31 Days Of Hell: Phenomena

Chris Jordan continues 31 Days Of Hell with his review of Argento's Phenomena.

"What? No David Bowie in this?"
Dario Argento, in his prime, was a horror maestro with an unusual ability to juggle tone and style. He could combine elegant Hitchcockian suspense and outlandish grand guignol horror and have it still feel tonally consistent, even when it seemed like it shouldn’t. Perhaps the greatest illustration of the duality of his work is Suspiria, which at once is a poetic and psychologically-subjective art film that influenced Black Swan, and also a brutally violent tale of killers and witchcraft. Throughout the mid-1970s and 1980s he reached a career peak, making a string of critically-acclaimed films that, in varying combinations, walked this line of elegant suspense and brutal horror. Then in 1985, he decided to do something different, and allow the ghoulish horror side of his imagination to run free, with no restraints; or, for that matter, restraint. Largely setting the Hitchcockian element of his filmmaking aside to allow the grand guignol to go nuts, he made the single weirdest film in a career that was full of some pretty weird films. The result, Phenomena, wound up being his personal favorite among his own filmography, and certainly one of his most unique. If Suspiria is an ethereal, subtlely unreal nightmare, Phenomena is an utterly insane, no-brakes bad trip. And yet somehow, it still has that artistic, thoughtfully-made visual poetry that you can’t quite find anywhere besides career-prime Argento.

How does one even start to describe this film? It’s about a slasher terrorizing a secluded girl’s boarding school. But it’s also about a psychic girl who has the power to control insects. It stars a young Jennifer Connelly in her first leading role, and co-stars horror staple Donald Pleasence. It also co-stars a monkey – you can’t forget that monkey.  It features a moody score by Goblin, jarringly interrupted every now and then by Motörhead and Iron Maiden. In short, Phenomena is many things, several of which could have been a whole movie on their own.  Yet Argento juggles them all at once, and through the sheer storytelling talent that he possessed in his prime he makes it all reasonably cohesive. It just gets weirder and weirder as it goes along, and then just when you think it can’t possibly throw any more insane curve-balls at you, it does. But every time your jaw drops in incredulity, you pick it up just as quickly, thinking “well yeah, that makes sense,” because Argento has created a fever-dream world in which it actually does.

Navigating the slippery logic of this nightmare is Jennifer Connelly, a year before Labyrinth, responsible for carrying the emotional weight of it all in her debut performance. As we see most of the film through her perspective, the craziness can only really work if she can sell her character’s experience of it – and she does. She’s very good, with a gravitas beyond her years; if you had seen this in 1985, it would have been immediately clear that she was an actress with a bright future. Pleasence is his usual soft-spoken but powerful self, and while he is largely stuck in the role of exposition-giver, he nonetheless has some fun with it. Plus, he gets to have pet monkey. Beyond those two, the main standout is Dario Argento himself, whose wild imagination and intense visual style are obvious in every frame of the film. Whether it’s a giallo-style stalking sequence or a swarming insect attack, every scene is dripping with atmosphere, and looks great. It can’t quite top the perfection of Suspiria when it comes to atmosphere and visual power, but it is very impressive nonetheless.

"Look!!! Head in a box!"
Phenomena is commonly available in two different versions. Argento’s director’s cut – the version actually called Phenomena – is nearly two hours long, and is available on DVD from Anchor Bay and on blu-ray from Arrow Video. But that version only became available in North America in 1999, when Anchor Bay debuted it as part of their Dario Argento Collection. Prior to 1999 it was only available here as New Line Cinema’s American theatrical cut, re-titled Creepers, which still circulates on streaming platforms and bargain-priced DVDs. Creepers is about half an hour shorter than Phenomena; mostly cuts made to accelerate the film’s pace, although the gore had to be trimmed a little to get an R-rating. The Creepers version is actually still very good, and the film is not harmed by the cuts as badly as one might think, although the character development is weaker. If you were a North American viewer watching the film in the 1980s or ‘90s, you probably wouldn’t have known you were missing much.  But that said, the added attention to character in the director’s cut makes the film stronger, and Argento’s deliberate pacing is more effective in creating that nightmare atmosphere. Since the director’s cut is now so readily available, it’s clearly the best version to get; although the theatrical cut is fine if you just want to sample the film’s strangeness as cheaply as possible before committing to a buy.

With its gorgeously moody atmosphere, great early performance from Connelly, and jaw-dropping level of nightmarish insanity, Phenomena is definitely a one-of-a-kind film, even by the strange and unhinged standards of 1980s Italian cult cinema. That said, it’s not for all tastes; its weirdness makes it a highly divisive film even among Argento fans, for some of whom it’s just too far out there. Personally, I’ll always give the upper hand to the near-perfect Suspiria, but this nonetheless ranks high on the list. It is, after all, Dario Argento’s favorite Dario Argento film, and that’s a pretty strong recommendation in itself. One way or another, it’s a bad trip that’s definitely worth taking.

- Christopher S. Jordan