Donald Pleasance, on Phenomena.
“It’s perfectly normal for some insects to be telepathic.”
Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) in Phenomena.
For many Argentophiles, Phenomena is the beginning of the decline. Even the die-hards hate on it. Alan Jones, Argento’s official biographer, thinks it’s his worst; “an incoherent mess”. Maitland McDonagh in Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, the first serious study of the director, calls it “unfinished…haphazard”. For Nightmare Movies writer Kim Newman it is “clumsy”, with “sequences.. reminiscent of his crasser countryman Lucio Fulci”.
That’s as may be, but for my lira, Phenomena is the most exquisitely, endearingly entertaining film in the Argento canon. Yes, it is illogical, silly, and absurd. But it is also oddly beautiful, frequently strange, heartfelt and quite demented. It feels more personal to me than some of Argento’s more celebrated works. There are more fully realised films of course, many of which have been celebrated in this series already; the byzantine, baroque Deep Red continues to astonish (not least for the fact that is has an actual plot, believable dialogue and decent acting) and the peerless prog psychosis of Suspiria remains the unparalleled nightmare movie par excellence.
Sandwiched between Tenebrae and Opera (either of which are generally regarded as the director’s last hurrah by many) Phenomena gets precious little amore. But it was the first Argento film I ever saw (as the vastly truncated, heavily cut Creepers on VHS) and I still find it the most fun to revisit. A preposterous fable about Jennifer, an American schoolgirl at a Swiss boarding school who can communicate with insects and teams up with a wheelchair-bound entomologist to solve a series of killings, it has many wonderful elements. These include a demonic mutant child, Donald Pleasance with a bad Scottish accent, a hideous pit filled with rotting corpses and maggots, a resourceful chimp and – right at the centre, my generation’s US version of Jenny Agutter in that we all grew up lusting after her as kids – Jennifer Connolly.
In a lot of ways it’s a (twisted) children’s film. Argento’s Alice. Return to Oz with decapitations. Labyrinth on laudanum.
(Phenomena by the way is the full, original cut which is now the standard. Creepers was the much shorter UK edit. The longer version is definitive, and has some fantastically weird sequences, but makes no more sense naturally)
If there was ever precision in narrative terms in Argento (by accident and/or collaboration more than design) it’s long gone by this point. But the film still belongs to an era when Dario had a little money and backing (and dare one say it, energy) so it doesn’t look ugly and clunky like a lot of the later joyless stuff. It’s beautiful and crisp, with imaginative and odd dream sequences, particularly the scenes where Jennifer sleepwalks. It soars from its brilliant, brutal, dizzying opening crane shot and murder scene (Fiore, the other Argento daughter, decapitated by glass in slow-motion) through to the truly insane climax, stopping only when people start talking – even by Argento standards the dialogue is ripe to the point of mush. It is grandiose and completely overblown. At times it looks like a Heart video, directed by Buñuel with attention deficit disorder. It’s mental.
The Grand Guignol finale takes place in a pit literally teeming with insects, maggots and corpses – a truly nightmarish submergence that is perhaps the only logical end to a film that plays out like a compilation of all of Argento’s obsessions up until this point. In lots of ways Phenomena is the most dreamlike of all his films, not in the sense of an unending nightmare a’la Suspiria but like a weird waking, walking dream. With added chimp.
The music is another element of this film that drives people nuts. There’s a lovely Goblin score (‘Jennifer’s theme’ is a highlight) but also a lot of metal that really annoyed folks at the time and still does. But it actually works fine, the energy utterly in keeping with the bipolarity of the films haphazard plotting. People who don’t like the film generally say it’s too often silly and childish. Of course it is. IT’S A FILM ABOUT A GIRL WHO COMMUNICATES WITH INSECTS. Plenty of people are kind about the Demons movies and they make no sense and have rubbish metal in them too.
And yet, while I wouldn’t want to make too many grand claims about the seriousness of the film, there’s also a strange sadness at the heart of Phenomena that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I always feel it. Jennifer’s alienation and loneliness – and her solace in insects – is clumsily handled, but it does feel genuine, from an auteur frequently accused of heartlessness. It’s also an Argento film that contains a truly moving and upsetting reaction to death. A real moment of pathos. And yes, it involves the chimp (Editor’s Note: A very rare on-screen moment that genuinely makes me tear up every time, though I do love me some chimps – IL).
I’m always happy when I meet Argento fans who love Phenomena. I think it’s a good indication that the person is a bit unhinged (in a good way) and happy to embrace silliness. In my experience, female horror fans seem to like the film a lot more than men. I don’t know why. Perhaps women respond to Dario’s uncanny ear for realistic teenage girl dialogue? Maybe they just have a better sense of humour.
As Donald Pleasance calls it in the above quote, sometimes a bit of ‘extraordinary daftness’ is called for. And this guy was in a film called Puma Man so he knew what he was talking about. So all hail daft Dario. There is no guilt in this pleasure. I *heart* Phenomena, it’s amazing and I will set my (razor-wielding) chimp on anyone who disagrees.