Aiming at impressing an American Audience, Dario Argento’s 1985 movie was aimed squarely at them. Having enchanted in both Labyrinth and Once Upon A time In America; Argento put Jennifer Connelly as his leading lady in movie Phenomena, rebranded Creepers because they thought it would make the movie more “Commercial” this certainly for a time was the most “Seen” of all of Argento’s movies. Teaming Argento up with popular actor Donald Pleasance who at the time was best known for the Halloween movies, despite 40 odd years of my highbrow work; and really mixing it up soundtrack wise with a score that included Iron Maiden, Bill Wyman, and Black Sabbath tracks Argento was onto a winner before the movie was released.
Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is a troubled teen, her father is the world famous musician Paul Corvino, but Jennifer has become isolated from her father and more or less raised by assistants. After a series of incidents, and disturbing sleepwalking dalliances, Jennifer is sent away to Switzerland to study while her father continues his world tour. Everyone finds Jennifer odd from the offset, as she discovers that insects have a strange love for her. But Jennifer’s weird problems are soon pushed to everyone’s back thoughts, because since just prior to her arrival a killer has been on the loose, and the killings are getting worse.
While being traditionally Argento, Phenomena is by far one of Argento’s most commercial works to that date. Gone are the gross out special effects best associated with the Italian director for the most part in favour of a more toned down vision that audiences could better relate to. In previous movies all action was carried out onscreen, with people’s heads literally seen coming off in slow and often painful detail. Phenomena was far different however the first of the movies decapitations was carried out off screen and relatively quick at that. And the movie follows up to the final death a fairly similar pattern, although I must say that even the body count is substantially lower than the usual Argento fare.
The movie is made by two things, firstly the beautiful Swedish locations, a country that always fascinates me is made to look even more beautiful than you could possibly imagine. The second worthwhile addition is Donald Pleasance. I always say that the best performance or certainly the most endearing role I saw Pleasance play was of the forger in The Great Escape, her as Scot John McGregor a professor specialising in insects he comes a close second. Pleasance for the movie is disabled, and his only carer is Inga a chimpanzee. This great double act of the Chimpanzee and the aging professor really is the cement that holds the movie together, because in all fairness there is not so much to hold this movie together.
While being far from Argento’s worst movie Phenomena feels like the longest and most drawn out, the lack of body count does not do anything to speed this up either, it’s all dealt with more psychologically; and when Argento feels he might lose his audience he chucks in a death to balance things out. Those not familiar with the workings of this horror genius however are in for a rather nice surprise, something a little different from the usual American horror movies, but not quite as far out as a lot of other Argento movies before this time.
What is quite annoying about the movie is the bizarre narration that pops up every blue moon, in order to keep the viewer up to date with what’s going on. I suspect this is a production decision by the movies producers who still found Argento’s style a little too left field for their liking. But the narration does not provide the binding that the movie apparently needs, instead it alienates the viewer due to the short but sweet nature of the narration, for example “To continue her schooling Jennifer Corvino arrives in Frebourg” and another line of narration rattles on about maggots, it all seems desperately wrong and out of place.
Jennifer Connelly still a young teenager then performs well, and manages to take well to her increasingly foreign fellow cast. Performing for the most part next to Argento’s then long time lover Daria Nicolodi who plays the freaky Frau Bruckner. Despite her decent performance for her age, it’s hard to believe that this is the A-List Oscar winning actress that we see now days, and even more strange how for a 24 year old movie she still manages to look so young, it seems plastic surgery has been kind to Connelly.
When not dependant on the heavyweight rock gods to push the music through the movie which to be honest with you is often out of place, Argento used the Italian rock band Goblin to deliver his score, a mix of the classic and the contempory, in order to make Goblin’s music more mainstream Argento also recruited Londoner Simon Boswell to take some of the weirdness out of the band’s music.
I cannot finish this review without making a mention of the chimpanzee, there is a pretty sick moment involving the chimp (not self harming) and a cut throat razor, and despite the pretty gross out nature of this you really cannot help but laugh.
It’s not the finest work of Argento, but if you’re considering mixing up your horror styles a little and giving the American mainstream offerings the old heave ho, this is a pretty good place to start.