Cult Movie Retrospective: Phenomena

Master of Italian cinema Dario Argento has had a slew of hits and cult favorites in his long career. He’s most known for his gialli Deep Red and Tenebre, as well as the hallucinatory beauty of Suspiria. Here, with Phenomena, Dario mixes a giallo with the eerie horror of supernatural gifts.

While The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Deep Red were mixtures of thriller and horror intertwined, this 1985 classic is a ghastly fright all the way. He brings beauty to the world of insects, sticks to his mystery roots, and sets it around a Swiss boarding school. Phenomena manages to horrify without throwing up over-the-top gore as with his most memorable outings. Still, it is a graphic movie, and one of his darkest.

In the film, an American girl (Jennifer Connelly, who seems thrilled to have found her first properly meaty role) is arriving at a boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Within minutes of the film’s opening, we learn that there’s a psychotic killer on the loose looking for girls like her. But there are no girls quite like Jennifer, because she has a secret of her own – a strange ability to communicate with insects and understand the world from their perspective. Unfortunately, she’s also a sleepwalker, which leads her straight into trouble.

One night, Jennifer sleepwalks out of the school and subconsciously witnesses a brutal murder. When she snaps out of it, she comes face to face with Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), and learns that she can use her bug-communicating power to solve the identity of the murderer.

Jennifer Connelly Phenomena

Donald Pleasence Phenomena

McGregor explains that insects and the human soul are linked by the multifarious mystery of them both. “I was alone, in the dark, needed help. It was as though the firefly heard me and answered my call,” says Jennifer. Dr MacGregor replies, “the things I’ve discovered my fellow scientists consider absurd. Extrasensory perception. Paranormal powers. Some species can communicate over vast distances by telepathy. It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic.” “Normal for insects, but am I normal?” asks Jennifer. She sees this power as part of her split personality. The staff at the school and her peers think she is mad, or else possessed. The school doctor tells her there is a new personality inside her trying to emerge. It could be the first step to schizophrenia.

In short, Phenomena is by far Argento’s most offbeat work. All of the director’s trademarks are on full display, but he cranks them up about a thousand notches here. The typical black-glove-wearing serial killer is present again, Argento’s love of animals shines through like gangbusters with the many insects and an angry chimp taking very active parts in the story. The theme of childhood also pops up, but this time it’s communicated through a pint-sized “demon” looking child. The atmosphere bursts through the screen with tree branches dancing in the wind, breathtaking scenery, eerie sleepwalking flashes and fairytale-like sequences. As previously mentioned, the gore is scaled-back but still quite plentiful, with heads crashing through windows in slow motion and one awesome surprise beheading.

Dario Argento really indulges himself here and it’s definitely not for everybody. It’s hard to imagine the average moviegoer digging Phenomena but everybody should certainly respect it. This film oozes of imagination and artistry and that simply cannot be denied.

Phenomena Chimp

Phenomena Scene

And let’s talk about the film’s ending – and what an ending it is. You have to take your hat off to the fact that Phenomena has one of the most protracted end sequences you’re ever likely to see. What starts off feeling like the natural end of the movie really isn’t. In fact you’re probably about ten minutes and four or five life threatening sequences from the actual credits. An unlikely decapitation, a pit of human remains, a guy chained to the wall, the killer’s startling reveal and a burning boat – you don’t get endings as over-the-top and as beautifully insane as this nowadays.

All in all, despite having a ridiculous plot and premise, Phenomena is indeed great entertainment all the way through. It has strong performances from Connelly and Pleasance, great pacing, a number of memorable thrills and one wacky ending. It’s a good mix of Italian Giallo and American Slasher played completely straight despite the story – and as such is both genuinely creepy at times, while unintentionally funny in a brilliant kind of way at others. In short, don’t expect logic and don’t expect anything remotely approaching reality, and you’ll be A-OK.

Let us know your thoughts on this oddball classic in the comment section below.

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