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31 Days of Gialloween: Phenomena (1985)

The beginning of Dario Argento’s 1985 film Phenomena is absolutely beautiful, a quality that does not diminish with the quick onset of cinematic violence. Perhaps fifteen years into the director’s career some spectators began to get tired of auteur-ish repetition, but if so, they would have been pleasantly surprised at what this film delivers. We are placed in the windy and crisp Swiss Alps with a young woman seeming to be left behind on a field trip. Soon she approaches a solitary home where something big and menacing strains the chains holding it back. This aggressor may not be human. By the time our faux-protagonist’s head is smashing backwards into a pane of glass in slow motion, the natural beauty of waterfalls all around, it might be worth asking “what the hell are we watching?”  While highly unique, this is definitely a film by Dario Argento.

In a genre that was essentially dying by the mid-1980’s, Phenomena delivered something fresh. Indeed, I didn’t even really consider it a giallo on first viewing, but just some bizarre new territory for such a talented filmmaker to venture into. Gialli actively play against supernatural plot devices, although the giallo fantastico is an identifiable sub-sub-genre, mostly dealing with the occult. Films like All the Colors of the Dark (1971), Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)–they all have moments where they seem fantastic. However, their sublime nature and unexplainable moments do end up being practically justified in each story. Phenomena, on the other hand, just doesn’t give a fuck. And if folks out there disagree with calling it a giallo, Phenomena could care less. Yes, our strong and plucky young protagonist Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is a psychic who particularly has a knack for communicating with insects, something she does with self-defensive gusto and entomological adoration.

In addition to psychic power, and insect swarms what else does Phenomena have? We’ve got post-Halloween Donald Pleasence. He’s got a pet chimp named Inga who he’s trained with a laser pointer. For those who can’t get enough of the creepy girls dance academy in Suspiria (1977), don’t see the new remake. See Phenomena, which conveniently takes place in the Richard Wagner Boarding School For Girls, which also has that Suspiria fairytale kind of vibe. For a setting like this and a decade like the 1980’s, it is quite surprising that the filmmaker didn’t take advantage of the opportunity for elongated group shower scenes or something–but no. Dario Argento is a gentleman. He is a gentleman who thinks it is a good idea to put jarring songs by Iron Maiden and Motorhead in this thriller about an insect-controlling girl. The rock’n’roll mood clashes a bit with the operatic, drum-machine-driven, prog rock scoring by Bill Wyman and Claudio Simonetti, but somehow the film still works. Other things Phenomena has to offer is Daria Nicolodi in a supporting role, somnambulism, and a storm of flies.

Just when it makes sense to suspect the film is not a giallo, enter a crazed killer who stalks young women in the area, brutally murdering them. This is a bit atypical considering the more rural and rustic setting, not unlike Don’t Torture a Duckling or A Quiet Place in the Country (1968). There are few films in which the identity of the killer could matter less. Phenomena doesn’t even really give us a lot of suspects. The chimp? Wheelchair ridden Donald Pleasence? Most likely not. It is as if the slasher plot is the macguffin to tell story of a young girl becoming an adult. Phenomena is odd, quirky, but in all the best ways.

If you loved the science fiction flourish of Four Flies on Gray Velvet (1971)–in which the last thing a person sees is ingrained in their retinas, allowing for investigators to reveal murderers, then the free and thoughtful nature of Phenomena will also deliver. At one point Pleasence’s character John McGregor casually says in passing that “it is perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic.” If you say so, professor. Suspending our disbelief and going along with what the man says is in the spactators’ best interests, as thinking too much about this elaborate set up would ruin the fun. Soon enough, we are trailing Jennifer in the hunt for the killer, essentially with the help of The Great Sarcophagus, the hauntingly named insect that is so telepathic and into eating the flesh of dead corpses, that a bloodhound could do no better.

Jennifer is the continuation of Suzy Bannion from Suspiria, a capable young woman sent to a school she doesn’t want to be at, only to find out the administration plots against her. There is an added layer of complexity in Phenomena in which her academic captors are also suppressing her for fear of her psychic power. They are not just trying to hold a good woman down, but one who has an unusual gift. Her classmates make fun of her and her insect affinity in a similar way that they accost Suzy as being sssnake-like. It is all a bunch of juvenile nonsense, but all of this aggression, from adults and her counterparts, culminate in her finding comfort in Inga the chimpanzee, a compassionate and loyal animal. Jennifer exists for all viewers who may have thought at some point that all of humanity is against them. In this sense, Phenomena is goth as hell. These displays of adept female characters continues in Argento’s next film Opera (1987), which Samm Deighan covered for Gialloween yesterday.

*Spoiler Alert* In the end, it doesn’t really matter who the killer is in Phenomena. What matters is an over the top motor boat chase, which wasn’t out done on screen until John Woo’s immortal action classic Face/Off (1997). 1985 also happened to be the year that Argento produced Lamberto Bava’s evil zombie picture Demons in which a helicopter drops out of nowhere near the end of the film. While the films he directed in the 1970s are near perfect, 80s excess began showing itself to varying degrees, which in retrospect was occasionally bonkers and fun, occasionally ridiculous. By the 80s, Argento had already flown out of Gialloville, seeking higher destinations. He landed in some strange climates on a voyage that is not yet finished.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

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