Terror strikes a sleepy, Swiss valley! A stranded tourist (Daddy’s girl, Fiore Argento) is butchered by a mysterious killer. Sleepwalking, American teen Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) witnesses a second murder. Bullied at school by callous classmates and her haughty headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro), dreamy Jen’s closest friends are insects – with whom she shares a psychic bond. She befriends kindly entomologist Doctor Macgregor (Donald Pleasence) and his faithful chimpanzee, whom clueless cops assign to crack the case. Macgregor utilizes Jennifer’s powers, summoning the Great Sarcophagus Fly to locate a vital clue.
Dario Argento’s everyday tale of psychic bugs, razor-wielding chimps and deformed children was much maligned in its day. Even Argento scholars Alan Jones and Maitland McDonagh showed little love. Partly because the international version, Creepers was cut down to an incomprehensible 83 minutes. But also because Phenomena puts one foot in the detective-thriller genre and another in a far-out, fantastical wonderland where anything can happen and usually does. Fond childhood memories of its off-kilter charms and achingly lovely Connelly colour one’s own opinion, but naysayers be damned! Phenomena is a delirious, tour-de-force featuring some of Argento’s most fevered imaginings. The eerie opening where poor Fiore meets the dungeon-dwelling killer is like a fairytale that turns nasty. Argento and cinematographer Romano Albani weave indelible images: the idyllic, Swiss surroundings; the slicker-clad killer; insects swarming around Connelly while a supernatural winds sweeps her hair (Optical effects by sci-fi filmmaker, Luigi Cozzi). Unlike many horror hacks, Argento didn’t take the easy route of making gloopy bugs and the angry ape villains. His kooky concepts coalesce into the amazing finale, a horror symphony of buried secrets, maggot pits, no less than two heroic rescues (by insect cavalry and chimpanzee) and gory shocks aplenty (including a nod to Scatman Crothers’ fate in The Shining (1980)). It’s a pure nightmare on film following its own loopy logic.
Deficiencies include Patrick Bauchau’s somnambulant performance as an ineffectual cop, and some awful heavy metal songs that derail the atmosphere. Claudio Simonetti’s synth-driven score featuring operatic vocals is better suited to the baroque wackiness. Di Lazzaro (memorable as the beautiful ‘monster’ in Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)) is underused, saddled with a very confusing character. Daria Nicolodi’s bug eyed, face pulling has been much criticized, but befits her role as a wicked witch. Phenomena is surprisingly personal and thematically rich, dealing with fragmented families, absentee fathers, and a fairytale, rite of passage where our heroine must slay an evil child to transcend her own adolescence. His ex-wife Nicolodi and daughter Fiore are a deliberate presence in Argento’s nightmare. And remember, those gloved hands attacking Fiore are Argento’s own. Thankfully, recent signs show horror fans are reappraising Argento’s forgotten masterpiece. Sandwiched between fan favourites Tenebrae (1982) and Opera (1987), it is a warmer, more heartfelt film than either and often exhilarating.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.