Phenomena is a movie that manages to offer the best and the worst of Dario Argento. I’ve never known a filmmaker who is always so close to creating masterpieces, repeatedly, only to sabotage himself in the smallest details. What to say of a filmmaker who knows the camera as if it were his own eyes, who uses colour better than many classic painters, whose macabre imagination often captures the point when reality and dream converge, but who doesn’t grasp the basic elements of storytelling, dialogue and characterisation? He is a frustrating filmmaker because he’s terribly good and yet requires the viewer to make some allowances, to turn a blind eye a couple of times. There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s watching a Dario Argento movie.
Most Argento movies start with an American tourist or citizen involved in mysterious events in a strange place. No matter how many variations on this premise, however, it never gets repetitive. Phenomena follows Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly), the teenager daughter of a famous actor, as she arrives at a boarding school in Switzerland. Meanwhile a killer is kidnapping and murdering young women. Jennifer, who possesses the power to communicate with insects, befriends an entomologist (Donald Pleasance) using his knowledge of insects to help the police capture the killer.
Most people who know Dario Argento think he just makes horror movies; in fact his career is divided in two types of movies: there’s the giallo, an Italian subgenre that mixes horror elements with police procedural (giallo means yellow and comes from the fact that detective novels in Italy used to be published in a collection with yellow covers; the best gialli are intellectual puzzles that manipulate the way clues are hidden, discovered and interpreted by the senses); this is what Argento is best known for.
Then there’s a distinct group of movies, which nevertheless often gets mixed with the gialli, that some fans call his dark fairy-tales. I resist calling them this because for me fairy-tales have always been dark. In one of the earliest versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the little girl a) eats the flesh of granny, b) gets naked in bed with the wolf, and c) is devoured by the wolf. That’s right: cannibalism, bestiality and paedophilia, and no happy ending. Argento is tame by comparison. In this group we have movies like Suspiria, Inferno and Phenomena, movies that permit Argento to play with ideas forbidden in the realistic world of serial killers: magic, demons, ghosts, and paranormal powers like the ones that allow Jennifer to communicate with insects. There’s an exhilarating sense of freedom in these movies, like you feel you’re seeing Argento transfer his undiluted dreams and nightmares into the screen.
Although Phenomena is not considered one of Argento’s best movies, I had a great time watching it and I even reached a couple of epiphanies along the way. For instance, I realised that all his fantasy movies take place in schools or involve students. Suspiria, for instance, originally planned to star children in the main roles, which, with the exquisitely graphic murders, would have traumatised them for life. Alas, it didn’t materialise. His casting a fifteen-year-old Jennifer Connely seems like a compromise between what he wanted and what he could get away with.
If you liked Connely in Labyrinth, you won’t dislike her here. I think Argento needed someone innocent-looking to run with the movie’s fairy-tale atmosphere (fairy-tales are always about children who are the kindest and fairest in the whole world) and didn’t give her a lot to work with. More impressive is Donald Pleasance, wheelchair-bound, using just his voice to capture our attention; even Inga, his razor-wielding pet chimp, upstages Connely.
Speaking of chimps, this movie also made me notice that Argento really knows how to use animals in movies. Animals are often integral to the plot. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for example, a bird’s distinctive chirping becomes a clue. Argento’s fascination with animals reaches its zenith when he uses ravens in Opera to identify the killer, an amazing sequence that may have started taking shape in his mind during Phenomena.
This movie is all about insects. It’s funny how no one remembered to use them before given that insects and death are intrinsically connected. Insects symbolise death because some species literally feed off it. The movie’s most gruesome setpieces all feature insects. The beginning of the movie, showing insects feasting on a decomposed head covered, sets the tone for the movie’s most bombastic sequences, like the pit full of human remains covered in maggots or a swarm of flies eating a living person’s face.
Phenomena would easily be one of Argento’s best movies if only it weren’t for the usual problems that plague his work: weak characterisation, laughable dialogues, really illogical behaviour. Plus the overtly bad use of music, not the amazing one by Claudio Simonetti and his Goblin band, but the death metal songs that Argento thinks are appropriate in emotional scenes like the death of important characters, when an orchestra made more sense. Argento has such quirks that I, having seen most of his movies, don’t presume ever to understand. This is anyway a good advice for anyone venturing into his work for the first time: immerse yourself in his movies, but don’t try to make too much sense of them.
Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini
Cast: Jennifer Connely, Donald Pleasance, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Patrick Bauchau, Daria Nicolodi
Runtime: 110 min