To echo some of my statements from my review of Four Flies on Grey Velvet, I don’t know enough about Dario Argento as I probably should. In the past, I just watched Suspiria and pretty much called it a day.
I’ve been meaning to rectify that mistake and, following Four Flies on Grey Velvet, I went out and procured a copy of Anchor Bay’s Five Films by Dario Argento DVD set. All five films were his “giallo” efforts (Italian murder mystery suspense-thrillers) from various points spanning most of his post-Suspiria career. Of the five films, however, my primary interest was this flick called Phenomena, which I’ve heard scads of positive buzz about. Having finally seen it, well, all I can say is that it wasn’t even close to what I was expecting.
Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is the daughter of a popular actor who has been shipped off to a boarding school in Zurich while her dad works on his latest picture. Jennifer’s a bit strange, having a bizarre affinity for insects and the often-dangerous habit of walking in her sleep. While Jennifer tries to acclimate to her new environment, a serial killer has been on the loose in Zurich, slaughtering young women, chopping off their heads and stealing the bodies. After a sleepwalking incident, Jennifer crosses paths with an entomologist named Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) and his monkey assistant. He believes that Jennifer shares a psychic bond with insects and that her ability to communicate with cadaver-eating flies and maggots might be the secret to finding the dead bodies and the killer with them.
Does that plot summary sound kind of, I dunno, stupid to you? Maybe a little? Well, it sort of is, truth be told. Phenomena is a very unbalanced movie, not knowing whether it wants to be a proper reality-grounded giallo flick or a supernaturally-charged slasher flick. The end result is something of an uneven mess, as Donald Pleasance rambles on about legitimate scientific theories involving the use of insects in locating murder victims one minute, while Jennifer Connelly goes all Carrie on us, using psychic powers to summon massive swarms of flies to consume people she doesn’t like the next.
Oh, and the monkey saves the day. Sorry if I ruined that for you, but he totally does and it’s positively ridiculous.
But the unbalanced nature to Phenomena extends even into its atmosphere. Dario Argento, for reasons I can’t imagine, decided to implement heavy metal music at the most inappropriate moments throughout the film. Most of the flick sports the traditional dreamy, haunting melodies you’re used to from Argento flicks, with loud crashing sounds highlighting certain moments and building a weird sense of dread. Then, at the drop of a hat: Iron Maiden! Motorhead!
Don’t get me wrong, I like both of those bands. But this isn’t a flick like Demons, where kick-ass heavy metal enhances the action scenes. The use of the music is just out of nowhere and often doesn’t even fit the action we’re watching. In one scene, Iron Maiden blasts at the audience while Jennifer Connelly stands on a stool and tries to lift a telephone through the window above a locked door with a long stick. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
Phenomena is one-hundred and ten minutes long, and much of it is really, really dull. Nearly all of the film is from the perspective of Connelly’s character, so you don’t get as in-depth a “mystery” as some might like. There are inspector characters, but they hardly appear at all, save for the end, and their entire presence feels superfluous. Even Donald Pleasance doesn’t really get much to do beside roll around in a wheelchair and point a laser beam at his monkey assistant. Phenomena is all Jennifer Connelly all the time and, well, unless this movie is called Labyrinth, that kind of sucks. Yes, Connelly was very, very pretty, but she was also a very, very bad actress and her performance is as wooden and unconvincing as it gets. She’s like the female Hayden Christensen.
And, I’m sorry, but her character is an imbecile in this movie. As we build toward the climax, the villain becomes completely apparent to anyone half-awake, but not to Jennifer Connelly’s character. The villain flips out, takes her on a tour of their creepy house full of life-size child dolls and covered up mirrors, and yet when they violently demand Connelly take “a pill”, what does she do? She takes the pill. Then she realizes its poison, pukes it up, and then what does she do? She turns her back to the villain who she knows is right behind her and attempts to call someone on the phone, only to get black-jacked over the head. Yes, women in horror movies are supposed to be stupid, but Connelly’s character was really stretching it.
Going back to the murder mystery aspect of the film, well, there isn’t much of one. The villain turns out to be a character we’d seen earlier, but there were no clues that they were the culprit. On top of that, the killer’s motivation for doing what they did is just… a grand “what the fuck” moment if I ever saw one. Next to no build-up or hints toward the big reveal, just… mutant child chained up in a basement. Wha?
I suppose if Phenomena deserves any credit, it’s that the climax sports about half a dozen false conclusions. You know, where the hero defeats the last perceived threat and breathes a sigh of relief, only to suddenly be attacked by the same threat that’s not quite dead or a new one altogether that the audience had forgotten all about? Yeah? Well, Argento pulls that stunt about six times in a row. It’s a bit exhausting, but executed well. At least until the monkey saves the day at the end. God dammit.
Overall, Phenomena wasn’t the movie I was expecting. I wouldn’t call it bad, as (random heavy metal music aside) it still sports a lot of Argento’s inspired directorial techniques and some moments that are really, really good. It’s just very unbalanced, unfocused and extremely dull in the middle.