Tagline: It Will Make Your Skin Crawl.
Director: Dario Argento
Writer: Franco Ferrini, Dario Argento
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Donald Pleasence, Patrick Bauchau, Fiore Argento, Federica Mastroianni, Patrick Bauchau
18 | 1h 56min | Horror, Fantasy
Budget: $3,800,000 (estimated)
There’s something about Dario Argento‘s work that seems to transcend time and place.
Some of this has to do with location and setting, as well as an absence of modern cultural trends, but it is mostly due to the director’s visual style, movies such as Inferno and Suspiria sending us spiralling down a rabbit hole of fantastical terror. Along with Goblin’s nerve-shattering accompaniments, those movies work on a purely visceral level. They startle and excite in equal measures, a series of elaborate murders drenched in the grisly palette of deathly expressionism. Not only do such movies transcend time and place, they remove themselves from the traditions of conventional cinema. Above all else, they are movies that we experience.
Then there are films such as Tenebrae, an almost straight-up slasher featuring the kind of technical prowess that elevates it above much of the genre without ever truly belonging to it. Like the aforementioned movies, Tenebrae is also light on plot—another reason, purposeful or not, which adds to the disorientation. Brutal yet graceful, Argento’s movies feature the kind of striking set-pieces that one can only marvel at, Tenebrae‘s double-murder tracking shot being a prime example. These universally appreciated moments aside, such a cavalier approach to filmmaking can prove divisive among horror fans, but love or hate his movies, forgetting them is another issue entirely.
Of those two categories of viewer, I am a staunch admirer, but even I must admit to a certain degree of perplexity from time-to-time. This isn’t necessarily a negative. When it comes to his masterworks perplexity is a great ally in unravelling our preconceptions and breaking down barriers. For his lesser works (which are for the most part still a far site better than those of his contemporaries) the galloping unicorn that has often dazzled us into submission can become untamed by the will of sheer audacity.
Made in 1985, Phenomena is another Argento picture stripped of conventional aesthetics. Set in the remote mountains of Switzerland, it is something of a departure for the director, featuring a distinctly 80s soundtrack which seems at odds with previous works, but rather than establishing a time and place it is instead juxtaposed with an otherwise antiquated setting, and the sight of a bewildered victim lurching through the creaky hallways to the sounds of Iron Maiden is quite unexpected, and is almost a step away from giallo to the commercial realms of the modern slasher. As a result the movie seems a tad more conventional, with a stalk-and-slash premise that eschews dramatic tension for the glory of the slaughter, but this is Argento we’re dealing with, and you better believe he has a few surprises in store.
Also tarred with the much less appealing title Creepers, the movie stars a 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly as Jennifer Corvino, a young student who arrives at a remote boarding school to find that a series of grisly murders have taken place nearby. This is a serial killer who targets young girls specifically, and who isn’t shy about brutally decapitating them if the opportunity arises. Why any parent would send their child to such a place is perhaps the movie’s greatest mystery. But again, this is Argento we’re dealing with, and befuddling plot chasms come with the territory.
Even more bizarre is the movie’s heavy fantasy element, which charms and mystifies in equal measures. The movie is visually sublime as one would expect, but it has the propensity to wander off on tangents like a fleet-footed Bambi lost in the headlights. Astonishingly graphic in its execution, it sometimes feels as if Jason Voorhees has stumbled upon David Bowie’s Labyrinth, an audacious concept which has the tendency to jar from time-to-time.
Corvino has premonitions that are all too real. She also tends to sleepwalk, leading to the kind of unconscious excursions that both mesmerise and befuddle. It can be messy on occasion, gloriously so on others. Argento exhibits almost no restraint at times, but Goblin’s sublimely epileptic score seems to punctuate this in a manner that makes it all seem purposeful. There are moments of extraordinary beauty here, but also moments of the gobsmackingly incoherent. Movies like Suspiria cradle you with such insouciance. Phenomena can often leave you scoffing at the impudence.
As loose as the plot can be, there is a certain amount of convolution, which almost seems like a godsend at times. Jennifer has a rather special bond with the insect community, leading to visual treats of biblical proportions and a rather gruesome relationship with a switchblade-wielding chimpanzee, who ultimately proves himself one of cinema’s unlikely heroes. It is through her powers of telepathy, and the convenience of wheelchair-bound forensic entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), that our heavenly protagonist is able to track the movie’s resident psycho following even more slasher-led brutality, leading her on a path of macabre splendour that becomes progressively erratic, and as a result increasingly beguiling.
In keeping with Argento’s roots, our mysterious black-gloved killer is distinctly giallo, and there are some astonishing set-pieces for fans to cherish here, particularly the movie’s opening kill, which is painstakingly brutal, especially given the tender age of our unsuspecting victim. There is also a bloodthirsty bitch who could give Norma Bates a run for her money, a savage mutant child who seems to come out of nowhere, and a dungeon of horrors that is almost certain to push the bile to the tip of your tongue.
As with much of his work, the viciousness is tinged with billowing melodrama, the kind that, rather than cheapening the production, lends it a peculiar grace, a visual majesty that helps to rein in the madness.
We are truly spoilt for choice here. If a swift and remorseless final beheading is the most startling, then the movie’s opening kill is a tour de force of grand guignol. Cruelly abandoned by a school bus in the Swiss Alps, initial victim Vera Brandt is attacked by a mysterious killer having entered a seemingly abandoned house in search of assistance. After having her hand impaled by a pair of scissors, from there she is stalked to the top of a waterfall and stabbed in the stomach, her head crashing through a plate glass window in mesmerising slow motion. Her subsequent beheading is merely the cherry on the cake.
Most Dazzling Set-Piece
Bathed in the ethereal glow of primary blue, a sleepwalking Corvino goes in search of her latest premonition, tenuously wandering across the roof of the boarding school. Through a window she spies a fellow student fleeing in distress. Pressing her face against the glass, the girl cries out to Corvino in terror, but before she can even utter a word, the back of her head is impaled by a spear, the sharpened head protruding through her mouth.
Most Absurd Moment
After witnessing the murder-by-spear of a fellow student, the still sleepwalking Ms Corvino wanders back along the roof of the boarding school, only awakening after falling off and snagging her dress on the stonework, hanging precariously until a fortuitous tumble sets her on the path to freedom. That is until two random blokes bundle her into a car and contrive to see her tumble down a nearby hill. They even contemplate going after her until the chance of a passer-by gives them the spooks. Whoever said boarding school was a bore needs to seriously redefine their terms.
Another movie that is flawed in a conventional sense, but as with much of Argento’s work the artistry of the kill is what prevails. Dreamy visuals, spectacular set-pieces, and a startling matrimony of genres negate the movie’s sometimes heedless plotting, resulting in the kind of cavalier filmmaking that will forge both enemies and allies.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut