My first encounter with Dario Argento was when I saw a VHS box for Creepers on the shelves of my local video store in 1986. I recognized Jennifer Connelly as the cute girl from Labyrinth so I figured I’d give it a shot. I didn’t know it at the time but Creepers was the severely edited American release of Argento’s Phenomena. Even in this somewhat neutered form it made a huge impression on me and set me off on a search for other Argento movies, and from there to the wider world of Italian genre cinema.
The movie opens in typical Argento style with a visually striking set piece murder: a young girl misses her tour bus and is left alone in the Swiss countryside. She takes refuge in a nearby house, only to fall victim to a serial killer who’s been preying on local schoolgirls. Right from the beginning we see how Argento is going to present the story: gorgeous cinematography, a constant wind blowing through the trees and a very prominent rock soundtrack. This might be the windiest movie ever, it’s there in every shot lending a dreamlike air to the film.
From there we meet the always great Donald Pleasance as Professor John McGregor, an entomologist (that’s insect scientist to you and me) with a really bad Scottish accent. We also meet his nurse and caretaker Inge. Inge is a chimp. A scalpel wielding chimp, as McGregor admonishes the little ape for running around with such a dangerous implement. I believe we might just have a little foreshadowing here. The Prof explains to a couple of local cops that the number and types of insects on a corpse can pinpoint the time of death and proceeds to gross everyone out by unveiling the maggot infested head of the girl killed in the opening scene and identifying the time of death.
Next we meet Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a handsome Hollywood actor. She’s on her way to an elite boarding school in the “Transylvania of Switzerland” (“Why do they call it that?” she aks.”I don’t know, they just do” is the reply). We learn she has a special bond with insects, they never harm her. We also learn from her slutty roommate that there’s a serial killer preying on young girls at the school. One has to question the judgment of her wealthy father for sending his daughter into the meat grinder but hey, if he had sent her to St. Swithun’s we wouldn’t have much of a movie.
Further developments reveal Jennifer is a sleepwalker. One episode causes her to witness a murder, fall off a ledge and nearly get run over by a couple of Swiss playboys in a convertible. They try to have their way with her but she escapes in the woods where she finally awakes and is rescued by Inge the chimp. Jennifer teams up with Dr. McGregor to find the murderer (making use of her telepathic bond with insects) and the game is afoot.
Unfortunately for McGregor, the killer finds out about this and dispatches him in surprisingly pedestrian fashion. I was really expecting something more spectacular for such a major character but the pathos of Inge mourning her dead master delivers plenty of emotional impact. I think the chimp that played Inge might be the best actor in the movie. She has a particularly emotional scene at the end and carries it off quite well.
As McGregor’s body is wheeled out by the ambulance crew a crowd has gathered and the soundtrack kicks in with Motorhead’s Locomotive. An odd choice for such a somber moment but a good one as things quickly turn intense for Jennifer as she flees the scene. The soundtrack features some excellent classic metal from Motorhead and Iron Maiden, as well as Argento mainstays Goblin and a terrific haunting theme from Bill Wyman.
Things quickly escalate as Jennifer tries unsuccessfully to flee the school and begins to finally unravel the mystery behind the murders. I won’t spoil things here other than to say it’s not particularly surprising who is behind the murders, there aren’t many suspects to begin with and the movie is less a whodunit than an exploration of Argento’s nightmares and dream world. The constant wind evokes the feeling of being in a dream while the heavy metal soundtrack ratchets up the intensity at appropriate moments. It really does seem like a particularly vivid dream, the kind that cause you to wake in the middle of the night and convince yourself it wasn’t real and there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Opinions vary wildly on Phenomena, some say it’s inferior to Argento’s earlier work while others argue that it’s one of his best. I fall in the latter camp, I think it’s a beautiful film that operates almost on a subconscious level. If you’re a literal minded film viewer you won’t think much of the story. The mystery isn’t much of a mystery, the secondary characters aren’t well developed, some of the dialogue is clunky and the acting wooden. But Argento’s films are all about mood and emotion manipulated through the visual and audio aspects of the film. If you’ve never been exposed to Dario Argento, Phenomena is a great place to start. The movie was shot in English so the awkward dubbing isn’t a factor and Connelly and Pleasance are familiar faces who anchor the story for American audiences.
Phenomena is available in it’s full length on DVD from Anchor Bay, only $15.99 at Amazon, or free on YouTube. What are you waiting for?