Even by the baroque standards of Dario Argento’s oeuvre, which frequently casts narrative coherence to the winds of stylistic excess, Phenomena is simply too much. Described by the director as a supernatural thriller, Phenomena is set in the Swiss Alps and tells the story of a schoolgirl named Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) who realizes that she has a telepathic connection with insects at the same time that a psychopathic serial killer is stalking the grounds of her posh boarding school. The film opens with a typically bravura Argento murder sequence in which a student (played by the director’s daughter, Fiore Argento) misses her bus, wanders into a nearby house, and is stabbed by an unseen assailant with scissors and eventually decapitated. The centerpiece of the sequence is the girl’s head crashing through a window in extreme slow motion, turning each breaking shard of glass into its own mini-symphony of violent excess.
We are then introduced to Jennifer, the 13-year-old daughter of a famous movie actor who is conveniently shooting a movie in Thailand and is completely unavailable. While sleepwalking one night, Jennifer winds up in the home of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), an entomologist who is assisting the local police in solving murders by using the fly larvae on decomposing remains to determine the time of death (“Or murder,” he adds ominously). Unlike everyone else, Professor McGregor is not bothered by Jennifer’s love of insects and is not threatened by her seeming ability to communicate with them. In fact, he encourages it, telling her to use them to help her track down the serial killer.
That brief plot summary certainly distills the major strands of the narrative into something seemingly coherent, but it doesn’t begin to hint at the film’s more bizarre detours. For one, Professor McGregor, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is assisted by a trained chimpanzee who will later wield a straight razor and become the film’s avenging angel. The story gets truly bizarre once Jennifer digs deep into the central mystery, and without giving too much away, I will note that at various points it involves a kidnapped police officer chained in a dungeon, a mutant child, a good character who turns out to be utterly deranged (and hysterically performed by otherwise accomplished actor), and what has to be one of the nastiest images in all of Argento’s films: a maggot-filled pool of decomposing body parts into which Jennifer is ingloriously dumped.
Phenomema constantly skirts the edge of being something unique and enthralling, but at each turn Argento turns up the volume a bit too loud or piles on just a bit too much, even for those who appreciate his elaborate excesses and don’t mind when it doesn’t always add up in the end. The twisting narrative certainly keeps your attention, but as the revelations start accumulating, you begin to get the sense that Argento and his cowriter Franco Ferrini are just throwing things at the wall and hoping they stick. The longer the film plays, the less internal cohesion it has, and by the time we get to its multiple climaxes, all the air has gone out and it just seems silly. It doesn’t help, either, that Argento matches the patchwork approach to narrative with his soundtrack, which mixes the expected electronic rock score by former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti and Rolling Stone Bill Wyman with sudden intrusions of abrasive heavy metal by Iron Maiden and Motorhead. One of the chief pleasures of Argento’s films is the way he melds music and image, but here it often feels discordant and forced, with the shrieking lyrics and screaming guitars drowning out the suspense.
Like most of Argento’s films, Phenomena was heavily cut for its U.S. theatrical release, this time with a full 25 minutes hacked out, followed by the indignity of its being re-monikered with the cheesy title Creepers. At the behest of the executives at New Line Cinema, the film’s U.S. distributor, Jack Sholder, who had just completed directorial work on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), was tasked with trying to pare down Argento’s brash mixture of horror, fantasy, and murder-mystery. He ultimately decided that the best thing to do was to leave as much of it as possible on the cutting room floor, which, of course, is the worst thing you can do to an Argento film, especially one like this in which the connection between the film’s two halves (Jennifer’s relationship with the natural world and the murder mystery) is already tenuous at best.
That Creepers is a disaster goes without saying. Argento’s longer version of the film is significantly better, yet it also stumbles and falls under the weight of his own idiosyncratic ambitions and wild tonal shifts. Yet, as much as it fails, Phenomena is never less than intriguing as it darts back and forth between abject violence and oddly serene spiritual contemplation. Of all of Argento’s films, this may be the most “peaceful,” even if Argento’s idea of tranquility is Jennifer standing in the middle of her boarding school, her hair inexplicably blowing, while repeating softly, “I love you, I love you all,” as a massive swarm of flies envelops the building.
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Overall Rating: (2)
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