“Watch Pile” – PHENOMENA
We all have a never ending pile of movies that we are working through. We watch one, and add three more to the pile. Such is the life of a film fanatic. The latest film I’ve crossed off my list is….
Dario Argento’s Phenomena.
If you were to describe Argento’s back catalogue in a word it would be Dreamlike. His films, from Suspiria to Infrerno to Deep Red, all seem to take place in a reality a step removed from our own. A fevered dream like haze of intense colour and broken logic.
For some, this style of storytelling is frustrating. Things don’t always make sense in an Argento film. Bizarre events and set pieces can come completely out of left field. Twists, turns, and reveals pile on top of one another until we have no idea what is real anymore. Just like in dreams, things don’t always make sense.
But if you can tune yourself into that same fuzzy frequency that he is working in, his films are a very unique kind of magic.
And Phenomena is that exact brand of magic.
Jennifer Connelly stars as Jennifer Corvino, daughter to a wealthy movie star, who has an unusual bond with creepy crawlies (which may be why the film was renamed Creepers in this country). Her father’s assistant has sent her to school in a place the locals refer to as the “Swiss Transylvania”. On her first night at the school Jennifer sleepwalks through what looks like an over exposed music video. Lots of hair blowing in the wind, tracking shots through brightly lit corridors, and a horrific murder. Jennifer, waking just in time, flees through the woods and finds herself at the home of John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a wheelchair bound entomologist who has a chimpanzee as a nurse.
McGregor’s house is filled with insects he is studying, and all of them go crazy once Jennifer arrives. They feel her terror. When she calms down, they do to. It seems Jennifer doesn’t just have a bond with bugs, but an actual psychic link with them. McGregor sees this as an opportunity to catch the killer. By pairing Jennifer up with a particular fly with a nose for rotting flesh, they will be able to find the killer’s victims and therefore find the killer.
If that all sounds insane to you, well, it is. Joyously so.
Like most of Argento’s output, the plot is primarily there to string together a number of his inventive set pieces, and in this regard Phenomena doesn’t disappoint. A sequence in the middle of the film revolves around McGregor’s chimp getting locked out of the house, and her building panic as she realises someone is in the house with McGregor. She frantically bangs, smashes, pushes and pulls at the shutters on the locked windows as McGregor wheels himself onto the stair lift, descending to his possible doom. In many hands this would come off as ludicrous, but Argento manages to wring every ounce of tension to get your pulse is pounding. Your terror rises with the chimp. You are there with her, as desperate for her to get in as she is. A figure rises out of the dark and waits, unflinching, as McGregor approaches helplessly. It’s a chilling sequence excellently put together by a master. Bravura filmmaking.
The score compliments these moments perfectly. Argento is joined by frequent collaborators Goblin, who once again do fantastic work creating a soundscape of menacingly pulsating rhythms. This time Goblin are joined by Iron Maiden and Motorhead. The moments Argento chooses to drop in a bit of Maiden will either result in a laugh or a cheer, depending on your disposition. Personally, I loved it.
The performances are all in keeping with the film’s tone. Pleasence is clearly having a ball as John McGregor, delivering all his lines in a barmy Scottish accent. He is intense, but the bond between himself and his nurse feels real, and there is genuine warmth in his interactions with Jennifer. Connelly is a grounding presence, almost under reacting to the madness occurring around her. That choice pays into the hallucinatory nature of Argento’s universes. Jennifer drifts through the darkness, touched but never consumed by it. Her strong performance here surely caught the eye of Jim Henson who would soon after go on to cast her in Labyrinth.
Phenomena is not without its flaws, though none of them are damning. For the first half of the film it appeared that Argento was making a point about the natural world versus the material one. Jennifer comes from wealth, fame, and material riches. Her roommate is impressed and envious of Jennifer’s life, but Jennifer herself is at home with bugs. She feels comfortable with the creatures that come from dirt. From the earth. Reinforcing this theme, or so I at first thought, is the fact that arguably the most heroic character in the film is a chimpanzee. But as the film goes on it becomes clear that Argento isn’t really saying anything of the sort, and that the use of insects isn’t a comment but merely a delightfully bizarre plot device. Just another piece of his phantasmagorical tapestry adding to the dream state of the movie.
The film builds towards an absolutely bonkers finale filled with fire and blood and a biblical swarm of flies. It barrels through set pieces becoming a Grand Guignol set to synths. It isn’t Argento’s best film, that honor will always belong to Suspiria, but it might just be his most fun.
Is it for everyone? No. But if you are fan of the strange, the unusual, the dark and the nightmarish, then this trip down to the Swiss Transylvania might just be for you. I for one know that I’ll be making regular visits back to this singular little world.