Phenomena (1985)

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Phenomena (1985)

Directed by: Dario Argento

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicoldi, Donald Pleasance

Rated: R

Running Time: 1 h 56 m

TMM Score: 4 stars out of 5

STRENGTHS: Direction, Style, Practical Effects, Weird Story, Some Acting

WEAKNESSES: A Bit Farfetched at Points, Some Acting, Some Writing

Summary

A young girl who is both a psychic with a strong connection to insects and the daughter of a famous actor is sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, where her unusual abilities may help her to solve a string of gruesome murders. 

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My Thoughts

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I’ve come to expect the bizarre from Argento; he’s a director that seldom cares about the rules of reality. He’s most famous for his giallo films- an Italian version of a cheap slasher that usually weaves in elements of the supernatural where the kills are usually long and drawn out, the ways in which people die are often ridiculous, and the stories, often times, feel like they’ve come from $3 penny dreadfuls. While I personally absolutely love Argento’s work, he’s a director that I can’t say has made very many great films (perhaps Suspiria and Deep Red are his only two real masterpieces), but he’s made films that are incredibly entertaining, and if you’ve got a predilection for horror films, he might be right up your alley as he is mine. This film isn’t one of Argento’s best ones, but this movie, like all of his movies, certainly has scenes that are spellbinding and intriguing. It has moments that will make any horror fan cheer, and it also has a few moments that made me laugh out of sheer disbelief. This is one film where Argento seems to not give the slightest care in the world about reality, and that’s all right. I was perfectly happy to enjoy this ride. 

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 “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic.”

So I suppose the premise is what makes this movie a little bit more ridiculous than others. Argento loves to use psychics in his movies- probably half the entries I’ve seen have at least one character that has some sort of supernatural power, even if it isn’t as dramatic as the power that our protagonist, Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly, Labyrinth) possesses. In this film, Jennifer has a special connection with insects- she says she always has- that insects will never sting her if she touches them. Jennifer is the daughter of a famous movie star, and she’s sent to a fancy boarding school in Switzerland run by Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi, Deep Red). There, her relationship with insects might become useful, as there have been a string of murders in the area surrounding her school. She eventually meets a paralyzed entomology professor named John McGregor (Donald Pleasence, Halloween) who gives her a Great Sarcophagus fly, an insect that can smell rotting flesh from miles away. (Did I mention that McGregor’s assistant is a trained chimp? That’s how little Argento cares about reality in this film.) Together with her new bug pal, Jennifer must solve the string of murders before it’s too late. 

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There are scenes that certainly make this movie worth watching, and as I’m a huge Argento fan, this is absolutely a movie I’ll end up revisiting. However, for uninitiated Argento watchers, this is not a film I would start with (start with Deep Red- Deep Red is amazing)- you’ll think Argento is stupid and never watch him again. You’ve got to ease yourself into Argento to really appreciate him, at least in my opinion. One of my favorite scenes of the movie was actually the first scene (and also the first kill). Argento’s cinematography has always been sort of uneven- there are scenes that look amazing, and other scenes that look like they shot them in twenty minutes. The opening scene of this movie has an incredible location, and it’s made even better by its beautiful cinematography. The first murder is also pretty brutal, so it sets the tone for the film right away. Once we meet Jennifer, there are a few scenes with her sleepwalking, and all of those scenes were shot really well too. There are lots of references to his other films throughout this movie as well. Argento likes to kill his victims and have them fall through glass, and that happens in this movie as well. Overall, the reason I keep coming back to Argento’s films are the little flourishes of brilliance and uniqueness that no one else really has.

As far as acting goes, Jennifer Connelly does a fine job. This film came out only one year before Labyrinth, and this was her first leading role (she had previously been in Sergio Leone’s Mobster Epic, Once Upon a Time in America- but only in a minor role).  This might have been the film prompted Connelly’s rise to fame, because even though the film itself is rather ridiculous, Connelly holds her own against everyone else on screen- easily out acting Argento’s romantic partner at the time, Daria Nicolodi. Argento’s daughter (Fiore Argento, Demons) is pretty darn awful actually; I’d say she might be one of the worst actresses I’ve seen in an Argento movie, and that’s saying something.

Verdict:

Overall, this movie is good. There’s nothing that makes it stick out in my mind so much that I need to run out and tell everyone about it, but it’s a film I’m sure I’ll watch again when I’m in want of some cheap thrills. As I mentioned, this is a touch more farfetched than some of Argento’s other work, so I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you’ve never seen one of his movies before. This movie is fun and harmless, but it fails to really grab me as much as some other thrillers from the Giallo genius. I would give this an enthusiastic recommendation for this movie to huge fans of horror, Connelly, or Argento; I would give this a tepid recommendation for those who are tepid about horror or Argento. As a closing note, I’d like to mention that the band Goblin did the soundtrack for this film (they also famously did the eerie soundtrack for Suspiria)- I did not think the soundtrack for this film worked nigh as well as their soundtrack for Suspiria; but that’s just me. 

If you liked this film, check out our Dario Argento Spotlight!

FULL DISCLOSURE: When I originally wrote this review I gave the film a 3.5/5 star rating, but in coming back to it a second time, I found that I enjoyed its schlocky goodness too much to give it that middling of a rating (monkey butlers and psychic flies? I’m still not giving this movie enough credit). 4/5 Star is TMM’s revised rating.

This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!

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Review Written By:

Seth Steele