Dario Argento, famous for his contributions to Italian horror cinema and the giallo sub-genre, directed Phenomena (1985). Phenomena was released in a shortened version as Creepers in the United States. Phenomena marks a slight departure from standard giallo fare, but is not the first of Argento’s giallo films to incorporate elements of the supernatural. Phenomena features a young woman named Jennifer that has mind-control powers over insects.
A Faceless Killer on the Loose
The film begins with a young woman just missing her bus on a beautiful, but deserted stretch of road in the Swiss Alps. Looking for assistance or a telephone, she wanders into an isolated home. In all aspects, the home appears to be well kept and normal, but a violent creature tears at the chains that bind it to the wall. As it breaks free, it immediately attacks the girl. She tries to flee, but the monster hunts her down and stabs her to death just before decapitating her.
Flash forward 8 months, Jennifer Corvino arrives at the Swiss Richard Wagner Academy for girls. The girls are welcomed by Frau Brückner, played by Daria Nicolodi as a stern but seemingly harmless school chaperone. Corvino, portrayed by a very young and vibrant Jennifer Connolly, sleepwalks at night. During one of her sleepwalking sessions, she inadvertently witnesses the murder of one of her school-mates. When she regains awareness of what had occurred, she flees into the woods.
Strangely enough, a chimpanzee named Inga finds Jennifer and leads her to her master’s home. Inga’s master is entomologist John McGregor, played by the ever-awesome Donald Pleasence. He immediately notices that Jennifer has a strange relationship with insects and he suspects that she shares a telepathic connection to them. Jennifer is able to control and communicate with insects using her thoughts. It’s a strange plot device, even for Argento’s standards.
Dario Argento, Giallo and Phenomena
This article will not describe in depth what a giallo film is, but some explanation is required for newcomers to the genre. Giallo is a term used to describe seedy Italian murder mysteries. These films always feature a faceless murder. Sometimes they involve a detective story, but the center of the action almost always revolves around an outsider being hunted by a depraved maniac. These films are filled with twists, turns and deception. Dario Argento famously elevated the state-of-the-art of Italian giallo films.
An Internet friend and fellow blogger name Alex Vorkov wrote a FAQ on giallo films. His blog serves as a great place learn about the ins and outs of the genre. According to Alex, giallo killers are not agents of the supernatural, but real people rooted in reality.
However, Alex also makes the case that, “A few gialli involve psychics or clairvoyants“. In these cases, the supernatural elements provide a supplemental plot device that adds style to an otherwise familiar framework. The depravity of a faceless killer still lies at its center. Jennifer Corvino’s mastery over insects simply adds a an interesting dimension to the standard giallo formula.
The Artistry of Dario Argento
Argento does everything with style. Through color, cinematography, music or sheer audacity, he constructs thrilling horror experiences. But, no man works alone. Often we see familiar names working on his films. This film credits Romano Albani with executing Dario Argento’s vision through adept cinematography. Romano Albani is responsible for the stunning work on Dario Argento’s Inferno. Frequent collaborator Claudio Simonetti scores another epic soundtrack including supporting music from his band Goblin while also pulling in outside influences like Iron Maiden and Motörhead.
We see another example of Simonetti’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal influence in Dario Argento’s 1987 masterpiece Opera.
Dario Argento effectively uses environment to create a foreboding sense of dread in his films. This trait is apparent in several films including Argento’s 1977 masterstroke, Suspira. By using relentless wind, Argento subtly builds tension while sending a chill up the spine. Albani and Argento create a sickening feeling of madness and paranoia by swirling the cameras in a cyclone around Jennifer as fellow students torment her. This is signature Argento, a thriller wrapped in brilliant visuals and stunning cinematography.
Silence of the Sarcophagus Maggots – Light Spolier
To qualify as a giallo, the film must have a mystery to be solved. This mystery involves a psychotic killer that lives among the rotting corpses of its victims. This revelation comes to McGregor as he examines maggots obtained from a glove found by Jennifer. Being a brilliant entomologist McGregor identifies the maggots as those from the Great Sarcophagus Fly. These masters of carrion can find a dead body from as far away as 50 miles a way. As a general rule, adding maggots makes any mystery more horrifying.
The maggot angle is interesting as it reminded me of the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. In that film Clarice tracks Buffalo Bill through clues from the Death’s Head Moth. Technically, forensic scientists use bugs and larvae all the time to determine time of death and other important details of the crime. The story checks out. The most unsettling things about maggots is how cool everyone is with maggots crawling on them. If I found a single maggot on my person, I might require psychiatrist.
(Check out my review of Squirm(1976) to see how I really feel about worms and maggots)
Once John McGregor identifies the Great Sarcophagus Fly, he cultivates one of the maggots into an adult and places it in a glass box. Jennifer users her powers to influence the Great Sarcophagus Fly to find the killer. It’s kind of like a filthy little Magic 8-ball for finding sick maggot infested murderers in the Swiss Alps.
Chimpanzees and Straight-Razors – Light Spoilers
Argento’s ending for his film is completely nuts, totally audacious and completely satisfying. Let’s just say that it has the following ingredients: A deformed child, a crazy decapitation, a straight-razor, a maggot filled pool of rotting flesh, a chimpanzee and schwing-dinger of a plot-twist. By the time the end credits rolled, I was laughing like a child. To be honest, I’m not even sure it all made sense, but damn it was entertaining. I wish I could say more, but you’ll have to watch it for yourself.
Phenomena – Pretty Good, but Not Phenomenal
Phenomena all in all is a pretty entertaining movie, but due to its lineage, it sits in very strong company. The film starts really strong, but starts to meander about 15 minutes in. Argento doesn’t spend a single moment explaining why Jennifer may have telepathic mind control powers over insects. John McGregor magically sniffs this superpower out like Professor X finds mutants. The whole things feels all too convenient. Ultimately, it proves more interesting than Tarot cards and Oujia boards.
Phenomena carries Argento’s signature style, but this film pales in comparison to his better films. It plods along at times and the special effects fail to reach levels expected from Argento’s work. Still, Phenomena is a good a movie and is a must for fans of Italian horror movies and giallo. Jennifer Connelly does a tremendous job as a young actress, both expressing vulnerability and steely determination when the chips are down. If horror films are about entertainment, Phenomena ultimately cobbles enough pieces together to get the job done.
Phenomena (1985) - Weird Italian Creepy Crawlies - Malevolent Dark
Director: Dario Argento
Date Created: 1985-01-01 00:00