(Dario Argento, 1984)
How on EARTH does one begin to describe Phenomena? Hmmm...how'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.
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