Friday, 18 March 2011

Phenomena (1985)

Country: ITALY


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.

The peculiar and unsettling atmosphere of Phenomena is achieved through a combination of formal tricks and the insistence of the narrative in placing vulnerable children in harms way. The brilliant opening sequence establishes these themes of abandonment and childhood alienation. Argento’s crane shots sweep majestically over the mountainous Swiss countryside as a young girl (Fiore Argento - yes Dario gleefully slaughters his own daughter on screen) finds herself lost and alone in an eerie and inhospitable location. Her death within the stone corridors of a mountainous waterfall is a surreal highlight, and it confirms that the parents who have neglected their children and allowed them to stray into such a situation will be punished by their demise. Jennifer is exempted because she has the fortune of possessing a second family, and it is one that never lets her down. On three occassions in Phenomena the insect world comes to her aid, it protects and shelters her in moments of high anxiety. The insects take on the role of her absent father. This could also be interpreted as an expression of her burgeoning adolescent sexuality. A projection of sexuality which is signified metaphorically by the arrival of thousands of flies. The hints of a split personality offer further evidence of Argento’s self-conscious psycho-analytics. There are certain rewards to a psychoanalytical reading of Phenomena, but I prefer to see Jennifer’s relationship with the insect world as compensatory. It is however made problematic by the introduction of tele-kinetics, an aspect of the plot which is open to ridicule.

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.

As usual in an Argento film technical aspects of filmmaking reign supreme. The cinematography of Romano Albini is magnificent, offering beautiful but typically hollow images. The special make up effects of Sergio Stivaletti are noteworthy, especially a maggot infested human head that has been steadily rotting for eight months. Some of the optical effects by Luigi Cozzi are ingenious, but they also date the film. As I alluded to earlier the soundtrack of Phenomena represents perfectly the uneven nature of the film. Bill Wyman’s eerie theme that opens the film is excellent, as is Claudio Simonetti’s plaintiff theme for Jennifer, but the heavy rock numbers are utterly ludicrous. The result is that murder sequences that should resonate either with fear or emotion are more likely to elicit laughter. Phenomena is Argento’s personal favourite which tells you that Argento is incapable of judging the quality of his own work. This movie is thematically intriguing, frequently striking, but ultimately self indulgent twaddle.

Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Great review, although personally I just surrender to the film's silliness and go with it.

    Indeed, one could deem 'Inferno' the far more self-indulgent Argento film, as at least 'Phenomena' threads its way through (admittedly ridiculous) giallo plotting. In that regard it's no more ludicrous than gialli from the 1970s - but I agree that the 'surrealism' argument is a poor excuse for the film's myriad shortcomings.

  2. Hi there Jonny - always great to hear your feeback :-) Yes there is a strong case for INFERNO being Argento's most self-indulgent work. PHENOMENA is a brand of gialli that unfortunately wasn't adopted in a more widespread fashion...I guess you could call it Giallo-Fantastique. SUSPIRIA and INFERNO belong there too. For me it offers a potentially fascinating route that was never fully explored. Only Argento seemed to be able to get away with it.

  3. I quite like this one, Shaun. It's nuttiness being one of the most alluring aspects of the whole thing. I personally think Argento purposely makes his movies as nonsensical as possible on purpose. I don't have it anymore, but this comes across in great detail in an old Argento doc from Michele Soavi called DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR. His often times chaotic nature doesn't necessarily endear his movies to me, but this one did. A portion of this movie also reminded me of Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW, an American movie that definitely had a giallo-ish feel about it. Excellent write up as always, Shaun, and doubly informative.

  4. I agree to a certain extent Brian with the purposeful nature of Argento's nutty narratives...this is why I believe the film to be self-indulgent...and if he is purposeful about it, highly self-conscious as well. But there is equal evidence to show Argento could concoct densley plotted linear narratives that result in highly satisfying stories. For me the nonsensical surreal elements of PHENOMENA inspired irritation rather than admiration.

  5. As much as I love Argento, this is one of his films that I just cannot get into. But for the few striking visuals you mentioned, I find the film to be a bit of a bore and it never gets me as pumped and excited as his other films.

  6. I recently watched it on Blu Ray Carl, and the magnificent visual and audio quality enhanced the experience a little. But there is no doubt this is lesser Argento. It's very nearly a disaster in my view. It does have a boring and tired feel about it. It is almost Argento's filmic equivalent of a Greatest Hits package.

  7. This is a refreshingly offbeat and wacky giallo with supernatural overtones that I instantly loved. However, I think the 110-minute version is a bit overlong and could use some editing of superfluous scenes. The 82-minute American version Creepers cuts some good gore and a couple of important scenes, so I think the best cut would be somewhere between the two available versions.

  8. Thanks for stopping by Ray...sadly PHENOMENA'S wacky offbeat nature is mere distraction from all the other shortcomings that plague it. A tactic of Argento's he has used for many years. I have yet to have the opportunity to see the 82 minute CREEPERS edit, so can't comment on that. But it's a shame that DVD/BD releases haven't incorporated that version.


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