“Phenomena” is Argento unleaded. It is a mixing bowl of ideas, some of them undeveloped, some of them odder then others. Essentially, “Phenomena” represents an attempt by Dario to combine the elements of his supernatural horror films with some of his giallo trademarks. And there’s a monkey too.
Despite being maybe the most wild thing Argento had done up to this point, “Phenomena” actually takes quite a bit of time to get going. It opens with a fantastic sequence, featuring Dario’s other daughter Fiore, that takes great advantage of the beautiful Swedish forest location and waterfalls. It’s a peek at the horrors to come later. After that, the action switches to an all-girls school in the mountains (Something of a reoccurring theme for Dario?) and the pace slows way down for quite a while.
Here we meet our protagonist, Jennifer Corvino, played by Jennifer Connelly. The daughter of a famous actor, she soon starts sleepwalking and discovers she has the psychic ability to communicate with insects. It’s not a great performance, as Connelly can be a bit flat at times, but she projects the same wide-eyed innocence that Jessica Harper did in “Suspiria,” imbuing her with a sense of wonder and, later, terror. I also can’t help but wonder if the character is another personal, self-reflective element for the director. She’s the frequently alienated daughter of a celebrity. I suspect if Asia had been old enough at the time, she would have played the lead, and no doubt brought a lot of personal history to the part. Maybe I’m reading too much into it…
The connection between death and bugs is firmly established, especially when Donald Pleasence and his helper monkey shows up. Pleasence plays the part in a wheelchair, with a not too convincing Scottish accent, and I suspect he was sloshed the entire time. However, the scenes of him and Jennifer together have a sense of warm familiarity. The actors have legitimate chemistry together and their scenes are easily the highlight of the early half of the picture.
The chimp gets a lot of flack. How much you can accept the helper monkey will probably dictate how much you like the film. For some, it’s pushes thing to far into the realm of silly. For myself, it’s a surreal touch that goes with the fairy-tale-gone-wrong tone.
Argento’s direction is a bit of a mixed bag. There are two murders, involving a composite spear, a fantastic horror movie murder weapon, and both are quite captivating. The dream sequences, of rushing white hallways, are hypnotic. However, most of the school scenes are not as creatively shot as you’d hope, with a bit of a hohum approach. These early scenes do build atmosphere though, so I guess its okay.
After Pleascene exits the film, the mystery element chugs along, somewhat draggingly. Good scenes of Conelly playing girl detective and investigating old houses are interrupted by shots of someone’s lawyer arriving at the airport. As things build towards the end, Daria Nicolodi’s performance begins to shine. She’s uber-bitchy in this and plays the part of the evil old witch, metaphorically speaking, with relish.
The final act makes it apparent that everything that came before was just build-up for the finale, which is a very intense, delightfully lurid cavalcade of grotesqueness. Maggots, caves, people chained up in dungeons, straight razor wielding chimps, pools of human viscera, a deformed child, decapitations… How could a horror fan not love that? Shocks are built upon shocks, leaving the audience completely unprepared for each ensuing scare. The entire last act is too crazy not to work. It is so good, it really makes up for the slow start.
The music here is interesting. Simonetti’s rushing score is fantastic, dreamy and rich. A few heavy metal songs are also injected rather unceremoniously. Though you can’t bash early Iron Maiden or Motorhead, its use is more distracting then effective.
“Phenomena” isn’t perfect, but when you get right down to it, it delivers on the scares and what more could you ask from a horror film? It’s Dario’s grandest film but it is perhaps his most gulgnol-est. It’s also a personal favorite of mine. [Grade: B+]