Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dario Argento's Phenomena (1984), or Connelly in Wonderland

All those times watching Labyrinth as a kid I was completely oblivious to the fact that Jennifer Connelly had previously starred in an even darker fairytale. Director Dario Argento’s “Phenomena” is like a film dressed up to resemble a childlike fairytale but is really a nightmarish journey through hell. Before seeing it, I recall being very intrigued from what I read on the Internet and from already being aware of the film's main musical theme from a rendition by metal band “Rhapsody of Fire” Link to Song (It seriously does make for great background music, while reading this review). The movie’s unique style of fantasy and horror had caught my attention so much that I was already a fan of the movie before I even saw it. I had to have it!! After ordering off for the DVD on Amazon and waiting for a month, that seemed to take forever, the movie finally showed up in the mail. What I was to see forever sealed my fandom for Dario Argento’s films.   
The movie opens abruptly in the Swiss Alps, where a Danish tourist (Dario Argento’s daughter, Fiore) misses the bus and is left stranded. During the opening credits, I was surprised to find out that the costumes were designed by Giorgio Armani (the same people that design Lady Gaga’s clothes!) and that among the soundtrack is “Iron Maiden” and “Motorhead”. Most criticize the use of metal in this movie because it deflates the suspense, but I for one enjoyed those moments where it all of a sudden feels like we’ve just wandered into a music video. 

So, this tourist is now stranded in a cold, windy, and ominous place and begins to travel down a trail amidst surreal flowery plains that gave me a feeling of being lost in a strange unreal world, with an added tension of possible danger. Sort of like knowing you’re dreaming but not quite sure if you’re having a nightmare or not. She comes to a strange home and starts to call out for help, before entering. We the viewers realize that this supposed dream is definitely a nightmare when something unseen escapes from being chained to the wall and pursues this unfortunate tourist with violent persistence (talk about a tourist trap). When the unseen killer catches the poor girl, she is stabbed and loses her head in a beautifully filmed scene amidst broken glass and falling water. How could such a thing be beautiful, you say? Well, you’ll just have to see it to know what I mean. For me, the combination of horror and beauty is one of the many elements that attract me to Dario’s films, and I believe the opener to this movie is a shining example. 

Sadly, this intro is no dream at all but a murder from a serial killer that has been lurching about the Swiss Alps for some time targeting young pretty ladies. 2 detectives (Among them Michele Soavi, director of the fabulous Dellamorte Dellamore, in a brief appearance) are looking for leads by consulting with wheel chair bound entomologist, John Mcgreggor (Donald Pleasance), who happens to have a trained chimpanzee as a nurse named Inge. It seems that John’s observations of insect activity in the decapitated head of the murdered tourist can be of vital importance to the police. Apparently, by studying the presence and growth of insects inhabiting decaying body parts, the exact time of the murder can be determined. The entomologist refers to this as a cycle known as “the 8 squadrons of death”.

At this point, it should be apparent to the viewer that this murder mystery will be anything but conventional. I find it interesting that the film’s story was inspired by something Dario heard on the radio where insects were used in solving a murder case. And speaking of story, it’s like a volcano of ideas that are just squeezed into the film. For some, this might seem like too much, but for me, it’s like a crazy head trip down Dario’s own wonderland.  
12 minutes into the movie, we are finally introduced to the main character of this horror fairytale, Jennifer Corvino (the very photogenic Jennifer Connelly), in the back seat of a car on the way to her new boarding school alongside one of the school teachers (the always fabulous Daria Nicolodi). Jennifer’s unnatural affinity with insects is immediately made apparent when a bee flies on her hand and alarms everyone but her. It flies around and causes pandemonium in the car before Jennifer catches it in her hand without the fear of being stung. Apparently, insects never harm her because she loves them and interestingly enough, Jennifer has some sort of unusual telepathic connection with them.

Jennifer arrives at the boarding school known as “The Richard Wagner International School for Girls”, while the main music score to the film is playing. Written by Claudio Simonetti, this has to be one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music I have ever heard that gracefully enhances a number of memorable moments in the film.   
A lot happens during Jennifer’s first night at the boarding school. During a conversation with her new roommate, Sophie, we find out Jennifer is the daughter of a famous movie star. She is alerted from Sophie that there is a murdering maniac who kidnaps young girls, kills them, and hides the bodies.

Later that same night, some random girl starts being chased by an unseen assailant with a spear, while us the viewers, rock out to Iron Maiden’s Flash of the blade. The surreal factor is amped up several notches when Jennifer goes sleep walking and witnesses a gory sight of this girl being murdered. While still sleep walking, she is nearly killed after falling from the third story of the school, but she somehow manages to sleep walk away unharmed. She then sleepwalks into the street and nearly gets run over by a car driven by 2 young guys who decide to pick her up and drive off with her. They try to talk to her, but Jennifer annoys them with her crazy sleepwalking personality. I can’t tell if she falls out or if they push her out of the car, but she is dumped off the side of the road, and tumbles down a steep cliff before waking up and being greeted by a chimpanzee who then proceeds to walk off, hand-and-hand, with her into the night, which we view from the perspective of an insect as the phenomenal Phenomena theme plays.

Oh my God! Do you see what I meant by a volcano of ideas?! There was just so much craziness that just occurred in the last 5 minutes or so, and I for one found it to be extremely entertaining. Who cares if you are completely confused now. That was just awesome! Just run with it and take in all of the idiosyncrasies Dario is hurling our way. You most likely aren’t going to find something like this anywhere else.
The chimp Jennifer met in the night after her nocturnal wandering was Inge, the nurse of the entomologist we met earlier. Inge takes Jennifer to the home of the insect expert, and the craziness is turned down for the time being as Jennifer and John the entomologist discuss her peculiar sleep walking habits, the murders that have been occurring lately, and her unnatural way of unintentionally exciting insects. A friendship develops and Jennifer is given confidence that there is someone she can turn to if things ever happen to go sour at the school.

When she returns to the school the next day, the faculty and the school doctor decide to subject the already mentally scarred Jennifer to an electroencephalogram (EEG) test because of her highly irregular sleep walking habits and because they suspect she might be schizophrenic, epileptic, and on drugs. Wow, I was wrongfully accused of being high once, but I’ve never seen this sort of hostility from a school faculty. This harsh discrimination and the notion of being murdered starts to give Jennifer an urge to disenroll and leave the school. Not surprisingly, she is unable to contact her father and is stuck at this hellhole for the time being. Oddly enough, no one seems to be making a very big deal out of the fact that a girl was just murdered at the school last night.
OK, I admit it! I'm high! Now is this EEG still necessary?

Later that night, Jennifer’s roommate, Sophie, sneaks out of her room to have a make-out session with a boy waiting outside in the windy Swiss Alps. These 2 wouldn’t make a very good couple, because it’s not long before they get into a verbal fight, with Sophie landing the F-bomb on the poor guy just because he has to leave. Eventually, Sophie ends up all alone and not surprisingly is pursued by the maniac, while upstairs in the school, Jennifer starts sleepwalking out of bed. By using a useful trick the entomologist taught her, she is able to snap out of it before leaving her room by repeating to herself “I am sleep walking I must wake up”. Sophie is eventually speared by the killer, and the scream is so loud that Jennifer hears it from upstairs, and she immediately runs down to investigate. What follows is a delirious journey to a piece of evidence left by the killer, in what has to be the most bombastic sequence I have ever seen in my life (and I’m not exaggerating). 

In a more conventional film, Jennifer could have just simply gone outside and searched around the bushes a bit before stumbling across the killer’s maggot covered glove, with no sign of her friend. But not with Dario! Instead, as Jennifer walks out of the school into the dark and windy night, the more upbeat part of the phenomena theme starts playing, and Jennifer catches sight of a firefly hovering around beckoning her to follow as if it has witnessed something she needs to know about. This scene of Jennifer following a firefly, in what feels like a dark forested dream world, gave me a unique feeling of phantasmagoria that I have never felt anywhere else. Bravo maestro, bravo! Jennifer takes the glove to the entomologist instead of the police because for some reason there are maggots inhabiting the glove.
At this point, Jennifer’s fellow schoolmates are really starting to dislike her eccentricities, and no one wants to be her new roommate since the previous one disappeared. After some students and the head mistress sneak into her room and read a letter she wrote to her father about her visits with the entomologist and her strange power over insects, the students start teasing her about her self-proclaimed insect gift. Practically the whole school gangs up on her and starts chanting “we worship you” “we worship you” in her face, like she’s some kind of lord of the flies (this part gave me chills). As if fully realizing dormant powers, Jennifer is granted the privilege to shove it all back into their faces when in response to her heightened emotional state, thousands of flies swarm around the school. This sight silences her tormentors while Jennifer proclaims her love to the flies, as wind magically blows through her hair. Everyone is standing around in utter amazement before Jennifer passes out and the screen goes dark, as we reach the end of act-one to this delirious horror fantasy film.   

All hail the lady of the flies!!!

So now that the entire school is convinced of her paranormal insect powers, they want nothing to do with her. While pretending to be asleep, Jennifer overhears the school’s plans to send her away to the nut house without even bothering to consult her father. Luckily, the nurse watching her dozes off, and Jennifer manages to sneak out right before the men in white show up. Now that she has finally gotten the Hell out of there, Jennifer turns to the entomologist, who is the only friend she has at this point. It seems that John has been studying the maggots in the killer’s glove she brought by earlier. Apparently, they are a species known as “The Great Sarcophagus”, which live primarily off dead bodies. In order to solve the mystery, John decides to exploit her powers by encouraging her to carry a fly and scan the country side where the murders have taken place, while waiting for the fly to respond when the dead bodies are near. “That fly is your magic wand” says the entomologist. Actually, it’s more like a dead body sensor that Jennifer can use to find where the killer has been hiding the bodies and where the killer resides. According to John “the killer is a psychopath who likes to stay in physical contact with his/her victims”… Creepy!

Aww, now you've gone and pissed me off!!!

After riding around in a bus for a while, her fly detective friend starts to buzz around uncontrollably when the bus pulls up to a familiar location. This being the place where the first murder of the film occurred, so we know she’s getting warmer. After following the fly down the same trail that we watched the unfortunate Danish tourist wander down at the beginning of the film, Jennifer comes to a house. This being the same house that poor girl was attacked in. After some tense moments of Jennifer searching the place, the superintendent grabs her and scares her off, claiming the house to be abandoned for some time. Afterwards, a traveling camera shot directs us to the location of a rotting hand underneath a crack in the floor where the great sarcophagus (the fly) has landed. Apparently Jennifer was too late, and the killer has already moved away, fortunately for her.

It seems that the killer knows more than is believed, and later the entomologist is killed off, leaving Jennifer all alone. With nowhere else to go, she demands that her father’s agent send her money for a ticket. As she waits at the bank, someone approaches her and claims her father’s agent has put Jennifer in his/her care. She follows this person to his/her place of residence, and mayhem of the highest order ensues nonstop until the films ending.     
The last 25 minutes of the film takes place in and around an enormous “mansion of madness”, and what occurs is a roller coaster ride of comic book like twists. Jennifer takes a beating from someone she thought she could trust, falls into a swamp of dead bodies, and is also pursued by the killer through blood, fire and water and all the while still manages to keep her outfit nice and white. I mean sure the film is ludicrous on several occasions, but that’s how we like it...Right? 

Through blood, fire, and water!

There is also a stand out scene where Jennifer involuntarily poisons herself and has to result to self-gagging, in a powerful performance from the future Oscar winning star. When you watch this, you won’t believe what you’re seeing as Connelly acts the hell out of this part.
There is still so much that I haven’t given away yet in this lengthy review, so please watch this movie and thank me (or hate me) later. This was my second Dario Argento film, and when I first saw it, I felt extremely satisfied after the credits rolled and had an impulse to collect every film Dario has made. I had never seen anything like Phenomena.
Although it will never happen, my dream is to see Jennifer Connelly reprise her role as Jennifer Corvino in a Phenomena sequel that would of course be directed by Dario Argento. A man can dream can’t he? Besides, it would have been best for such a thing to have happened back in the '80s anyway.

Return for a sequel, you say?  Mmmm...No thanks.


  1. Great site you have here, happy i found it. just starting following you via blogger\google.

    Nice write-up on Phenomena. Will have to re-watch this.

  2. Thanks for the compliment Ty, and a very cool action film blog you have “Comeuppance Reviews” Thank you for joining!

  3. You're welcome. Happy to have joined your site too!

  4. I found this Argento film wonderful! A great tension, wonderful actors and a film at which one can look once again. I have seen the film of course only into German and never into original Italian language, but also in German landlord the film incredibly good!

  5. There are a lot of people who consider this film "all style no substance" while laughing snidely at Argento and calling him a hack. They seem to praise David Lynch (who I also like) for being weird/'dreamlike' but when Argento does it, he gets criticized. After having read Mondo Digital's review of Phenomena, I now realise that there is an abundance of symbolism that can be found in the dialogue, setting and visuals.

    It's surprisingly profound and makes me love this film even more! Queen of the Dark Horizon is also goddamn epic and awesome!

    1. Thanks for the link, Terence! I liked the comparisons to Passover that the author derived, which was something I completely overlooked. When calling something “all style no substance” most should consider that symbolism is a big part of substance; not just story. But I honestly dug the story to PHENOMENA, so as far as I’m concerned, there is a lot of both style and substance. The symbolism is not the most obvious at times, but it is there, and it runs deep.

      I'm happy that you dig Queen of the Dark Horizon, like I said in the review; I heard that song way back (when it was brand new) before I even saw PHENOMENA, and the great music certainly piqued my curiosity.

  6. Just discovered this great blog. But thanks for the best review so far ever written on this Masterpiece. I'm glad someone loves this movie as much as I do!.. I have watched it numerous times during the past decade and thoughts constantly drifts towards it at any time.. Once it gets under the skin it stays there !

    Cheers! // R.Geiger

    1. Hi, Thanks for the compliments. It's great to meet other fans of Phenomena. I still love this film; it seems like ages ago since I wrote this review. I've since done many many reviews, but I'm glad this one still gets appreciated, and today it remains the third most read page on my blog. Thanks again. I'm glad the effort I put to publicly write about this film is still getting attention a few years later and hopefully turning people on to Phenomena.

  7. Late to the party but enjoyed the entry. Sadly, I doubt any sequel will happen, unless it’s sans monkey.

    While it’s a great closing shot, unfortunately, during filming, at one point the monkey kept turning in a shot and Argento had Connelly turn the monkey herself.

    That proved to be a huge mistake. According to what I’ve read, the monkey immediately became aggressive and but Connelly. From that moment on, it bore her a grudge through the end of filming. At one point, it apparently bit off a joint of her finger that they had to reattach.

    While Connelly gives probably the best natural performance ever to grace an Argento film, and while she’s ably supported by Pleasance and Bauchu, and Daria, that drama with the monkey soured her overall experience filming the movie.