Saturday, January 31, 2015

Back in Time - A 1985 Retrospective: Phenomena (Dario Argento)

Originally released in Italy a whole 30 years ago today, Phenomena is generally seen as one of Dario Argento's last great movies (his next film, Opera, being sometimes described as the beginning of the end). It doesn't seem to be as highly regarded as now canonical works such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspiria (and by extension, the more underrated Inferno) and Tenebre, where Argento was seen to be at the height of his powers. But for me personally, this film still feels very much like a director at his creative peak. Admittedly I am biased as this is my favourite Argento movie but I think it's with good reason, as I'll attempt to illustrate. 

Before we continue, I should also say to anyone who hasn't taken the plunge into this director's work or the wider weird and wonderful world of Italian horror cinema that this is arguably an ideal place to start... in fact, and as I heard someone suggest recently, probably more so than the more lauded Suspiria, which can be a hard sell for some people. And assuming not everyone reading this has seen Phenomena, I'll try my best not to spoil some of the wonderful surprises contained within...

Set in Switzerland, the film opens with a young girl (played by Dario's eldest daughter Fiore) left stranded by a country road, after missing her bus. As she walks off to find assistance, a jaw dropping crane shot begins, the camera climbing over tall trees as the credits roll. As it passes over the tops we see the girl heading towards an isolated house. The accompanying music, beautiful but icy and eerie, imbues the whole landscape with a sense of mystery and potential menace. When she reaches the house, this suggestion practically becomes a promise as we see chains attached to a wall being pulled violently, threatening to come loose. 

Needless to say (and this being the opening, it's not a spoiler), things don't end well for poor Vera Brandt. But about this introductory sequence I'll say no more as you really need to see it for yourself. For me, it's as audacious and spectacular an opening as any of Argento's best and gives a clear indication of the wild ride the viewer is in for.

Next we're introduced to one of the film's central characters, Professor John McGregor (played by genre legend Donald Pleasence), who is meeting with police (played by Patrick Bauchau and Argento protégé/future director Michele Soavi) to assist them in their search for a killer who is picking off local schoolgirls (including, presumably, Vera). He's an entomologist (i.e. an insect expert) and in this scene he deduces how long a body is dead based on the state of decomposition of a severed head. He's unfortunately disabled but has a loyal chimpanzee assistant named Inga (more on her later). 

In the next scene we finally meet our heroine, Jennifer Corvino, played by none other than future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly (who'd probably rather not talk about this film now, sadly) in her second film role and her first leading one. She's the daughter of a famous actor, headed to stay at a boarding school while her father makes a movie (and her mother having left them both) and we discover pretty much immediately that Jennifer is not your average teenage girl... she has a tremendous empathy towards insects and possesses an extraordinary rapport with them, which will lead her into her later adventures...

Arriving at the Richard Wagner School for Girls (as we're told by a narrator who then disappears for the rest of the movie... he was killed off too apparently), Jennifer attempts to settle in. Her roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni, niece of the great Marcello Mastroianni) is friendly but the teachers (and especially the headmistress, played by Dalila Di Lazzaro) are as chilly as the Swiss landscapes look. Furthermore, it isn't long before more schoolgirls end up meeting a grisly end at the hands of the killer.

After bumping into Inga while sleepwalking (something Jennifer does frequently, to the accompaniment of awesome pulsating synth music courtesy of Argento favourites, Goblin), she meets Professor McGregor, who obviously warms to her. He teaches her how to utilise her amazing ability to telepathically communicate with insects and the two team up to hunt down the killer.

Now I realise I've actually detailed quite a bit of the plot here but I don't think I've given anything away that will detract from the first time viewer's enjoyment... but I thought given the highly unusual premise, it'd be a good idea to give as clear an idea of the setup as possible. From there though, you're on your own. 

While this is a longish film (115 mins approx), and those unacclimatised to Argento's tendency to really wallow in the moment (which allows you to soak up the gorgeous cinematography, production design and music) may start to tune out a bit during certain sequences, I promise you, stick with this till the end and you won't be sorry. 

And as awesome as the opening is, it's probably fair to say it's the insane, epic ending which tips this to being my favourite Argento film and one of my favourite horror films ever... and as I've said before, depending which day you asked me, it could be my number one. For the record, today is one of those days, especially after pretty much living and breathing the film during the last day or so.

Seriously, if nothing else, if the opening and/or ending of Phenomena do absolutely nothing for you, then there's a good chance Italian horror won't be your bag at all. But if you dig this, then oh boy have you got a lot of future treats to look forward to!

I feel like I've discussed this film for a long time already but I'm not sure if I've communicated yet what makes it so damn special to me. I think what gives this the edge in my personal canon, not just as far as Argento is concerned but within Italian horror (and by proxy the genre in general) as a whole, is this is a movie where absolutely everything (well, perhaps bar the odd bit of misused music, though that itself is up for debate too) seems to come together (and I'm not saying it doesn't in others too of course). It's usually a given that an Italian horror film will be sublimely stylish (and this one is a case in point) but often at the expense of there being much going underneath (which is not always a bad thing of course). Not so here I'd say. I don't want to get into it all here as we risk spoilers by doing so but I'll say there's enough going on sub-textually to make this compelling to me on a level that transcends the purely aesthetic. Specifically, the film seems to explore the varying ways difference and disability might be treated by others and the results such treatment might potentially manifest. 

As a heroine, Jennifer is arguably one of Argento's strongest (next to say, Suspiria's Suzy Bannion, played by Jessica Harper). And as I might have said already, the story is without a doubt the most bizarrely unique not only in Argento's canon, but one of the strangest to be found within Italian horror as a whole, which is really saying something. 

The cast are all generally very good, especially Connelly, Pleasence and the always awesome Daria Nicolodi (who with Dario, brought Asia Argento into the world. Their relationship was starting to fall apart by the time of this film though I gather). The movie has some serious production values going for it as well, with kudos especially due to Romano Albani, who was cinematographer (this is a must buy on Blu-Ray if you love the movie by the way) and Sergio Stivaletti and Luigi Cozzi, who produced the special makeup effects and optical effects respectively. 

And the soundtrack is one of my favourites, featuring contributions from the likes of Goblin, Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor, Simon Boswell, Iron Maiden and Motorhead... and as alluded to earlier, whether the inclusion of the last two was a good idea or not is very much up for debate. For more on the music, see this post on my favourite Italian horror soundtracks (this is well out of date but Phenomena would definitely still be on this list if I re-wrote it now). 

I've kept y'all a long time already and we're nearly done now but before I let you go, here's a few tidbits of background and trivia...

The story, according to Argento, was inspired by his interest in forensics, which lead him to discover that insects have been used in murder investigations. As a side note, I should also say that the director has cited this as his personal favourite of his movies, something I'm obviously very happy to hear. 

I mentioned earlier that Jennifer Connelly doesn't talk about this film (at least as far as I'm aware anyway) and there could well be a good reason for that. She was supposedly reluctant to work with the chimpanzee (whose real name is Tanga) as it was and perhaps one could suggest the young lady was somewhat psychic herself as the monkey bit part of her finger off during the final scene! So you can understand why she might not have the fondest memories of the film. But to be fair to Tanga, I can't imagine the shoot was tremendously fun for her either and perhaps she'd just had enough that day. And while we're on the subject, I'd have to say she gives one of the most memorable monkey performances I've seen on film.

Finally, there was meant to be a sequel in the works, scheduled to go into production in 2001 but sadly this never came to fruition due to contractual reasons. I'd love to have seen that (or be able to read the script if there's one about) but in a way I'm sort of glad it didn't happen. I like Argento's latter day works more than most seem to but I'll be the first to concede that it probably wouldn't have been in the same league as the first film... for one thing, the money just wasn't about in Italian horror to make that kind of movie by 2001.

Needless to say though, I'm just thrilled that a film like Phenomena exists at all, with or without a sequel. I mean really, I have to pinch myself sometimes while watching just to remind myself it's actually real and I'm not dreaming. Containing many of the tropes and all of the audacious, inventive style Argento is known and loved for, I stand by my statement of saying this should sit proudly on the same pedestal occupied by the likes of Deep Red and Suspiria

I feel like I'm at the risk of overlooking or forgetting something, which I'm loath to do seeing how much I love this film, but I know I've taken up enough of your valuable time already. If you haven't seen it, give it a shot, and if you have, watch it again. I've seen it once this week already but given what today marks, I'll be watching it again tonight. 

And if you happen to ever meet any monkeys or insect friendly schoolgirls on your travels, for the love of God don't piss them off! The VHS cover below (for the UK release of the heavily cut U.S. version titled Creepers, which I've never seen... the completist in me says I probably will one day) should show you why.

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