Monday, May 23, 2011

Phenomena (1985)

 Dario Argento has essentially made three types of films throughout his career: 1. Giallo, gory detective story, often involving a foreigner coming to Rome and investigating a murder (Deep Red, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Tenebrae); 2. Supernatural Thriller, such as the Three Mothers films, where an unwitting (often female) protagonist falls victim to strange unworldly or demonic influences (Inferno, Suspiria); or 3. Some combination of the two.

1985's Phenomena falls into this third category. American schoolgirl Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) goes to Switzerland to an all girls' boarding school, which is beset by a series of murders of girls her age. Using her supernatural ability to communicate with insects, Jennifer takes it upon herself to investigate the murders herself, only to fall into the murderer's trap.

Even at 14, Jennifer Connelly's eyebrows were amazing.

The killer's first on-screen victim is young Vera, played by Argento's daughter Fiore, in his ongoing pattern of victimizing family members on screen. After missing the bus, she wanders into an abandoned house, only to be stabbed through the throat and pushed through a window.

This could be a shot from any Argento film.

Soon after, we see Jennifer in her new girls' school doing what normal girls do: playing with bugs, eating baby food, sleep walking, sleep witnessing a murder, sleep getting picked up by some weird Swiss guys, and sleep following a chimpanzee home.

Dario Argento's Diddy Kong Racing.

The chimp guides Jennifer to the home of entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) who strikes up a friendship with the young girl due to their common interest in disgusting things like flies that eat dead people and primates with large bulbous asses.

Back at the girls' school, the headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro) reacts reasonably to Jennifer's sleep walking by hooking her into an neural imager and implying she's a schizophrenic epileptic drug user. Jennifer is taken aback by these accusations, which increases the headmistress's steely resolve to get the young girl committed to an insane asylum as soon as possible.

"She flinched when we stuck this needle in her head! She must be deranged!"
Jennifer goes back to Professor McGregor's home since he's the only person in the country who doesn't hate her for no reason. McGregor encourages her to use her strange gift to track down the murderer, using his sarcophagus fly to find the bodies. In Argento's world, sending a child to root out a vicious killer with zero police involvement is not only acceptable, but an admirable venture.

This bee is bringing his "bee" game.

Back at the school, the headmistress foments hatred against Jennifer amongst the other girls in an attempt to push her to insanity or some sort of eating disorder. The girls relentlessly pick on Jennifer until she is rescued by her insect brethren. When the headmistress sends off for the booby hatch, Jennifer escapes and tries to fly home.

Girls, are we trying to bully her to suicide or endanger the entire school in the event of fire? Use your head.

The final 15 minutes feature set-piece after surreal set-piece including but not limited to a creepy house, covered mirrors, deformed child, attempted drugging (no chloroform though), a body pit, lake fire, decapitation, and chimp-related disfigurement.

This will not end well.

Many die hard Argento fans consider Phenomena one of his weaker films, while Argento himself has defiantly declared it his favorite. I tend to side with Argento in that Phenomena is probably his most Argento-y film to date. Where Opera took his stylistic embellishments and elaborate camera work to its most extreme, Phenomena is an amalgamation of all his most prevalent themes: amateur detective, grisly murders, a young female protagonist, pointless bullying and objectification, supernatural abilities, fish out of water, and animal participation.

Some may scoff at the pure unfettered absurdity of the drawn out conclusion, but it is not far off from most Argento endings, simply longer and more elaborate. Argento's films aren't exactly "scary" in a traditional sense; more creepy with intense, uncomfortable scenes of murder and mutilation. The ending features one shock after another, both as a means of overwhelming the audience into visual submission, and satisfying horror fans with its bombastic nature.

Quotable Quotes:

Jennifer: He won't hurt me. Insects never hurt me. I love them.

Jennifer: I am not schizophrenic, epileptic, or stoned!

Headmistress: She's not normal. She's diabolic! The Bible also refers to the devil as Beelzebub, which means "Lord of the Flies." Look at her, the Lady of the Flies!

Argento Trademarks:

Black gloves? Yes!

Goblin? Yes! The soundtrack features two former Goblin members Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli, as well as more inappropriate butt-rock from Motörhead and Iron Maiden.

Cruelty to animals? The killer throws a chimp off a moving car, and Daria Nicolodi swats at a bee. Is that good enough?

Window-related death? Yes! Two!

Creepy children? Too many to count (including the protagonist).

Nepotism? Yes! His daughter Fiore and (soon to be ex-)lover Daria Nicolodi.

Overall Argento-ness? 8/6. I added double for the window death and nepotism.

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