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. This can be attributed to location and setting and an absence of modern cultural trends, but also to the director’s visual style, movies such as Inferno and Suspiria drowning in the dreamy melodrama of deathly expressionism. Along with the filmmaker’s Bava-esque colour palettes and Goblin’s nerve-shattering musical accompaniments, those movies work on a purely visceral level. They are removed from the traditions of conventional cinema in a way that can both frustrate and liberate, that rancour as much as they delight. Above all else, Argento’s movies are the kind that we experience.
For those who prefer a little narrative meat on the bones, Argento can frustrate to the point of scorn, but even his biggest detractors would struggle to deny the filmmaker’s technical expertise. Few directors are able to stage horror set-pieces with the grace and visual majesty of Argento. Whether it’s Deep Red‘s china doll subterfuge, Tenebrae‘s seamless double-murder tracking shot or Suspiria‘s iconoclastic opening salvo, his work is patient, painstaking and utterly devastating, and like an enigmatic artist as prone to sloppiness as he is masterstrokes, everything else can seem a little baggy. These universally appreciated moments aside, such a cavalier approach to filmmaking can prove divisive among horror fans, but love or loathe his movies, forgetting them is another matter 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 Argento’s 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 sight better than those of his contemporaries), the galloping unicorn that often dazzles us into submission can become untamed by the will of sheer audacity, and rarely has that unicorn been wilder than in his ninth picture as director, a production that never fails to leave me dumbstruck.
Assisted by future Stage Fright director and Argento protege Michele Soavi, 1985‘s Phenomena is another picture stripped of convention, and I mean right down to the very bones. Heavily cut in the States and 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 as visually sublime as one would expect, but it has the propensity to wander off on tangents like a fleet-footed Bambi skidding toward the headlights, and sometimes you wonder if he hasn’t slipped in outtakes from other movies to test your resolve. 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, and Goblin’s sublimely epileptic score seems to follow suit, pinging like a glucose-fuelled hive trapped beneath a raging bonnet. 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.
Perhaps as a way to commercialise himself on foreign shores, Argento also goes against his own conventions, flooding the movie with American rock music that, rather than establishing time and place, juxtaposes with an antiquated setting. The sight of a bewildered victim lurching through the creaky hallways to the sounds of Iron Maiden is quite unexpected, leaning more towards the realms of the modern slasher. It sometimes feels as if Jason Voorhees has stumbled upon David Bowie’s Labyrinth, an audacious cacophony that has the tendency to jar from time-to-time, eschewing dramatic tension for the glory of the slaughter. It was perhaps only inevitable that Phenomena was lambasted by critics as Argento at his most throwaway.
As loose as the plot can be, there is a certain amount of convolution, which is a godsend at times, everything tied together with the kind of tried-and-tested giallo formula that almost seems tacked-on. Jennifer has a rather special bond with the insect community, leading to visual treats of biblical proportions, as well as a rather gruesome relationship with a switchblade-wielding chimpanzee, who ultimately proves himself one of cinema’s unlikely heroes. Ironically, the primate in question would prove a real-life villain, biting the end off the young actress’ finger and remaining hostile towards her for the remainder of the shoot, though if production in any way resembled the finished product, fits of inexplicable madness are somewhat justified. Regardless of her lack of real-life communicative gifts, it is through Jennifer’s 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 unforgivably brutal given the tender age of our unsuspecting victim. Other oddities include 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. Imagine a tin madhouse on a stifling summer horizon. Now imagine being trapped inside, and every once in a while a glorious breeze sweeps you across a whispering meadow, only to plunge you back inside as the heat builds to breaking point. Therein lies Phenomena.
It is perhaps no surprise that Hifumi Kono’s 1995 point-and-click survival horror Clock Tower was inspired almost entirely by Phenomena, and you can imagine Jennifer Corvino as a heroine very much in the anime mode. As with much of Argento’s work, this is fantasy beyond the realms of standard filmmaking practice, the often startling violence tinged with a billowing sense of melodrama that, rather than cheapening affairs, 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.