Phenomena (1985)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi

Release date: January 31 (ITA). I’ve not watched an Italian horror show in years, quite pleased to see an Argento drop in. When I first saw this it was called Creepers and the garish poster art featured a screaming chimp wielding a sharp implement. That doesn’t even begin to tell thee what the craic is here. May contain extra-sensory perceptive insects and spoilers…

A series of gruesome murders in “the Swiss Transylvania” have got the bizzies knickers in a twist. Into this portentous situation comes Jennifer, a young girl with a mysterious power over insects. Together with crippled entomologist John McGregor they form an unlikely detective duo – trio if you count McG’s trained chimpanzee… actually a quartet if you also count the Amazing Corpse-Locating Fly who shall be henceforth be referred to as ‘Jeff’… Where was I? Well, I’m nowhere near the plot, that’s for damn sure; I’d have to plunge head-first into a wheelbarrow full of the finest Colombian sniff to understand barely a nano of what’s going on here. Nevertheless, our intrepid, errr, quartetto-formidabile goes in search of the killer – but the killer is already homing in on them

Qualified lab assistants must be thin on the ground in Toblerone-land

I’ve got a lot of time for Mr. Argento, but Phenomena is madder than a box of purple conkers – and not particularly in a good way, at least not until the pedal-down, stark raving hippo-sized lunacy of the finale. Kee-rist a-mighty! The crew must have been smacked off their faces while they were making this. The rumpus starts early with the pursuit of a girl through a creepy house and into caves by some nameless terror. I have to say, the sequence exhibits none of the flair or invention Argento has come to be admired for, despite an iconic head-through-glass smashathon. From here, the plot goes off like a rip-rap firework, sparking all over the place. I get the feeling Dazza just kept throwing stuff at the camera hoping something, anything would stick. Very little does. In the end he riffs on his own back catalogue in an effort to land a few punches but he’s flogging a decapitated zombie horse. In saying that, I cannot deny that the last 20-30 minutes is one long ‘what the fuck?’ of a barmy onslaught chock full of gleeful horror notes. It’s just a pity those same notes fall a bit flat elsewhere.

An all-girls school! Nah, don't get yer hopes up...

The acting is patchy to poor. That’s a death knell for any film. You’re looking for someone to elevate the material (whether it deserves to be elevated or not) but the leads go ahead and set phasers to ‘somnambulant’. Donald Pleasence it is who essays McGregor, wheelchair-bound but sharp of mind. Donald clearly knows he’s saddled with a big bag of bollocks dressed up as a script. His line delivery is frequently punctuated by pauses that are surely not an artistic choice. It’s like he’s waiting for somebody else’s cue; when nothing else happens he ploughs gamely on. Also, any Scots watching this will no doubt be frothing at the Sassenachs on hearing his tilt at the Tartan Army’s accent. For me it still has some way to go to beat Ivana Milicevic as policewoman Gwen Turner in Postmortem. Hers is enough to make your ears bleed. Then there’s Jennifer Connolly. I know it’s not fair, she’s only a wee slip of a girl in this, but she’s having a bad day at the office. Apparently, the monkey fuckin hated her as well (it chomped a chunk out of her hand during filming). She seems awkward, unsure of what she’s supposed to be doing. Maybe the director didn’t get his message across; maybe she just wasn’t up to the task. Either way, she’s trying to walk up a ‘down’ escalator throughout.

Doctors struggle to find out why she said 'yes' to star in this...

Jennifer (the character – I’ll call her Jenny from now on to avoid confusion) also sleepwalks and I’m not sure it’s even necessary to the plot. She’s got a psychic link with the insect kingdom, that’s all Argento needed to focus on. I mean, she waltzes off and has visions in her sleep but then we also see images flashing in her mind when she handles telepathic maggots. Yeh, I just wrote that without even blinking. This kid really does love insects, and they love her in return. In one ludicrous scene, McGregor points out that a bug on her hand is trying to attract her as a mate. Uh-huh. In another scene, bullied by the other girls at school – “We worship you!” – Jenny summons a horde of flies and they swarm over the windows, freaking everyone out. Then she faints unexpectedly, a moment horribly fluffed by her glancing at the mark on which she has been directed to fall. The sexy but cold headmistress (Dilila Di Lazzaro) brands Jenny abnormal; “She’s diabolic!” Diabolical, can’t argue with that really.

On the look-out for a pile of poo... you're in it, mate

When Argento finally lumbers into an interesting sequence of dreamy fantasy, he inexplicably blows the potential. Jenny’s room mate, Sophie (Federica Mastroianni) has gone missing, feared dead at the hands of the killer. Serves her right, innit; she was supposed to be keeping an eye on Jenny’s sleepwalking shenanigans but instead sneaked off to snog her boyfriend and as any self-respecting horror movie dictates, thou shalt suffer for thy sexual delinquency. One night, a firefly guides Jenny to one of Sophie’s gloves, discarded deep in some shrubbery. It’s a magical scene and there’s a strong breath of Pan’s Labyrinth about it. Yet for some reason known only to Argento, he allows the moment to be buried under a breathtakingly hideous up-tempo dirge that sucks all the oxygen out of what is essentially a gentle psychic after-scent of a violent act. In general, the music steamrollers scenes throughout (inappropriate use of Iron Maiden – although, is there ever an appropriate use of Iron Maiden?) but not quite as jarring as here. It’s aural abuse on a criminal scale.

You do need extra fingers with those old dial phones...

There’s another ‘almost’ scene, when the killer comes to call on McGregor. Inga, his chimp helper (Romero took this idea on for Monkey Shines, with patchy results), locked outside and desperately trying to get in to help her master, can only watch and shriek in anguish as the killer sets the stair lift in motion and the helpless McGregor slowly trundles down onto an unsheathed blade. Should be taut, the editing should be turning the screw but instead the sluggish motion of the lift is rendered faintly ridiculous. Unfortunately, every time I see a stair lift now it reminds me of a scene in the TV comedy series Phoenix Nights, any horrific aspect gets diluted. Later, we see Inga rummaging through a bin for something to eat. Somewhat fortuitously, she finds a switchblade in there – not exactly nutritious but ideal for hacking someone’s face off, if you’ve not starved to death already. Very good at finding sharp implements this monkey, as is lumpenly set up earlier…

Make-up had their work cut out getting Jonathan Ross ready for his TV show

Then there’s Jeff the fly – “the great sarcophagus” – leading Jenny to the scene of a crime. It’s quite silly, watching a black dot bumble around the screen and Connolly having to ‘act’ following a fly. (Adopt Italian accent) “You see the fly now, Jennifer, ahead of you, can you see it? It is right in front of your pretty face, speaking to you, a telepathic fly, up here, in your mind, what is it saying… bzzzz, it says, bzzzz-zzz-zzz… bzzz!” Herrings of the rouge variety abound here too but I shouldn’t think you’ll be fooled. The supremely crackers finale sees just about every mother-chuffer in the script put in an appearance. Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi) turns up to offer Jenny a place to stay till her flight home – Jen won’t return to the school coz they’re all rotten and mean to her. In all likelihood, they probably don’t want the fly-conducting basket case back anyway. The investigating copper, Geiger (Patrick Bauchau) also arrives, so let’s hope she can count on him… Bah-dum-tsh! Morris (Mario Donatone), a hitherto only spoken of acquaintance of Jenny’s father rocks up like Scatman in The Shining – and goes in slightly more spectacular (and hilarious) fashion. Then there’s the mutant kid… and don’t forget the chimp. And a swarm of bees or flies or whatever they are. Jenny sploshes around in the sludge of human decay, literally, a sight that Frau Bruckner interprets as high comedy. There’s still time for not one, but TWO final reel resurrections. Two too many, but by then it barely matters.

"I used to advertise tea bags! Now look at me!"

Oh, I’ll tell you who else is in this, Michele Soavi, Geiger’s cop partner Kurt. He was in Demons – check it out if you haven’t already. Phenomena is over-the-top nuts and way too convoluted; there’s no need for Jenny to sleepwalk and receive visions when she’s already tuned in with the insects – it’s one or the other, not both. Sadly, not the winner I remember but the last half hour is a riot.



Phoenix Nights:

Hmmm… I’ll go for 2 PG Tips Chimps out of 5.

Cheers, folk.

ThereWolf, April 2012

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About ThereWolf

I only come out at night... mostly...

34 responses to “Phenomena (1985)”

  1. ThereWolf says :

    Be aware – I’m having a hell of time getting on and staying online. So if I’m not commenting, that’s why…

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    It seems to me that the land of here be dragons needs to upgrade its internet capabilities.

    • Jarv says :

      It’s the rain in Manchester. Rotted through BT’s fancy new fibreoptic cables.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Yeh, the thought had crossed my mind, Xi…

      Fibre-optic – is that the way to go then, Jarv? I’m looking into it. Looking at Virgin Media, considering their sub-station (or whatever it’s called) is directly across the road.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        fiber optic cables are the best way to move info right if you aren’t on a direct satellite up link. Fiber optics are buried underground in non-rotting weather impervious PVC tubes(In the States not sure about the Empire). FO carry about 10 times(if not more) the amount of info older style cables could carry so its fast and reliable. Until something better comes along FO is the way to go Wolf.

      • ThereWolf says :

        Thanks for the info, Xi. Gonna check what deals are available and see what can be rustled up…

  3. Jarv says :

    I like this film, but that’s because it is totally mental in the last third. Aside from that, agree with pretty much everything you say.

    I didn’t know the monkey hated Connolly. That’s really funny. Also, you’ve got a hell of a lot of Monkey films as well as French ones. Is this the 2nd or third?

    I didn’t get a single chimp movie. Pah.

    • Droid says :

      Yes you did. You got My Boss’s Daughter.

      • Jarv says :

        That’s not a monkey film, although there is a remarkable similarity between Kutcher and monkeys. That’s an Owl film. Or a monkey poo film. One or the other anyway.

      • Droid says :

        I suppose it is a little unfair to compair Kutcher to a monkey. Unfair on the monkey that is.

        But it is a monkey film in that you gave it an Orangutan of Doom!

      • Jarv says :


        I handed out loads of them. Deservedly. I meant an amusing monkey film.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Yeh, the last third almost saves the film – utterly bat-crackers.

      Poor Jennifer, I think she had to have part of her finger sown back on. I can’t remember what happened now; the handler placed the monkey for a shot, then Jen came in next to it and I think she tried to re-position the monkey where Argento wanted and it took great exception to her groping.

      Second chimp movie. Still got more French to come…

      (glances worriedly at failing internet connection…)

  4. kloipy says :

    Great review as always Wolf. I must be blind by nostalgia because I remember liking this one. Argento really is hit or miss, and his newer stuff espicially. I like Susperia, Inferno, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Opera, and maybe Tenebre. Although that chimp is amazing

    • ThereWolf says :

      Cheers, Kloipy.

      I have to be in the mood for Argento – though I do like all the films you’ve name-checked there.

      Once the chimp randomly finds the switchblade in a bin it’s like “Here we go…” – just gets more and more lunatic.

  5. tombando says :

    Needs giant robots

  6. Xiphos0311 says :

    Every time I see the title of this post I think of this for some reason.

  7. Xiphos0311 says :

    and because of that one this excellent cover comes to mind

  8. Droid says :

    I’ve never even heard of this, and from the sounds of it, I understand why. Seems a bit on the shit side. Nice review as always, Wolf.

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