Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Phenomena

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

PHENOMENA

7/10

Italy 1985 : Dario Argento : 111mins

I am sleepwalking. I must wake up. I am sleepwalking. I must wake up.
Jennifer Corvino, Phenomena

Phenomena isnt the best introduction to Dario Argento – newcomers may be baffled by both this particular movie, and also by Argentos reputation as the maestro of recent Italian horror. On a rational, normal level, the movie is ludicrous, and there are occasions when it seems sloppy, even amateurish. But Argento has never been especially interested in rational or normal material, and the world of cinema would be much the poorer without such crackpot, visionary mavericks. It also doesn’t help that the full, 111-minute version of Phenomena has been only intermittently available over the years, and many viewers have had to make do with the 83-minute cut released in the US as Creepers. The proper version hardly makes much sense to begin with, and the removal of almost half an hour of running time presumably results in total incoherence.

The plot, if it can be called such, sees American teenager Jennifer Corvino (Connelly) packed off to a Swiss finishing school by her father, a movie star filming his latest epic in the Philippines. Jennifer finds it hard to settle in, thanks to the obnoxious creepiness of the staff, the cruel hostility of her schoolmates, and the local antics of a psychopathic killer. But Jennifer has a secret a supernatural empathy with insects of all kinds, who willingly submit to her control. Shes also prone to sleepwalking, and one night wanders off campus into thick forest, where she bumps into a chimpanzee who leads her to disabled entomologist Prof MacGregor (Pleasence). Jennifer, the Professor, the chimp and the insects band together to track down the killer, before he/she can strike again

Or something. Its a crazy set-up for a film, and, adding in the wooden performances, the absurd, clumsily dubbed dialogue, and the apparently random application of heavy metal on the soundtrack, you end up with a very strange viewing experience, as likely to provoke giggles and chills of fright. Its never easy to tell just how much is being played for laughs, and how much should be taken seriously. One of the most disturbing things in the movie is a hideous, cheap Bee Gees t-shirt, and there’s a wry moment when Jennifer, trying to creep silently out of a room, knocks over a knitting needle which falls straight down into a handy ball of wool. And though the script is played straight, its full of wild absurdities (I have to join my regiment at dawn deadpans a young bloke to his girlfriend), and every line spat out by the harpy-like head-mistress is borderline hilarious. When a dozy pupil blurts out screw the past; during a poetry lesson, the head sets off on a foot-stomping rant: What about ancient Greece?!, and later she compares Jennifer to something she pronounces Baal-zee-boob: Shes not normal! Shes diabolic!

Such quirks keep Phenomena watchable, even though they also make it very hard to take seriously. But Argento knows exactly what he’s doing at every stage the film opens with a slow pan up some wind-blown trees that’s worthy of Tarkovsky, and he shows remarkably little of the killer (not even a gloved hand) until very late on. He confidently deploys weird imagery, lighting and sound-effects to construct a bizarre, surreal, dream-like state. Jennifer sleepwalks, and finds herself unable to wake, even when she realises she isn’t awake or in control, just as the audience, while constantly aware of the artificiality of the movie, are powerless to act. The film thus makes perfect sense in psychological terms (if no other) as as a representation of Jennifers disorientation in this strange new country. Argento similarly disorients and unsettles the audience with his unpredictable use of (bad) mid-80s heavy metal on the soundtrack and his increasingly haphazard plotting, liberally peppered with shock moments.

But even the most ludicrous aspects of the movie do make, on reflection, a kind of sense. The headmistress is a cardboard caricature of stroppy strictness, but surely this beautiful, repressed woman, forever obsessing over normality, is a savage satirical swipe at the Swiss national character. Behind the superficial orderliness of these picture-postcard surroundings, Jennifer finds a maelstrom of violence, horror and irrationality as in any persecution-complex nightmare, she’s surrounded by irrational foes, people who despise her, who work against her. But the original twist here is that she also has irrational friends the insects. She receives telepathic images from the perspective of ladybirds and maggots, and trusts a corpse-eating fly to lead her to the killers lair, eventually commanding a vast swarm of bluebottles to engulf the monstrous psychopath in a sensationally visceral, no-holds-barred finale.

April 14th , 2001

by Neil Young
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