Director: Dario Argento
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasance, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Di Lazzaro and Patrick Bauchau
Dario Argento is a master of horror. The Italian director, who hit his peak in the late 70s and early 80s, is responsible for classics such as Suspiria (1977), Deep Red (1975) and Tenebrae (1982). His films are haunting and unhinged with unforgettable moments of true terror. He was even a script supervisor on George A Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead. In 1985 he directed Phenomena, starring a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly, a story of a serial killer and a girl who can talk to insects.
Phenomena starts with a girl on a school trip, who misses her bus and ends up alone in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country. She tries to find someone to help and stumbles across a house. This may sound like a trope of horror, but instead of a run-down shack – think Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Wrong Turn – she finds a pristine and well looked after home. The plants hanging from the window look nice and neat. Everything about the house is inviting and you aren’t screaming at her to run away or thinking she’s stupid for obviously walking into her death. It’s only through quick cuts to chains breaking away from a wall that we even get the impression that something bad is about to happen. The opening is tense and well made. It gives high hopes to the rest of the film.
We then meet the main character Jennifer Corvino, played by Connelly. She has been sent to a Swiss school for girls. On her first night, she sleepwalks through the school and ends up witnessing the serial killer butcher one of their victims. While you watch the chase, Flash of the Blade by Iron Maiden is playing, pretty much stopping any true horror to make way for great metal music. The soundtrack is great, mixing a score by Goblin (who also scored Dawn of the Dead) with metal music of the time. Sadly, it can detract from the horror happening on screen. It’s just not as scary when loud and in your face metal music is playing.
Phenomena feels like an incredibly long film, and it gets very boring at points. It’s just under 2 hours, but loses steam just over half way through, so it feels a lot longer. The opening hour or so is great. It’s a great mixture of tension and horror with an interesting and compelling plot. It just can’t keep it up though and really slows down in the second half. The final 15 minutes are great and almost make up for the slow build-up, but it’s not enough. At points it’s very hard to stay engaged with the story and it loses any kind of terror that it has built up. There is also lot of awkward lines of dialogue and questionable acting. This can be chalked up to it being an Italian film with American actors, who’s lines would be dubbed into Italian but it is still really hard to get invested into it.
As a side note, the version that I watched is the uncut version. It includes the original English voice track, except for scenes that were cut from the international release where the voice track is missing. For those sections it seamlessly moves into Italian with subtitles. It’s done so well that it’s barely noticeable, even though you go from listening to reading. It’s actually interesting to see what didn’t make it to the international release.
One of the biggest highlights of the film is the monkey that acts as Donald Pleasance’s assistant. His role in the film is memorable and stands out. There’s one section where the monkey is trapped outside a house and is desperate to get in to save someone, it’s incredibly well done and the monkey’s performance feels more believable than most of the other actors on screen. You can feel how sad he is.
For the most part Phenomena is pretty tame. The violence and gore is underplayed, adding to the suspense. The killings aren’t very brutal. It’s only in the last section where everything is ramped up. There’s a vomiting scene that will make you gag and a maggot pool that makes you want to throw up. It’s eye watering to watch and works so well because of how understated everything is up to that point.
Phenomena is so close to being a genuine classic. The sad thing about this is that despite so much potential, it gets really boring in the second half and the acting is so bad that it stops this from being something worth watching. There is a version that was released internationally originally that has about 25 minutes cut out, maybe this one would be better, but judging from reviews of the time it isn’t.