Phenomena | Varied Celluloid

Phenomena

Posted by Josh Samford On September - 13 - 2008
The Plot: Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is an American student who has been sent by her actor father and his assistant to study in Europe at the finest school they could locate. Jennifer isn’t your average girl though, she’s a sleepwalker and has found herself with an infatuation with insects. After a late night bout of sleepwalking, Jennifer awakens to find that she has awakened a power that she has had a long time – the ability to mentally link with insects. She finds herself able to see what they do and call upon them when she needs them. During this sleepwalking bout, she also sees something else – a girl being killed. This awakens her curiosity and she hears from her roommate that there’s actually a psycho killer on the loose in the neighborhood! Jennifer, after a night out, finds herself in the home of Prof. John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) who is an insect expert. As the two become fast friends, and Jennifer reveals her power – the two know that the only way of catching this killer is with the help of that very power!




The Review: I already mentioned it previously in my review for Deep Red, but a little while back I caught the Mondo Movie guys’ podcast having to deal solely with Argento’s films and I felt inspired to give some attention to his work that I’ve been putting off far too long. Phenomena, like Deep Red, I have history with it for quite a few years. Unlike Deep Red though, I’ve simply been trying to watch this film for probably two years. Unfortunately every time I sit down with it, something in my life has caused me to put the movie down and move towards something else. So, I figured I’ve had enough and it’s about time to actually give what might be the last “classic” Argento film that I have not seen, or at least the last of his most popular films. Having finally watched the film all the way through now, I can agree it is indeed a classic. After the strange conclusion to The Three Mothers trilogy, and finally coming around on Deep Red and discovering what a fantastic film that is – Phenomena is the last straw in showing me just how far such an amazing director has spiraled down in some ways. Truthfully though, you can’t be that hard on Argento. Filmmakers get older and expand their interests, we the fans however sit back without that same level of expression that the artists go through. There is no “right” or “wrong” in cinema, only opinion and expression and these directors such as Argento, Carpenter, etc. have moved on with their careers and their interests – the Italian film industry also isn’t what it once was in the seventies and eighties. This doesn’t excuse a lot of Argento’s recent output, but we the fans don’t need to expect films that meet the standards of Deep Red and Suspiria from Argento; since the man has already made those films – now he’s just trying to find a new direction to employ his genius. With that out of the way, I will say Phenomena was probably his first step towards “modernizing” his style as a director. This may or may not be considered his “downfall” in some circles, and with this film I certainly saw that as a failure, but for fans of Italian cinema this is probably Argento’s last dream-like trip into a world of the macabre.

Inferno, although a lesser film than Phenomena in my opinion, was of that classic Argento flavor as far as mood, atmosphere and lighting. Unfortunately, it’s also a fairly boring flick to watch on a Friday night (at least for me). Phenomena however takes place in a very placid environment, unlike films such as Inferno, Suspiria or Argento’s earlier Giallos. All films that seem to take place in a surreal world of immense color featuring such bright whites, vibrant reds or intoxicating blues. Tenebre, the film made before Phenomena, started that subtle change to slightly more realistic environments. There was still a lot of that heavy set design that made his previous films so alluring visually – but with beach locations shot during mid-day and with slightly (only ever so much) more down to earth apartment locations than say The Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Deep Red, I feel the mood in his films began to change somewhat at that point. This could be me, as my brother would say, “talking out of my neck”. Meaning, I could just be making this up as I go – but there’s a steady change in Argento’s films between Tenebre, to Phenomena and culminating with Opera (a film I truly love regardless of the films that came after it). Where did this change come from? I can’t really say, changes in the culture more than likely (something I’ll get to in a bit). I can’t imagine budgetary reasons, considering Phenomena had a pretty massive budget of nearly 4 million dollars in 1985 – which was a lot of money for an Italian production. Directors like Enzo G. Castellari were working with “big” budgets when they had 1 million dollars. It’s not exactly the 8 million he had a few years later for Opera, but it was still a sizeable budget. I also don’t blame it on any crew used being different from his previous films or anything like that, considering Argento has always worked with a pretty assorted crew from all of his various films. I simply think that between the culture shifting in the eighties and Argento’s new affection for a slightly more gritty atmosphere, Phenomena is still a beautifully visual film, don’t get me wrong, but in my opinion it was this film that started Argento’s climb into this different visual pallette. With all of that said, this is still classic Argento and visually impressive in its own right. Featuring some stunning crane work and smooth tracking shots, this still feels like the Argento we know and love. That’s because, it is and it was.

Argento does manage to craft a dream-like view of the countryside village that the film takes place in. Giving the film a decent amount of its ambience by having our heroine a sleepwalker who has these haunting walking nightmares, he manages to knock one out of the park as far as delivering a dark and brooding picture. The set design turns out spectacular as well, particularly in the final half of the movie where our heroine finds herself in an underground tunnel area. The climax, which if you read enough on this film you will find has many fans and dissapproving critics – but you will never see it argued as anything less than memorable. I will just go out and say that often Argento’s finales kind of drop the ball in one way or another, so I wasn’t expecting much more from Phenomena. Phenomena asks for a forgiving audience, and if you can get past the impossible and somewhat ridiculous conclusion – all you’ll do is smile. I know I found myself doing just that. Amongst all this chaos I speak of, Argento delivers an assortment of strange and disturbing imagery that creates another brilliant page in his portfolio. I particularly love the often seen shot of Jennifer Connelly flailing about in that pit of grime, gore and insects in the final thirty minutes. That sequence right there marks one of the most disgusting things ever seen in a Argento movie – and somehow they had Jennifer Connelly in there! Maybe Argento is a smooth talker! However I did see Connelly on Late Night With Conan O’Brien a while back and the two made fun of the whole movie – so maybe she’s still holding onto a little angst over that! I kid, I kid. The picture, as a whole, seems to embody a more “realistic” nightmare vision for Argento and I think in a lot of ways he’s been replicating that throughout his career to this point. Phenomena, released at the beginning of 1985 in its native Italy carries a similar trate to the Argento produced/written (but Lamberto Bava directed) Demons and that is the infusion of heavy metal music into Italian horror. Argento is heavily criticized for his use of heavy metal in this film and I hate to harp on a subject that everyone else has already mentioned so much – but to be totally honest, no, the music isn’t mixed well with the mood of the film. For what reason might a loud and boisterous heavy metal song might come roaring into life over the soundtrack? A big action sequence you ask? No, how about an elderly man being wheeled out of a house on a gourney – in an excessively slow fashion! I don’t get it, most people don’t and this is one of those things where I chalk it up to Argento living up to the youth culture or maybe even infusing his own love of modern music into his films at the time. No matter how you slice it though, the music just doesn’t fit and takes you out of the mood more than anything else in the movie. Thankfully the music only makes an appearance in few select scenes.

So what does one rate a film such as this? It’s apparent it has its own problems. I’ve probably spent entirely too long an amount of time discussing them at this point, but the audience should probably know about this stuff ahead of time. What can you expect from Phenomena other than some poor music, a less fashionable Argento and a lack of brilliant colors? Well, a textured pallete rather than a brighter one – but both equally as artistic in their own way. Amazing camera choreography that is right up there with the best of Argento. Some colorful performances with the amazing Donald Pleasance giving us a show and his take on a Scottish accent. Some very fun violence including a pole through the back of the head and out the mouth, several dismembered body parts and one of the absolute most insane climaxes of any Argento film. Once you think its over, things get even nuttier – but in a good way if you ask me. I was on the fence in my rating, since I do believe Phenomena is a classic that is also somewhat flawed – do I give it a high four or do I take the brazen route and call it a 5 of 5? I’ve decided to let my brass boys hang a bit and I’m going to say a five rating. It doesn’t recieve the highest honor of a Stubbing Award Winner, but it’s certainly a film I think Argento fans are missing out on if they haven’t seen it. I don’t have a 10 point rating system here folks, if I did this would possibly be an 8-10, maybe even 9-10 on deeper thought – but for what I have, I think a five star rating without an award is pretty close. It’s a great flick, absolutely fun to watch but it won’t be one for everybody to check out. Argento fans though, this is definitely mana from heaven!

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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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