Nine Nights of Argento #8 – Phenomena (1985)

4081949_origI will be watching Dario Argento‘s first nine films (not counting The Five Days, which is currently unavailable in the US), from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to Opera.

“Look at her! Lady of the flies!”

four-stars4Lady of the flies, indeed. That would be little 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly, kicking ass and taking names as Jennifer Corvino. Not only is Jennifer the daughter of millionaire movie star Paul Corvino, but she’s also a sleepwalking telepath, an insect whisperer, a silver-tongued sasstress, and really just an all-around badass. With her host of sidekicks, including a fly in a glass box, a genius chimpanzee, swarms of insects, and a wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasance in full Dr. Loomis mode, Jennifer contends with hysterical teachers, cruel classmates, a deformed child, an incompetent lawyer, and a Giallo-style gloved serial killer, all while taking shit from absolutely nobody. She’s far and away the strongest protagonist in any Dario Argento film, and a big reason as to why Phenomena might be my personal favorite of this marathon.

Considering that this may very well be Argento’s weirdest and wildest movie so far, it’s incredible that all the pieces fit together as well as they do. After years of throwing every insane idea at the wall to see what sticks, Phenomena might be the sole occasion where pretty much everything sticks. By merging the best attributes of his blood-soaked Gialli and his surreal witchcraft tales, not to mention bringing in old friends Daria Nicolodi and Goblin for good measure, Argento has created a bonafide classic.

Eight months after a 15-year-old girl is savagely killed and beheaded by persons unknown, insect-loving Jennifer arrives at a girl’s boarding school in “the Swiss Transylvania”, instantly reminding us of Suspiria‘s German ballet school. Hell, there’s even the same brief and utterly useless narration to inform us that she’ll be attending the school as she walks in the front door. But while the academy of Suspiria was populated by passionate young dancers, this particular school is swarming with ditzy airheads, who are far more interested in Richard Gere and the Bee Gees than their studies and, y’know, that serial killer that lurks outside the school at night.

Jennifer’s only been at the school for like an hour before getting into a string of insane adventures, including a heavy metal nightmare sequence, befriending a famed entomologist (Pleasance) and his chimp companion, sleepwalking her way into witnessing a vicious murder, getting hit by a car, leaping out of said car, and eating baby food with the handle of a toothbrush, ALL IN ONE NIGHT. Naturally, the ball-busting headmistress of the school isn’t hip to this kind of misbehaving and tries to get her thrown her into a mental institution. Jennifer isn’t fucking having it and decides to collude with her insect friends to bring the murderer to justice.

The key to Phenomena’s success is that it commits itself fully to its wild premise, without dragging itself down with needless subplots or drawn-out kill scenes of useless characters. Jennifer talks to bugs and she can use this power to solve a string of murders. That’s what the film is about, end of story. Even the entomologist and his chimp nurse– characters that sound ridiculous and unnecessary on paper– tie in directly to this storyline, driving it forward, and helping provide one of the most satisfying endings of any Argento film.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Argento film without imaginative kill scenes and surreal imagery, which Phenomena has in spades. A sequence in which a main character nearly drowns in a pit of decaying corpses is one of the most ghastly sights in any of the Giallo master’s work, while the subterranean tunnels and crawlspaces of the film’s finale will have claustrophobic viewers in hysterics.

Next up: OPERA


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Categories: Dario Argento, Director Spotlight, Reviews


  1. Another Nine Nights of Argento #9 – “Pelts” (2006) | - November 6, 2015

    […] PHENOMENA (1985)– A personal favorite. Rarely do so many weird and wild elements come together into […]

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