After returning to a more realistic plot for his 1982 hit Tenebre, Dario Argento would once again descend into the realm of the supernatural for his follow-up, a bizarre horror-fantasy called Phenomena, starring a young Jennifer Connelly. As one of the director’s most unique works, Phenomena combines several classic giallo elements with a distinct supernatural plot involving insects and their supposedly heightened psychic abilities, which are perceived and understood by the protagonist Jennifer who comes to share a special connection to them. Jennifer is then tasked with the challenge of using this psychic connection with insects in an attempt to track down a serial killer who is murdering young women in the area. Donald Pleasance makes a welcomed appearance in a supporting role, and has a chimpanzee-butler who is trained to understand English, and ends up stealing several scenes not to mention holding a surprisingly critical role in the film’s climax. There is also a great twist ending which leads into one of the greatest final acts of Argento’s career, and all of this is accompanied by a lush and atmospheric soundtrack by the legendary band Goblin.
My only criticisms come from Jennifer Connelly’s occasionally stiff performance, as well as the fact that a few scenes are inexplicably set to heavy metal music, which is jarring and doesn’t really flow with the atmosphere of the rest of the film. There is also a random voice-over narration that comes in out of nowhere part way into the film, and disappears just as quickly, with no explanation. As usual with Argento’s work, the editing can be a bit sloppy at times, however there is so much to enjoy about the film’s ambitions and it’s highly original tone that these things hardly matter. The occasional lapse in cinematic logic serves only to add to the overall experience, allowing the film to make little sense at times without ever losing its engrossing and imaginative sense of gothic wonder.
There is also one of the director’s most famous kills at the opening of the film, where a young girl (played by his eldest daughter Fiore Argento) is thrust through an enormous pane of glass by an unknown assailant, filmed in extreme slow-motion with some very realistic-looking fake glass. There are a few other notable kills as well, including the death of the killer (which I won’t give away) that stands as one of the director’s most inspired moments. In fact, the entire blood-soaked final act is emblematic of Argento in his prime as a horror auteur, demonstrating his ability to continually shock and disturb with memorable sequences that raise this film far above your average supernatural slash-fest, and stick out as shining examples of what the genre is capable of.
Phenomena is just such an original work that I couldn’t help but be won over by its unique flavour. It is one of the director’s more highly recognized films by modern fans, and shows him near the end of his “golden era” of filmmaking in the ’70s and ’80s. After all, anyone who can direct a chimpanzee like this deserves some credit. Though not the best film in Argento long and storied career, it is still highly recommended to the avid horror fan, and remains one of the more imaginative and effective horror films to come out of Italy in the ’80s. And please, as a warning, avoid the heavily-cut American release entitled Creepers which is missing nearly 28 minutes of footage, because you simply will not get the full experience.
R A T I N G : 4 / 5 S t a r s
Phenomena (1985, Italy, Unrated: 110 mins) Directed by: Dario Argento. Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasance, Daria Nicolodi, Patrick Bauchau, Fiore Argento, and Dalila Di Lazzaro.