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’re removed from the traditions of conventional cinema in a way that can both frustrate and liberate, that can annoy as much as it delights. 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 confuse to the point of contempt, 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, but like an enigmatic artist as prone to sloppiness as he is masterstrokes, everything else can seem a little baggy and rough around the edges. Such a cavalier approach 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, perplexity is a great ally in unravelling 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 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 more commercially astute title Creepers, the movie stars a 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly as Jennifer Corvino, a student who arrives at a remote boarding school in the midst of a series of grisly murders. This is a serial killer who targets young girls specifically, and isn’t shy about brutally decapitating them if the opportunity arises. Why any parent would send their child to such a place at such a time is perhaps the movie’s greatest mystery, but again, this is Argento we’re dealing with, and befuddling plot holes come with the territory.
Even more bizarre is Phenomena‘s heavy fantasy element, which charms and mystifies in equal measure, with the propensity to wander off on wild tangents, but boy is it beautiful. Corvino has premonitions that are all too real. She also sleepwalks, leading to the kind of unconscious excursions that both mesmerise and disorientate. It can be messy on occasion, gloriously so on others. Argento exhibits almost no restraint at times, and Goblin’s sublimely epileptic score is just as wild, a giddy assault that throws contemporary rock bursts and operatic flourishes into a juicer and sets the dial to overflow. 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. It may not be for everyone, but it’s a fascinating deviation for fans of the director. The sight of a bewildered victim lurching through the creaky hallways of some centuries-old building to the sounds of Iron Maiden is quite unexpected, leaning more towards the realms of the modern slasher. It sometimes feels as though Jason Voorhees has stumbled upon David Bowie’s Labyrinth, and he’s not about to be tamed by his new surroundings. It was perhaps only inevitable that Phenomena would be lambasted by critics as Argento at his most throwaway.
With Suspiria, Argento famously tried to recreate the colour of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and with Phenomena he embraces the fantasy world of fairy tales even further, giving us what is essentially a live action Disney film forged in the vile recesses of hell’s imagination. The movie’s heroine, a snow white Alice lost in a gruesome wonderland, 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 becomes one of cinema’s most 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’s 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, particularly the movie’s opening kill, which is almost 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.
With such an astonishing catalogue of work, few would cite Phenomena as Argento’s finest, and it’s boarding school premise seems like a watered down retread of Suspiria, but I’m sure many regard it as one of their favourites. It’s not as consistent as movies such as Opera or Deep Red, nor does it have a truly wow moment that scorches a distinct, lasting impression on your memory, but it more than makes up for it with sheer, head-scratching intrigue and scattergun artistry. It’s an absolute scream at times.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Hifumi Kono’s 1995, point-and-click survival horror video game 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 rein in the madness.