Phenomena (1985)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Donald Pleasence, Patrick Bauchau

Lost in a labyrinth of bewildering twists and turns, you would try to explain your situation, but it would only sound like madness. What you need is a light to show you the way. Sometimes, all it takes to help you get through the maze is the sight of a familiar face. Contrary to what some may believe, the first starring role in the career of actress Jennifer Connelly was not that of a young girl trapped in a “Wizard of Oz”-like fantasy world populated by Jim Henson’s Muppets and lorded over by David Bowie.

Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), daughter of a popular American film actor, is a new student at the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls in Switzerland. Jennifer has a special talent of her very own: the ability to communicate telepathically with insects. She also has a habit of sleepwalking, and it is the latter that first leads her to witness a murder, and later to find the only person in Switzerland who’ll believe her story, Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence). Originally from Scotland, McGregor has been in Switzerland ever since a car accident robbed him of the ability to walk. Like Jennifer, he knows things that, if spoken aloud, would make him sound crazy to other scientists.

Back at the academy, Jennifer is made to undergo an EEG examination, during which fragments of the previous night come back to her, and the discomfort that accompanies these images cause Jennifer to interrupt the procedure. Her roommate, Sophie, who is supposed to be watching over her to make sure she doesn’t sleepwalk again, leaves to go for a night out with a boy. Sophie ends up the killer’s next victim, and Jennifer does indeed sleepwalk during this time. Once outside, a firefly comes to Jennifer and leads her to a maggot-covered glove, presumed to be that of the killer. Instead of being worshipped by her fellow students given their familiarity with her father, Jennifer is taunted when they hear about her supposed connection to insects. She proves it’s no joke by summoning a swarm to surround the school before fainting. Naturally, this must mean that Jennifer is insane and possibly an agent of the Devil, so the plan is to lock her away in a mental hospital. Jennifer has other plans.

Bringing the glove to Professor McGregor’s attention, he tells her of the Great Sarcophagus fly which, because of its attraction to decaying human remains, he says will lead Jennifer to the identity of the killer. In fact, it leads her to the very same house seen by a previous murder victim (played by Dario Argento’s eldest daughter, Fiore) in the film’s opening scene. The house now deserted, Jennifer is chased away by the real estate agent. On the verge of getting close to the truth of this case, Professor McGregor is murdered in his home. Jennifer, unwilling to return to the boarding school, calls her father’s lawyer, hoping that he’ll help her to return to the United States. Alarmed by her phone call, he rings her boarding school chaperon, Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi). In what would seem at first to be an act of kindness, Bruckner offers to let Jennifer stay at her far-too-large-for-one-person, totally inconspicuous home. Yeah, buddy… Bruckner is as batshit crazy as they come, but that’s what happens when you’re a former nurse at a mental hospital who got raped by the most monstrous creature in the place and gave birth to to an equally hideous and homicidal abomination.

Of the group of Dario Argento movies I sought out this month, “Phenomena” was the one I was the most eager to see. A large part of that had to do with the presence of actors Donald Pleasence and Jennifer Connelly. Seen either together or separately, they are the most consistently good things about this movie. The plot is the most unique of the Argento films I’ve sampled, mixing the standard murder mystery with science fiction. I had a feeling that the psychic in “Deep Red” was only a trial run. It works much better here, where there’s never any serious attempt at realism. If you’re not a fan of Italian-to-English dubbing, be warned: the dubbing in “Phenomena” is laughable. Usually, I’d be right there with you, but somehow it made this movie even more entertaining.

Equally baffling is the score. Yes, Goblin is back… well, sort of. Only Claudio Simonetti (keyboardist) and Fabio Pignatelli (bassist) return for “Phenomena.” The group has split up, reunited and split up so many times over the years that there are now two different incarnations of Goblin currently performing, one featuring Simonetti and the other with Pignatelli. Joining Goblin on the soundtrack are Simon Boswell, Bill Wyman, Andi Sexgang, Iron Maiden and Motörhead. The result is a decidedly mixed bag. Motörhead and Iron Maiden are more invasive than anything, especially considering the scenes in which they appear: Jennifer’s attempt to escape from Frau Bruckner & the scene where Professor McGregor’s body is being rolled out by stretcher. The latter shouldn’t even have a soundtrack, much less music so loud it drowns everything else out!

Overall, I’d call this my second favorite of the Dario Argento films I’ve seen thus far. Be certain you’re watching the 110-minute cut. I made sure of it because I’d heard nothing good about the US edited version, retitled “Creepers.” Nothing good can possibly come from cutting a half-hour of footage out of a movie. Especially intriguing is seeing how talented Jennifer Connelly was at such a young age. Dario Argento put a lot of faith in the then-14 year old and she pretty much carries this movie all by herself.  I’ve deliberately left out a few early Argento films for later, possibly for the next “31 Screams” marathon in October 2015. Some have proven harder to track down than others. This one was too, but it was worth the challenge of finding it, and the time it took to sit down and watch it.

  1. vinnieh says:

    Nice review, this one I’ve been meaning to watch for a while now.

  2. Sylvia Williams says:

    Ah! Another complicated plot which you have masterfully related in this excellent review!
    I am intrigued especially by the idea that a fourteen year old girl could be the central character
    involved in tracking down the killer/monster.

  3. I’ve never heard of Phenomena, but I love me some Donald Plesance! Marvelous review, I will be adding this to my must-see list.

  4. vinnieh says:

    Just watched this one at your recommendation and have reviewed it on my blog.

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