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Phenomena Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 4, 2011 at 11:01 PM

    Phenomena Review

    Telepathically controlled insects, student-girls in peril, decapitations, a deformed monster, Donald Pleasance in a wheelchair and a chimp with a bloody vendetta … 1984's slick and garish Phenomena goes well and truly off the rails … and takes its cult creator, Dario Argento, with it.

    For me, this is where the rot set in with the once cognoscenti of carnage. It contains one of his daftest plots bolted around a character premise that he has virtually admitted was just thrown in there because of a spate of “special power” movies at the time, such as Stephen King's Firestarter. But I've not seen Phenomena (aka Creepers) for many years now, so I decided to go into it with an open mind, still happy in the fun that I've had with several other entries of the Italian Maestro of the Macabre (now long retired, it would seem) on Blu-ray, such as Suspiria, Inferno, Deep Red and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage – all tremendously bravura movies that showcase the filmmaker's talents at their height.

    For its own sake, Phenomena is actually a very ambitious production. The story, itself, written by Argento and Franco Ferrini, whilst still in-keeping with the director's typical profile of a stranger in a strange land becoming embroiled in a murder mystery that will threaten their very existence, and of a lunatic mind orchestrating terrible deeds to guard a horrific secret, was a little bit broader than usual. The main character, Jennifer, played by a very young Jennifer Connelly, who probably cannot even remember making this film, comes to a remote part of Switzerland (the “Swiss Transylvania” as it is referred to) to study at some famed school. Like Jessica Harper in Suspiria, she arrives amid a welter of killings, makes one doomed friend and incurs animosity from both fellow students and her teachers alike, including the ultra-sexy Dalila Di Lazzaro's starched headmistress. But Jennifer has a secret of her own – she has a psychic affinity with insects, and this entomological gift will come to play a major part in helping her to unravel the culprit behind a string of grisly student beheadings. The spiritual umbilical cord to Suspiria even stretches to a rather gigglesome male narration that announces her arrival at the school in a very pale imitation of the one that introduced us to Harper's Suzy Banyon … made all the more silly because we have already met her and spent some time with her and Daria Nicolodi's teacher, Frau Bruckner, in the car during the scenic ride-in. In Suspiria, it was part of the fairytale approach to the subject matter, and although Argento is at great pains to evoke a similar mood whenever Jennifer is on-screen, the fantasy-like mood attempted here does not come over nearly so well.

    The opening is very good and visually strong. A young female student (played by Argento's daughter, Fiore) just misses the bus that will take her down from the Heidi-esque mountains and, heading off to one of those picturesque Alpine lodges to seek assistance, incurs the wrath of the murderous occupant. With a sort of ambient John Carpenter main theme playing, and Romano (Inferno) Albani's amazing photography gliding up through the branches of a massive, swaying pine tree (sadly, Argento has the film's titles appear over this wondrous Tenebrae-like Luoma-crane-shot … but it still looks mightily impressive), you really think that you are in for a treat, the sort of audacious and gripping set-piece opening that the director was once renowned for. Admittedly, Argento cuts the scene together well, with the girl calling out for help as she investigates the lodge as we see the chains that are holding something that she has innocently disturbed just out of camera-shot getting ripped out of the wall – and the tension really does ratchet up. Our introduction to the man who will become Jennifer's confidante, invalid Prof. John MacGregor (played by Donald Pleasance) as he discusses the time of murder for the local police of a decapitated head, by the stage of the insect life that is swarming all over it, is also quite a decent piece of character building that narrowly escapes the curse of dreaded exposition by virtue of the unusual circumstances, the easygoing affability of Pleasance and the wonderful inclusion of the scientist's nursemaid/companion, a highly trained chimpanzee. Really, the film gets off to a great start … there's mystery, violence and unusual characters. But then the plot swiftly loses its way and meanders all over the place, ultimately going nowhere very memorable, other than marking a severe downturn in the uber-stylist's oeuvre.

    Argento had originally wanted Peter Ustinov for the part of the wheelchair-bound MacGregor, but this was not to be. Honestly, can you imagine what the film would have been like if the jowelly Poirot had taken the role? With his own quirky bag of actorly tricks, the verbose Ustinov may just have saved it from its maker's flawed vision. It really could have been insanely inspired casting. Meanwhile, back in reality, the corpulent raconteur was highly dismissive of the offer, so Argento went with Plan B and pulled off the equally interesting coup of securing cult genre actor Donald Pleasance instead. Now this was the sort of casting that horror fans couldn't resist. Pleasance had always courted the unusual and the offbeat, and although the Tony Award-nominated star of Dr. Crippen, The Great Escape, THX1138 and Soldier Blue was highly renowned in more mainstream circles, he was still the crucial linchpin that made Halloweens 1 and 2, Escape From New York and You Only Live Twice the immediate cult classics that they are. This sense of daring and of the avant-garde was something that he shared with Argento and, by all accounts, they got on well during the production. Sadly, Pleasance admitted that the screenplay was one of the loopiest he had ever read and even if his presence in the film is a definite draw for a lot of us, the part is quite ill-fitting to the rest of the tone built up by Argento, the Scottish accent more wince-inducing than enervating, and the ultimate bowing-out for such a genre luminary elaborately naff, when it all comes down to it. Although I quite like the character of the haunted entomologist – a previous assistant has fallen into the deathly grip of the killer – Pleasance gives him an amazingly relaxed demeanour that may go towards a naturalistic performance that genuinely makes you believe that you are listening to a genial scientist, but can't avoid dragging some scenes into a collage of mistimings, uncomfortable lulls and a bizarre form of interaction with others that only seems to promote their bad acting all the more. Even if Pleasance is too damn good for the film, he definitely has a fine rapport with the chimpanzee.

    For her part Connelly may have gone on to win an Academy Award for her supporting role in A Beautiful Mind, but her performance here is a distinct mixture of the so-so and the terrible. Granted, she is only young, and her character is a true odd-ball necessitating some very weird circumstances to react to and some faltering, confused encounters with far more typical, and typically bad Italian supporting cast members, including Stagefright's Michele Soavi, but she is meant to carry the film on her shoulders … and it is a task that she is not fully up to. It is ironic that she is actually the worst at dealing with Pleasance, even though they both, at least, have English as their main language. Sometimes it is as though she is delivering her lines over a live-feed from thousands of miles away, like the transmission-gap from a TV journalist reporting from a war-zone.

    But the setting is wonderful. Argento leaves the confines of the city, and his favoured buildings with their off-kilter geometries, and heads for the hills. He still employs grand architecture, but none of the rooms, halls or woodland abodes capture the imagination in the way that we know he can usually have them do. People may frequently wander around these buildings and place themselves in dire jeopardy with obviously nasty things lurking around dark corners, but they don't possess any of that raw menace that he usually invests them with. Like Inferno, the lead character must worm through a hole in the floor to enter another hidden and decidedly hellish realm, but there is less grandeur to the odyssey, less bewitching wonder to these visual explorations. A taut window-ledge walk even recalls David Hemmings' precarious discoveries in Deep Red, but Argento then fluffs the Hitchcock-like jeopardy that ensues and creates a rather embarrassing cliffhanger. In his favour, he uses the landscape to much better effect. In a very 80's style, he has the trees under-lit, and this looks great, if a touch obvious. The Alpine meadows that lead up to a rather sinister house are gorgeous, as is the waterfall not too far away, which is aided by sumptuous steadicam photography from the ever-fluid lens of Albani. The little village that Jennifer finds herself in after a somnambulist trance is a wonderful mix of the traditional and the new. The film simply feels more alive when it is out of doors. Like Inferno, again, Argento takes us for a plunge underwater … replete with unsavoury resident – only this time he adds a sheet of fire across the surface. It is an unusual action scene for him, and not one that is entirely successful, but it is the thought that counts.

    But where coherence didn't matter so much in some of his previous works, it is more noticeable here because the story is that bit more linear. Therefore, when we have the usual situations that don't pan out properly, and the lacklustre climaxes to various set-pieces – two of the murders are so lacking in pay-off that you just can't believe the same guy responsible for the double-killing at the start of Suspiria was also wielding the murder weapons here – and the now ubiquitous red-herring shenanigans that lead you down the garden path, they just seem laborious and half-baked. The big reveal may be off-the-wall, but even non-Argentophiles are sure to suss out who the real culprit is well in advance. The director even steals, very shamefully, from one of the genre's greatest ever shock moments – a pivotal and utterly spine-tingling stinger from Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now – but orchestrates it with considerably less aplomb. Perhaps it seems uncharacteristically lame for the man whose knee-jerk horror imagery has become an art-form because he knows it is nothing more than a lift from someone else's work.

    The gore is extremely poor too, both in its quantity and quality. His trademark shot of a victim's head crashing through a window has been given a spectacular upgrade – it now occurs in supposedly shocking slow-motion – but to see the broken shards of what is patently sugar-glass bouncing harmlessly off her face lessens the effect considerably. A subsequent decapitation occurs off-screen, with the head then tossed down into a cascading waterfall, which is actually a wonderful touch. But when even this showboating act of bodily dismemberment is massively upstaged by the likes of William Sach's guilty pleasure of The Incredible Melting Man, in which a torn-off bonce, designed by Rick Baker, bobs about down a river and then breaks apart, in a gleefully sick slow close-up, on the rocks at the base of another waterfall, the grand auteur of physical annihilation comes up very short indeed. Sergio Stivaletti, a cult favourite make-up FX wiz, has built his reputation on largely joke-store prosthetics. Don't get me wrong – I love his work on Demons and Wax Mask (which he also directed), films in which his sheer infatuation for the messy stuff really sizzles - but his stuff in Phenomena is very obviously phony and his attempts to disguise this by draping them with gobbets of blood, to wit a face and neck being lacerated by a cut-throat razor, are just as unsuccessful. One of the elements that Argento surely intended to have us gasping with fear and revulsion at is also nothing more than a pretty wretched prosthetic mask.

    Yet, beyond this, some of the imagery is pretty powerful. An impromptu bath with a pool full of mashed noggins makes a similar sequence in Poltergeist look positively hygienic. The swarms of insects that Jennifer learns she can summon at will looks like a dodgy old computer-generated effect – and are actually an awful optical of superimposed coffee-grounds floating in water - but was still a nice idea, especially when they descend upon the school and smother the place like an oozing black carpet. The sudden discovery of a victim chained to a wall, and incessant screaming that accompanies the scene, is a real jolter … as is the sight of manacled hands breaking during a frantic escape attempt. And the sight of Connelly, during her eventful first sleepwalk, in the middle of a street with cars really swerving all around her, is still quite heart-stopping. Argento likes to show women in peril, of course, but he is also pretty good at showing them in the throes of epic homicidal fits as well … and Phenomena doesn't let the side down in this respect either, with one character erupting into full-on Suspira death-witch mode.

    But Argento's handling of all this is schizophrenic. There is nothing wrong with having so many crazy ideas and hurling them all into the same pot, not in theory, anyway. But they've got to gel on some level. Too many strands fail to reach a logical or rewarding conclusion. It is perfectly acceptable to have Jessica Harper wander around filter-lit corridors for ninety minutes in Suspiria, and only enjoy a handful of pretty random murders in Inferno, but they were “dream-movies” that existed in their own warped limbo-land. We knew that and accepted it. Phenomena wants to tell a distinct story, but it is not of the twisted fable sort, so the semi-surreal approach taken to depict Jennifer's experiences actually works against the film. This dislocation was something that Argento would explore further in The Stendahl Syndrome, and even if that was a risible and quite offensive film in its own right, that was an area in which he certainly seemed to improve. But this “left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing” approach wanders over into the musical side of things too. Everyone remembers Phenomena as being the film in which Argento really indulged his love for heavy rock music, with the likes of Iron Maiden and Motorhead getting to scream and thrash over a few of the more frenetic sequences, as well as a couple that totally didn't warrant it, but although Argento has always made terrific use of Prog-Rock before this, such as with Goblin and Keith Emerson, the songs totally go against the grain and the tone of this movie. And what hurts all the more is that the “proper” film score, from Goblin's Claudio Simonetti and Simon Boswell, is actually very good. I mentioned John Carpenter earlier with regards to the main theme, and his moody 80's influence is definitely apparent, as are the dense synth tones of Tangerine Dream. Together with the lighting, and the rather crass T-shirts and dialogue of the girls in the school (the Bee Gees and Richard Gere!), and some music video-esque hallucinations, Phenomena becomes one of Argento's most immediately dated films. Simonetti, it should be said, does mess one bit up quite catastrophically. As Jennifer makes contact with a gently floating firefly that then leads her through the trees towards a vital clue, the beautifully ethereal female soprano voice and synth cadence then erupts into a woefully inappropriate cacophony that utterly ruins what was shaping up to be quite an atmospheric scene of the girl awakening to her powers.

    In previous films, Argento used animals either in despicable ways, or in simply cruel ones. With Phenomena he seems determined to reset the balance. With a surprising amount of charm afforded the multitude of bugs – we even get to see two leaf-munchers conversing about that nice girl, Jennifer, that they've just met – and the great sensitivity with which he depicts the relationship between MacGregor and his wee chimp, called Inga, Argento is almost purging himself of former crimes. The chimp was apparently very difficult to work with – and very dangerous, too – but Argento is able to coax out a tender and sympathetic character that you really feel for. The scene when it tries desperately to help its master is actually one of the best in the film, and Tanga, who plays her, easily gives one of the better performances, probably inspiring George Romero's simian psychological foray with 1988's Monkey Shines.

    So, at the end of the day, it is still great to see Phenomena again, and especially so on Blu-ray, but this is not a good film, even by the decidedly Marmite style that Argento tends to endorse. Neither scary, nor gory enough for his fans, the mystery, alone, is left to carry the atmospheric can – which it only just about manages to do. The annoying thing, as viewing it now for this review so amply demonstrates to me, is that Argento had some great concepts at the foundation of Phenomena, but he was allowing his creative energy to be diverted by the films that were getting made around him, his imagination becoming clouded with the desire to imitate rather than to initiate. He was mixing giallo with fantasy, and lashing on the visual style, but in his search for the original he became too derivative. Connelly really can't be blamed, but dear old Donald really should have known better, his name in the credits bringing the film and Argento some kudos that, at this stage, neither really deserved.

    Phenomena certainly has its fans, and this full edition still has plenty of Argento trademarks … it just lacks bite.