“I love you. I love you all.”
I know it’s the holiday season, but just like last year I’ll be avoiding holiday-themed horror films until I can’t manage to avoid them anymore. Part of that is that I’m always chafing a bit after a themed month and part of it is that I feel like there are a ton of sites doing holiday-horror related articles this time of year. I don’t want to fall into writing a “The Real Horror Story Behind Phoebe Cates’ Monologue in Gremlins” or something equally fraught (or imaginary).
I knew I’d be engaging in “counter-programming” again, but suddenly spoiled for choice after 90’s month I wasn’t certain where to begin. And then I caught the final episode of the this year’s Great British Baking Show (or Bake Off, if you prefer). And there was host Noel Fielding wearing a shirt based on the poster for Dario Argento’s Phenomena. As I’d started off December last year with another Argento film (Deep Red) it seemed like a sign.
As I’ve said before – probably verbatim – I have a soft spot for Italian horror movies. It’s an acquired taste, like my enjoyment of Moxie soda, and not something for everyone. I can usually find something to enjoy in even the worst giallo or low-budget zombie flick, however, and filmmakers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and, most especially, Dario Argento, have directed some of my favorite horror movies of all time.
My first experience of Italian horror films was not an auspicious one. The film was Cannibal Holocaust, and I hated it. Having watched it again recently I realize that the very reasons I hated it – it was too realistic and full of hateful, awful people – are some of the reasons why it works so well. I mean, this is a movie where the director had to bring the actors into court to prove that they hadn’t been brutally murdered during the making of the film
Regardless, having seen Cannibal Holocaust and really, REALLY not enjoyed it, I was in no hurry to view any other films directed by anyone with an Italian surname. I passed by films like Demons, Suspiria and City of the Living Dead, and things may have continued on that path, leaving me with that huge gap in my horror watching, if it hadn’t been for my brother Scott.
Scott is and has always been a massive heavy metal fan (as well as a lover of horror movies) and his favorite band in the 80’s (and probably today) was Iron Maiden. I was not so much into metal, but I could appreciate his enthusiasm (and endless parade of Iron Maiden t-shirts). One day at the video store he came up to me with a copy of Creepers and began waxing poetically about how cool the movie was supposed to be and how we should definitely see it. I looked at it. It did look cool, and that guy from Halloween was in it, but… Argento sounded Italian. How about The Mutilator instead?
Scott was insistent, though, and I soon found out why – there were heavy metal songs on the soundtrack. There was an IRON MAIDEN song on the soundtrack! I sighed – there was no other recourse, we’d have to watch it. Maybe we could watch The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 after.
Creepers got me right from the start, though, with that whole opening sequence involving a teenage girl lost in the Alps. The opening music – by Argento stalwarts Goblin – also hooked me. In fact, I love the whole thing, except for the heavy metal bits (they just seemed incongruous and often ruined the mood). I was hooked and went out to rent whatever I could find with an Italian name attached.
I started to watch the Creepers cut for this viewing, as it was my first experience of the film and Sailor much prefers the shorter version (less filling more killing), but I kept getting knocked out of the film when a scene was missing or the edit was different. I ended up going back to the 110 minute cut of the film.
After years of making do with the Anchor Bay Special Edition of Phenomena (an okay release with some problematic video issues) I jumped at the chance for an upgrade. For this review I watched the Synapse Films blu ray release. I own the steelbook edition, but the only thing missing from it in the standard 2 disk release is the Goblin soundtrack CD.
It’s well worth the upgrade. There are no less than 3 different versions of the film – including the original Creepers cut, which has about 20 minutes of the original film missing. The picture quality on the 110 minute version is fantastic and my preferred viewing experience. There’s a bit of noise reduction on the 116 minute (and Creepers) version that can lose some details. In addition there’s a commentary track, a documentary (Dario Argento’s World of Horror) as well as interviews, trailers and other ephemera.
Arrow Films and Synapse will be releasing 4k versions in Spring 2022.
Phenemona is about Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the American daughter of a famous movie star, going to school in Switzerland where she teams up with Scottish entomologist McGregor (Donald Pleasance) and his helper chimp to track a serial killer. Oh, and the girl can communicate telepathically with insects.
Listen, if you’re looking for a logical narrative or understandable dialogue, you’re in the wrong place. This is an Argento film and you have to sort of check your brain at the door and go along for the ride. Yes, “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic” is one of the crazier lines Donald Pleasance has ever had to say, but it’s no worse than his egregious “Scottish” accent and come on – SHE TALKS TO INSECTS. It’s a madhouse, just nod and go along.
Jennifer Connelly’s character (and yeah, total teenage crush when I first saw this movie) also sleepwalks, and that sense of unreality, that dream-like quality pervades the whole film. It’s more a dark fantasy than a horror film (although there are plenty of horrific moments) and its logic is dream logic. What’s the school’s response to Jennifer’s sleepwalking? To give her an EKG – she could be schizophrenic. Never mind that she been examined by specialists already. And when she threatens to go all Carrie on the bullying schoolgirls with a swarm of insects? Sedate her and call the mental hospital. Apparently the proper reaction to potential demonic influence (the headmistress refers to her as ‘diabolic’ and mentions Beelzebub) is straightjackets and a potential lobotomy. And of course it’s perfectly logical to send a 15 year old girl and a corpse-chomping fly on their own to find a serial killer who likes to kill teenage girls.
And that’s all tangential. For another director the story of a girl with awakening psychic powers in the pubescent pressure-cooker of an all-girls school would be a movie all by itself. For Argento it’s mere window dressing, one of half a dozen different stories that don’t really relate but somehow combine to form this gestalt of weirdness. I mean, in addition to kooky entomologist and psychic bug girl you’ve got this pseudo-giallo story with a serial killer stalking adolescent girls and keeping their bodies somewhere. You’ve got the ‘original sin’ bullshit of a woman raped by a madman giving birth to a monster. There’s a Friday the 13th double (or triple) ending as well and more subtext (abandonment, awakening sexuality, father issues, loss of control) than you can shake a stick at.
And it’s got a chimp with a straight razor.
And weirdly, for an Argento film, some genuine emotion. After one of the scariest bits (when the killer stalks McGregor while Inga, the helper chimp, tries to tear her way back in to help) the reaction of the chimp to McGregor’s death is truly touching.
The gore quotient is relatively sedate for an Argento film until late in the proceedings, when he goes full Fulci in a disgusting corpse-rendering bath, full of maggots. I say this despite the fact that there are decapitated heads (that of Argento’s daughter Fiore) and a ‘blade through the back of the head and out the mouth) moment. I can’t remember how the Creepers cut handles the gore, but the film almost feels like it could aim for a PG 13 rating with some discreet edits.
Some reviewers have dinged Phenomena for its nonsensical plot (have they never SEEN an Argento film before?) and problematic acting. I think it’s relatively decent for an 80’s Italian horror film – Scottish accent excepted – and Daria Nicolodi is always good value. Jennifer Connelly has both good moments and bad, but given that she was 15 when the film was made I think she handles the role well. (Especially considering the chimp that was one of her co-stars bit the tip of her finger off!) If you look close in an early scene with Donald Pleasance and some local cops you’ll see Michele Soavi – the same year he was wearing a metal mask and makeup in Lamberto Bava’s Demons.
The Bottom Line
I know some reviewers (Kim Newman, for instance) dislike Phenomena, but it was my first Argento film AND my first Jennifer Connelly movie, and I still love it. From the opening sequences in the windy Alps (set to Goblin’s moody electronic score) to the frenzied multiple-endings (including a pit of rotting corpses and a razor-wielding chimpanzee) it never fails to entertain – even when it’s not making much sense.
I know it’s not epic in the way that Suspiria is or as tight and suspenseful as Deep Red (my two favorite Argento films), but it’s full up on dark wonder and well worth a look. Even if the occasional heavy-metal feature sequence starts to drive you a little nuts.