Italian filmmaking pensioner Dario Argento has an ongoing obssession with monstrous matriarchs and parental failure. In his masterpiece Deep Red (1975) the mother of homosexual pianist Carlo turns out to be a raving homicidal maniac who murdered his father and is forced to resume the slaughter to cover up the past. In Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007) Argento takes his hatred of mothers to mystical and supernatural degrees by exploring an omniscient trio of tyrants who are united by cruelty and sadism. Argento positions these evil harridans at the heart of all human misery and suffering. If Argento’s films do not feature a grotesque mother figure then they invariable present a world that is entirely absent of parental figures. In Phenomena Argento prefers the innocent world of childhood, and the wondrous and often mysterious world of insects. But Phenomena is unique in that it features a hideous homicidal parent in the shape of Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi) that works in tandem with parental absence. The horribly deformed child who was conceived after his mother was raped in an asylum is the only child in the film whose parent is ever present. This is in itself is abnormal enough to merit insanity and deformity in Argento's universe. The children who find themselves at the Richard Wagner boarding school have all been abandoned, and the protagonist Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) comes from a broken family in which her father is often absent due to his profession.
Even by Argento standards this is incredibly daft (one scene even sees Jennifer following a fly as it hones in on the killer’s lair!) but the other entomological aspects of the plot are at least enjoyable thanks to Donald Pleasence. The absurdities rapidly build up (defenders will claim this is all part of Argento’s surrealist strategy) and they include a razor wielding chimpanzee, weird dreamscapes courtesy of a sleepwalking Jennifer, a headmistress who thinks she is Beelzebub, and an incredibly schizophrenic soundtrack that does real damage to the credibility of the film. In typical Argento style he and Franco Ferrini’s screenplay loses patience and within no time at all Jennifer finds herself in the basement of the Brûckner’s wallowing in mouldering maggot infested corpses while the investigating cop is chained to a wall being tortured. All of this looks impressive enough, and the set piece sequences are handled with Argento’s usual orgasmic flourishes. But ultimately Phenomena is more impressive in part than as a whole. It has a patchwork feel which I for one will not defend by invoking the spectre of surrealism. Argento seems to be in an enviable position where if he writes a well plotted thriller he receives acclaim, and if he does the opposite he receives acclaim too because its all part of some kind of half assed surrealism. The bottom line is that Phenomena is an incredibly self indulgent film from a bloated ego.
Shaun Anderson 2011