Sunday, September 19, 2010

PHENOMENA aka Creepers (U.S.)

(Dario Argento, 1984)
How on EARTH does one begin to describe Phenomena?'s this?
It's the heart-warming story of a girl who can communicate telepathically with insects, her wheelchair-bound entymologist friend, and his helper-chimp's race against time to catch a deformed killer at a girls' boarding school in Switzerland! If your head's not still swimming, you may want to lay off of the good stuff for a bit!
Jennifer Corvino (a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly) has just arrived in Switzerland to attend the prestigious Richard Wagner School for Girls. One may notice a few nods to Suspiria here, from the voice-over narration to the sinister faculty, and the shadowy, oversized sets. There Jennifer learns from roommate Sophie that a murderer is on the loose and has killed a girl from the school.
Shortly thereafter, Jennifer has a bout of sleepwalking that takes her to a narrow ledge atop an unused building, where she "sees" another girl brutally impaled. After narrowly escaping a fall from the ledge and an encounter with two would-be rapists, Jennifer finds her way to the residence of Dr John McGregor, an entymologist who employs the aid of a helper chimp. He tells her of his former assistant, a girl named Rita, who recently disappeared. Jennifer and the doctor bond immediately over the subject of insects, and she returns to the school.
Jennifer's sleepwalking quickly garners her unwanted attention from the teachers, who bring in a group of specialists to run tests on her. When Sophie is murdered and Jennifer sees her corpse through the eyes of maggots on the murderer's glove, no one believes her. Her room is soon ransacked by the staff, who discover and share a letter written by Jennifer to her father in which she confesses to being able to communicate telepathically with insects. Jennifer is further alienated when, after being teased mercilessly by the other girls, she summons, as a warning, a swarm of flies large enough to cover the school. When the headmistress attempts to send her to the loony bin, Jennifer runs from the school to Dr McGregor's. The two then conceive a plan wherein Jennifer will follow to the killer a fly that grew from the maggots from the first victim's severed head!
I shan't reveal the rest of the film, as it really does rely on surprise. Needless to say, it becomes more bizarre and gruesome as the killer's identity comes to light. The ending will have you shaking your head in disbelief! Argento fans are divided over Phenomena as it is easily one of the director's most mind-boggling movies with its mixed supernatural horror/ giallo elements. Also irritating is his awkward use of heavy metal music in scenes that might have been better if the original Goblin score were used. The plausibility factor is also at an all-time low, but that doesn't make the film any less entertaining.
Dario's trademark flowing camera, inventive lighting, and wince-inducing ultraviolence are all present in Phenomena. His obsession with running water, broken glass, and dolls is also on display in spades. As I mentioned, the actual music by Goblin isn't all that terrible, though it's obviously Simonetti-inspired. The two tracks composed by Simon Boswell are quite effective. Finally, many of the cast will be familiar faces. It starts Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Dilazzaro, and has cameos by Michele Soavi and Dario's daughter Fiore Argento. Recommended, but only if you've seen Deep Red, Suspiria, and Tenebre beforehand. Buy it here.


(Lamberto Bava, 1983)
Though originally intended to be a four-part giallo miniseries for Italian television, A Blade In The Dark was deemed too violent and never aired. The content was re-edited and released as a feature film, and enjoyed modest success during the VHS boom of the early 80s, though most of the violence was actually removed from the VHS version.
The film opens on 3 boys, one of whom is dared to fetch a tennis ball from a dark basement. Shortly after disappearing into the shadows his shriek fills the air, and a bloody tennis ball is thrown at the other two kids! The opening scene sets the tone for the entire film: tenebrous and menacing, occasionally bloody, and filled with unintentionally hilarious dialogue, dubbing, and acting.
We learn the opening is actually a scene from a new horror movie directed by the slightly mannish Sandra (Anny Papa), who has enlisted the aid of her composer friend Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti) to score the film. She rents him a large, secluded villa where he is to remain and compose so as to not be distracted. Poor Bruno is only there for a night when a strange woman named Katia jumps out of a hall closet, flirts with him, then seemingly disappears. We learn she is actually in the villa to meet the former tenant, Linda, a slightly unbalanced woman who proceeds to slice Katia up with a box cutter in the basement while Bruno plays piano above.
While playing back his recording, Bruno discovers a snippet of dialogue between Katia and Linda. He discovers spots of blood in the yard, and becomes convinced something terrible has happened to Katia, though he cannot find her body. He is also surprised that night by the appearance of his girlfriend Julia, who claims to have taken time off from her theater production to visit him. The next day another surprise visitor stops in to distract him, this time Katia's concerned room mate Angela. She tells Bruno that she and Katia were friends of Linda's, and used to visit her frequently. Bruno invites her to use the pool as often as she likes, then leaves the villa to meet Sandra. Guess who Linda targets next?
The rest of the film follows Bruno as he sleuths about the villa trying to find the corpses of the missing girls and clues about Linda. It's not long before Sandra reveals that her film was inspired by Linda herself, and the key to her identity is in the final reel. Linda, however, has no intention of letting anyone see the final reel.
A Blade In The Dark is by no means a perfect film. Viewers will no doubt cringe at the appallingly bad dialogue and overdubbing, the result, it seems, of hasty translation and editing. To truly enjoy the film, most would have to test the limits of their willingness to suspend disbelief, as most scenes are incredibly unrealistic in terms of logic and plausibility. ABITD is also quite talky with the violent scenes occurring about every 30 minutes, though Bava mentions this was intended as it is a TV movie. One the plus side, the film does boast Bava's usual visual flair, great lighting, a good dose of sleaze, a badass electronic score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, and one of the most violent murder scenes to grace the annals of Italian horror. Oh yes, and Michele Soavi (director of Stagefright and The Church) has an acting role here as well. Recommended more for giallo enthusiasts than horror fans in general. Buy it here.