at any moment, and yet Argento, thanks to his sheer verve and bravura, keeps it together. You’re either with it, or you’re not, and I am so, so, so with this film that I can’t fathom why people think this is a lesser Argento work. It’s up there with his very best. If what we love Argento for is his mad streak, his originality, his individuality, then surely one of his most out-there movies surely has to be a must-see, right? Not everyone agreed though, and it didn’t help that in the US it was cut by over half an hour, rebranded Creepers (neat title, but it made the film sound like a creepy-crawly horror), and sold as a traditional shocker, which it most certainly isn’t.
The opening scene is a corker, as a school bus takes off down a long, lonely road somewhere in Switzerland, leaving one of their class behind, stranded, alone and scared. It’s funny when you consider how this scene would play differently now – mobile phones would ensure a hasty return trip and poor teenage Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento, Dario’s daughter) would have ended up alright. Not back in ’85 though – she’s abandoned, cold and frightened, and in typical Argento fashion, the film decides to take a beautiful detour to gracefully pan up and up and up and up and up a very tall tree for the opening credits, backed by a creepy synthesiser score co-composed, surprisingly, by Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman! On the evidence of atmospheric pieces like this, it would have been nice if he’d had more of an influence over the Stones sound, which certainly needed livening up around this time. Blimey, have you ever heard their Dirty Work LP?
After the credits have passed and the tree has been scaled, we go back to Vera, who’s hoping to find a nearby, friendly place where she can get in touch with someone for help. No such luck. She wanders towards a rustic, desolate house, sneaks in to look for help (calling out stuff like ‘help, I’m a foreigner’, which apparently incited giggles from audiences at the time) but someone else is in the house, someone chained to the wall. Not chained very securely, I must add. Those chains unsurprisingly don’t last long, and Vera is suddenly attacked by the mystery prisoner, who strangles her with the chains and stabs her in the hand with a pair of scissors. Just before that there’s a brilliant, foreboding shot of said scissors as they fall from a table and land on the floor with a horrible, piercing thud. When you see that shot, you just know they’re going to be used in some horrendous fashion moment later.
Vera escapes the house but doesn’t last long, fleeing to a series of cavernous tunnels that approach the nearby river and waterfall, coming to a literal dead-end, courtesy of extendable spike, falling glass and then decapitation. Blimey, poor girl. The bit with the glass is an extraordinary moment – obviously horrific and yet filmed with such graceful elegance – and looks like it was very dangerous to film too, even if it was sugar glass in lieu of the real thing. Vera falls back into the window separating the tunnel from the waterfall and her head breaks the glass, its shattered pieces then falling down onto her face in spectacular slow-motion with the waterfall rushing behind her. It’s an awesome shot, one of the best in any Argento film. Saying that, the fact that her head unnecessarily gets cut off a moment later and falls down into the river is almost like a sick post-script to the whole affair – I wonder if Argento was daring us to laugh at that point, to react at the almost absurd excess? And there you have it, another great start to another great Argento film.
Like Suspiria, we have a teenage girl/young woman thrown into a scary, threatening world of murder, magic and once again, maggots, but unlike Suspiria, where the childlike, fairytale ambience was given a dose of eerie unreality by casting adults in the adolescent roles, Phenomena‘s lead character is a child, played by the teenage Jennifer Connelly in only her second film. She plays Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous (and much crushed-after by everyone else, it seems) film star, who has been sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, only to find herself in the middle of a killing spree – girls her age are being murdered by a mysterious stranger.
Jennifer has a tendency to sleepwalk, and on her first night in her new digs, she finds herself drawn in her slumber to a closed-off part the school where she comes face to face with a screaming girl who is trying to get away from the killer but ends up with a spike through her mouth. The killer remains unidentified and Jennifer is regarded as a freak not only because she sleepwalks but, and I’ll bet you didn’t see this coming, she has an uncanny affinity with insects. She loves them, and they love her. In fact, one of them later on in the film really seems to like her, but thankfully the relationship is never consummated.
Meanwhile, entomologist and wheelchair user Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) is using his expertise of insects to help the police with the ongoing murder case. Yes, you read that right. It sounds wild, but in real life, insects present at crime scenes really have been studied to identify the time of death of a victim. This is because certain species of insects are attracted to corpses at certain stages of decay. This was what Argento was inspired by to begin work on Phenomena. I do love that Argento doesn’t really try to ease us in with this whole subject – after Vera is killed at the start we cut to a chimp (eh???) walking into McGregor’s house and we’re slam bang in the middle of a discussion about insects and their uses, and I’m all like – oh, cool, so this is how it’s going to be. By the way, the chimp’s name is Inge, and she is McGregor’s nurse. She’s great, and even her bad points (a tendency to goof around with razors and scalpels) end up being very useful before the end credits.
Thanks to McGregor’s expertise and Jennifer’s affinity with insects, the two begin to work together to track down the killer before he strikes again. To do this, the two ‘greatest known’ (or shall we say ‘unknown’) detectives in the world must track down the perpetrator via its victims. These two detectives are Jennifer and a fly so attuned to the presence of hidden corpses that it goes wild when one is nearby. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: an old man recklessly sending a girl out into a situation where she might get murdered doesn’t sound responsible, but look, we all want her to go out there and catch the killer, don’t we? He wants to, she wants to, we wants to, Argento wants to, so I say put the Great Sarcophagus fly in that box, get on the bus and let’s find ourselves a maggot-ridden corpse somewhere in the Swiss countryside! Am I right???!!!
Plus, McGregor has a personal stake in all of this – a young friend of his, Rita, disappeared some time back and was never found. He’s convinced she was one of the victims – chillingly, or frustratingly, depending on your Argento-tolerance, we never find out. As usual, everyone in an Argento film naturally assumes the killer is an adult male, and a lot of the time they’re wrong, and in this case there are two killers – mother and teenage son. Argento loves to lead us down wrong paths, and in Phenomena this particular path is akin to one you were always told not to stray away from, like in a fairy tale. saying that, there’s very little magic in this film, but there’s nonetheless a sense of the uncanny, predestined and mysterious which gives it an unearthly atmosphere. As we’ll delve into later, Phenomena is a relatively long film for this genre, but it’s extended scenes like Jennifer’s search for a body that pleasantly remind me of the leisurely direction of Deep Red when Marc enters the Murder House to try and find some clues. Oh, how I love Argento films – they just move at their own pace.
Unfortunately, had Jennifer hurried up a bit, she might have got back in town to maybe prevent poor McGregor getting impaled with that nasty spike contraption. The murder itself is classic Argento – attempting to descend his staircase in his stairlift, the controls are taken over by the killer and McGregor is helpless to do anything as he approaches the spike-in-waiting. Poor Inge witnesses the death and only gets into the house long after her best friend is dead. Don’t worry though – she’ll get her revenge.
The final half-hour is, as all horror films should be, an extended nightmare on screen. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about; you’re trapped in the Terrible House and somehow you find yourself delving even deeper into its horrors rather than finding the way out. Jennifer, distraught at the murder of McGregor and without a place to stay (although it’s not made clear where she stayed the night following her seeing his body) tries to get money wired to her at the local bank but doesn’t have much luck. That’s when Frau Bruckner shows up to offer her sanctuary until the next day, when she’ll be able to get a flight back to the States. It’s going to be a long night though. Things look immediately suspicious when Jennifer notices all the mirrors have been covered up. Apparently Bruckner has a son, a son who must be protected from gazing upon his own reflection. Then there’s the maggots in the bathroom – maggots in the sink, maggots on the soap, maggots on the towel. And what of the pill Bruckner’s just coerced Jennifer to take to calm her down? Not that Phenomena was insisting on being a whodunit – I mean, there wasn’t much in the way of clues – but yes, Bruckner is indeed the killer, or seems to be. She later admits to killing McGregor, and Inspector Geiger, who -and I’ve got ahead of myself here – hasn’t been murdered yet, but the killer of the girls is someone else. Someone else in the house. Geiger shows up as his investigation has led him to Bruckner, but she overpowers him with ease after knocking out Jennifer and locking her in one of the rooms.
Jennifer manages to escape, but we’ve got some real out-of-the-frying-pan business about to occur, as she follows a telephone wire down into the catacombs of the house and into a ghastly room where a bloodied and battered Geiger is chained to the wall. He tries to help Jennifer but given he looks like a goddamn zombie she’s understandably terrified and backs into The Worst Pool of All Time. Seriously, this is worse than the one in Enfield Lock just outside London where, as a child, I swallowed some of the water and was ill for a week. That one was bad, but at least it didn’t have rotting corpses floating in it, whereas the one here has that, plus maggots, blood and general disease and decay. It’s absolutely disgusting, and makes my stomach turn every time watch it. Jennifer clearly swallows some of that water. Bleurgh. Enter Bruckner, laughing like an absolute psycho (which she is) – she doesn’t even say anything. She just keeps laughing and laughing. Geiger calls her a ‘fucking bitch’, but to no avail. Nothing’s going to stop her laughing. Jennifer tries to get out, but Bruckner just steps on her hand, making her fall back in. Cue more laughter. I’ll give Geiger this – what he does next is as inspired as it is horrific. He breaks his own thumb so that he can slip his hand out of his cuffs! He attacks Bruckner and this gives Jennifer time to get out of the pool and leave the two of them to it. She then finds herself in a weird subterranean corridor, and in one of the rooms there’s a weeping child, facing the corner – Bruckner’s son! Earlier it was revealed that he is the product of a sexual assault inflicted on Bruckner fifteen years earlier at the nearby mental institution when one of the prisoners attacked her. Jennifer insists that the boy needn’t be afraid of his reflection but as soon as he turns around to face her she quickly realises that wasn’t a smart thing to say – the kid turns around to reveal a visage that’s almost like a precursor to the Predator, but with added maggots and drool. Not that i ever saw any Argento films as a child, but I imagine the sight of this would have given me nightmares for weeks.
Jennifer manages to escape through a worryingly, all-too accessible tunnel to the outside world and onto a small boat on the river, but Bruckner Jr. is after her with the spike, so there’s no doubt now that this bastard was the killer of all the girls – Jennifer becomes so scared that she screams the screamiest of screams, summoning the insects to help her. Every time I watch Phenomena and it gets to this point I always forget about the whole insect element, because the previous fifteen or twenty minutes have been so eventful and wild in their own right. So here they come, and unlike their relatively peaceful protest outside the school, they tear into the kid’s flesh until he’s pulling bits of himself off like that bit in Poltergeist. He falls into the river, and because the petrol tank had been pierced by the spike moments earlier, an attempt to turn on the engine and flee results in an explosion, forcing Jennifer to escape underwater, where of course, Bruckner Jr. is still alive and looking exceptionally worse for wear. Luckily the fire sees to him, and when the ‘Valley’ theme kicks in, we’re all ready to relax, knowing full well that things have come full circle, Geiger probably finished off Bruckner and we can all relax. Oh, and look – there’s Morris, Jennifer’s dad’s agent, come to bring her home! Yay!
Oh wait. Shit.
Oh well, so much for Morris. Yep, Bruckner’s still alive and ready to kill Jennifer with the same sheet of metal she just used to knock the other guy’s block off, but Inge then shows up with a razor she found in a bin earlier (!!!) and gets her own sweet, sweet revenge. The film then ends with Jennifer and Inge together, the start of a beautiful friendship – I must add that in reality Connelly and the chimp had a tougher time of it, as during the filming of a scene involving a malfunctioning stairlift, the latter bit the former’s finger in fright, leading to some understandable mistrust. Luckily both the finger and their friendship were patched up before the end of filming.
As ever with Argento’s films, there are many terrific set-pieces and striking imagery. However, compared to the restless camerawork of Deep Red, the intense colour scheme of Suspiria/Inferno or the ultra-stylised futurism of Tenebrae, Phenomena (and Opera) are relatively (and I really mean relatively) conventional, with a cooler, less vivid visual palette – as a result the occasions when Argento does hit us with a great image really do stand out, like the gruesome close-ups of decayed body parts, the concluding underwater escape, the beautiful/icky close-ups of the insects, or the rather neat ladybird POV shot.
Argento was often referred to as the Italian Hitchcock, but aside from a tendency to put women in peril, there wasn’t much else between them – however there is a great sequence where Jennifer attempts to flee the school before the mental institution staff arrive to take her away that the Master would have been happy to put his name to. Jennifer has to slowly remove her plaster and intravenous medicine (given my ickiness over needles, this is probably the most squirm-inducing moment in the movie for me) and get out without waking her nurse. There’s a bit where the nurse’s knitting needle falls from her lap but thankfully it lands point-end in the ball of wool. Reminded me of Mission: Impossible and the bit with the bead of sweat! Plus there’s a cuckoo clock. Bloody cuckoo clocks.
Then there’s the use of live insects. Nothing fake here, it’s all real, and the insect footage is so natural that I didn’t notice how obviously tricky it must have been to get all this stuff on film – if you watch the feature-length documentary on the recent Arrow Video release, you’ll see the lengths that were taken to get the bumblebee to rest on Connelly’s hand, or how they got the Sarcophagus fly to crawl into a crack in a door (hint – it involved shit). Okay, I’ll admit – I just lied, there are a couple of shots that were obviously used with practical effects, like the magnificent shot of the flies surrounding the front of the school, which was achieved with water and ground coffee! Just brilliant. All of this done pre-CGI too!
Given that her first role was in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Jennifer Connelly certainly can boast one of the most impressive starts to an acting CV ever. This is her first lead role too (her role in OUATIA was relatively small, Elizabeth McGovern taking over her character for the majority of the film as an adult) and she acquits herself well. There’s a radiant, ethereal quality to her, an innocence that puts her in line with Argento’s other leads in his supernatural films. She’s a persecuted character, at one point even accused of being in league with the devil, and is regularly bullied and victimised, but there doesn’t seem to be any vengeful, darker side to her. Jennifer is most certainly not Carrie.
In a memorable moment, Jennifer’s trauma becomes so intense that she calls forth a cloud of flies to surround the school, but they don’t do anything nasty. They just hang around and scare the other pupils and staff to let them know who’s boss. And yet Jennifer herself has nothing but love to express to the others, and while she’s definitely put through the wringer in the final act, unlike other Argento protagonists, she is not left irreparably damaged at the end – she remains a ray of light in a world of dark.
As usual, Argento’s direction and seeming awkwardness with English actors (plus his inclination for dubbing) means that there is the odd stilted moment, the unintentionally funny line of dialogue, the fumbling of rhythm and so forth. You have to take it or leave it. Some may find on-the-nose dialogue like Bruckner’s ‘Now I’m going to kill you… TO AVENGE HIM!!!’ totally disruptive of the atmosphere, but the hell with it, I love it. Anyway, despite these potential, occasional distractions, Phenomena really benefits from the engaging chemistry between Connelly and Pleasance, and chimps are never not entertaining. Okay, so Pleasance’s ‘Scottish’ accent is ropey, but he’s a warm, kindly presence and recalls the grandfatherly charm of Karl Malden’s blind detective in Cat O’Nine Tails. Daria Nicolodi, after her relatively bland characters in Inferno and Tenebrae, gets to have an absolute ball as the psychotic Bruckner, even if she doesn’t get to go crazy properly until the final act. Patrick Bauchau, who Bond fans will recognise as Scarpine from A View to a Kill, appears as Inspector Geiger, and Argento protege and assistant director Michele Soavi has a brief appearance as his assistant.
Despite the dark undertones (Bruckner’s backstory is tragic and she could have been a sympathetic character were it not for the, er… murders) and strong violence, there’s a strangely uptempo mood to Phenomena that I can’t explain. There’s little to no comedy (there’s less here than in other, more overtly darker Argento films) but the sense of the fantastical, the fascination it has with its own plot, the use of speed metal, the almost ghoulish glee it has with its gore, the genuinely pretty exterior location shots – it’s definitely the most fun of Argento’s classic era. Hey, I know Deep Red is loads of fun too, but it’s also very dark, very twisted, very scary… and that final scene man….what a downer. It’s too disturbing to take casually, whereas a film that ends with a chimp slashing a psycho to death with a razor is fun, fun, fun in my books. It’s also an Argento film clearly aimed more at a younger audience – this makes sense given the demographic of his films around this time, plus the emergence of the teen movie.
For the first time in an Argento film, we get a soundtrack that is made up of various contributors – Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor’s ‘Valley’ was even given a music video (directed by Soavi) – I wonder if it ever got shown on MTV? It’s a moody promo, with Wyman hanging around the Bruckner house from the start of the film, setting up his bass in slow motion, integrated with shots of Vera and Jennifer approaching and then finally entering the abode, as well as some behind the scenes footage. It ends with Vera screaming, Bill covering his face with blood and then the classic cracked glass shot. Probably wouldn’t have been screened in the afternoon, I reckon. Still, I think it’s fantastic that this uncommercial, creepy instrumental actually got a music video in the first place! Wyman and Taylor also contribute another excellent piece ‘Valley Bolero’, which accompanies the scene when Jennifer’s roommate Sophie leaves her room to meet with her boyfriend – great guitars and harmonica on this one.
There are also some terrific pieces from former Goblin members Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignaletti, like the terrific ‘Sleepwalking’, which could also pass for a Tangerine Dream theme of the same period. Its addictive, insistent pulse really suiting out-of-nowhere imagery like the shot above. Then there’s the title track, which we first hear when Jennifer sees the firefly that leads her to a vital clue. Clearly trying to outdo the pop rush of their Tenebrae theme, it’s a bright, bouncy and extremely enjoyable tune that serves the end credits well too. Aiming for a creepier, more unsettling vibe is Simon Boswell with his ‘Maggots’ theme, which is appropriately icky and weird.
So yes, for the most part, the soundtrack all hangs together well, but of course, there the very loud elephant in the room: the use of heavy metal. It’s a weird stylistic choice – where normally we’d hear Goblin, Morricone or Emerson bringing the house down during scenes of stalking and slashing, here we get stuff like Iron Maiden’s ‘Flash of the Blade’! It’s a great tune, and definitely ramps up the pulse, but for some viewers at the time and since, it just didn’t belong. If you are the kind of person – like me – who will watch Argento films more than once, then I can reassure you that you’re likely to get used to it. Opera would go even further with this method, but there it seemed to have a method, something I’ll go into further in that specific review.
At nearly two hours, Phenomena is one of Argento’s longest films, but the 115 minutes flew by for me – clearly, US distributors felt that wouldn’t be the case for everybody. An ‘international’ version was created with six minutes removed. Most of the cuts were a multitude of barely noticeable snippets to shots in the hope of tightening the pacing, but there were some scenes substantially reduced, such as Jennifer arguing with Bruckner about taking the (poisoned) pills, or an argument about an open window on the bus. The recent limited edition Arrow Blu-ray offered both Phenomena cuts, and for me the longer version is the best, but bear in mind that the English dialogue for the previously domestic-only scenes no longer exist, so the soundtrack reverts to Italian for these moments. However, thanks to some very clever editing and mixing (a tricky feat especially given that the English soundtrack has a more natural, ambient sound as opposed to the dead-air, post-production feel of the Italian and jumping from one to the other could have proved very jolting), this new edit flows beautifully, so long as you don’t mind the occasional switch in languages.
However, in the US, even the tighter International Cut wasn’t short enough, so distributors New Line Cinema, fresh from the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, took it upon themselves to re-edit and condense the movie. Some violent scenes were cut, but the majority of the edits were to narrative and dialogue scenes, as well as suspense scenes, and even a whole bit where Jennifer undergoes ECG. The editor in question would be Jack Sholder, who made the second Elm Street film, and the result is fascinating as an example of ruthless tampering. In the UK, Argento fans also had to make do with this butchered Creepers cut,and to add insult to injury, the BBFC made some extra cuts for violence, so we got an even shorter version than the one in the US!
Creepers is an interesting curio for existing fans of Phenomena, but I seriously do not recommend it for anyone who has not seen either of the longer versions first. So much of the luxurious pacing, character quirks and atmosphere has been done away with here in a rapid race to get to the final act, which by the way, is the least tampered with stretch of the film. It’s so odd, being so used to the longer cut, to have Jennifer already arriving at Bruckner’s house with less than an hour of the running time having passed. Along with the export cut of Deep Red, Creepers marks the worst instance of an Argento film having been crudely and brutally edited to supposedly cater for mainstream demands. In no way is it superior to either of the Phenomena cuts.
Weirdly, for what might seem at first like one of Argento’s most throwaway films, Phenomena has a hell of a lot of staying power. I’ve seen it many times now, and it genuinely gets better and better each time. It’s definitely one of his most fun films, and Argento at his most fun is about as pleasurable as cinema gets. If you can take shots like this one, of course:
Oh, and it also features the best T-shirt ever.