Phenomenon has always been to a certain extent, been the odd man out of the Dario Argento films (you know before the coconut accident). A big American star, a PG rating. A plot about a girl who psychicly controls bugs and uses them to solve a murder that even by Argento standards is “fairly nutty.”
Yet despite all of the above being entirely accurate I was surprised by just how well Phenomenon fit into his oeuvre. Like Suspiria before it, Phenomenon is essentially a fairy tale (I mean it begins with a young girl entering a black forest woods and approaching a house that may as well be made of ginger bread). Despite the fact that it heavily features a chimpanzee with a distended ass that refuses to get any less distracting no matter how many times you see it (said Chimpanzee may or may not have bit off Jennifer Connelly’s finger during filming).
Phenomenon stars Jennifer Connelly as the daughter of a movie star sent to a European boarding school. She is also a sleepwalker/psychic/bug wrangler. Because you know, Argento. Unfortunately, said boarding school is the site of several gruesome murders (
How this movie
got a PG is beyond me. The woman next to me spent the film actually moaning in
revulsion. Ah by cutting thirty minutes out of its initial US release never
mind) and Connelly is compelled to solve them, with the help of her insect
friends. Although her fellow students are so bitchy one has to wonder why she
bothers. She’s joined in her hunt by Donald Pleasance, a kindly old paralyzed
etymologist, who cheerfully sends Connelly off on her own to go hunt a serial
killer in what is perhaps not the most believeable moment in cinema history.
But then again when seen through the prism of fairy tale logic it works much
This leads to several trademark awesome Argento, “Brian DePalma off his meds” set pieces and imagery. Still in command of his talents they are masterpieces of suspense and style. You can start to see the cracks around the edges that would widen into chasms in his post Opera career. While Argento is able to sell most of his truly lunatic concepts, there are a few that slip through the cracks, culminating with a shot of a Chimpanzee with a distended ass, wielding a straight razor walking into the woods, seeking revenge. This is not an image the movies have given to us prior to Phenomenon.
The film also features Argento’s trademark- er let’s just say lax, dubbed dialogue (sample: “He just stays up in his room alone with his crazy thoughts”) and Goblin music score. Actually Goblin shares scoring duty with the likes of Iron Maiden and Motorhead, which would normally be pretty great, but in this case just illustrates how much Argento’s films lost when they ceased to be scored by Goblin. The disjointed score kind of sums up Phenomenon on the whole. Fascinating but disjointed. Sadly one must face the fact that this is the film where Argento’s grip first began to slip. He recovers and sticks the ending with a last fifteen minutes as crazy and wonderful as anything in the oeuvre. But that can’t change the fact that at least for awhile it looked as if Argento had no clue what he was doing.