Tuesday, March 31, 2015

PHENOMENA

Dario Argento, 1985
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Donald Pleasance, Dalila Di Lazzaro

Jennifer, the lonely, teenaged daughter of a famous director, is sent to a Swiss boarding school for girls. She learns that young women have been attacked and murdered in the nearby hills. Jennifer accidentally puts herself into danger with her unpredictable sleepwalking habits, but she has a unique ability – a psychic connection with insects that protect and help her. Her only friend in the area is a scientist, forensic entomologist John McGregor, and the two try to figure out the identity of the murderer before Jennifer is the next victim.

Somewhat of a twist on his classic Suspiria, Dario Argento’s Phenomena is an utterly bizarre giallo film, complete with sci-fi trappings, dream logic, and sequences of gross-out violence. As in Suspiria, an isolated young woman travels to the forest of northern Europe (Germany in the former, Switzerland in Phenomena) and encounters a world made up mostly of other women. Both Suspiria’s Suzy and Phenomena’s Jennifer only makes one female friend, who is killed, and they are left with unfriendly peers and hostile authority figures. Suzy’s wine is drugged, she’s confined to the ballet school she’s attending, and she’s told that she’s ill. Between her non-conformist personality and bouts of sleepwalking, Jennifer’s icy headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro of Flesh for Frankenstein) forces her to submit to medical testing and is ready to have her shipped off to an insane asylum.

Both Suzy and Jennifer find refuge and wisdom in the form of an elderly scientist. In Suspiria, Suzy meets with a young psychologist (the great Udo Kier) and his older mentor (Rudolf Sch√ľndler of The Exorcist), who confirm her suspicions about the evil goings on in her ballet school and explain that the founder was believed to be a powerful witch. Professor McGregor (Donald Pleasence with an implausible Scottish accent) is far more of a father figure to Jennifer. He not only tests and explains her gift to her, but is the only person to believe in her extraordinary abilities. Science has a rather murky role in Argento’s films, namely Cat O’ Nine Tails ­– set in a research institute and concerning genetic research – and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, where the final reveal hinges on an absurd idea that the human eye captures the final image it sees before death. Science, or perhaps science fiction, is less troubled in Phenomena simply because the film does not ever attempt to stay grounded in rationality.

Instead, it is Argento’s most fantastical exploration of the natural world. The school for girls is set in the Swiss mountains, a place that simply feels like a fairytale forest. This is Argento’s most lush shoot – rivalled only by the conclusion of his following film, Opera, which is set in a similar location and involves another young girl abandoning herself to nature after surviving a terrible ordeal. Here Jennifer is linked to the natural world by more than just the setting – which includes hills, fields, forests, a lake, fire, and a cesspool of sewage/rotting corpses. She is deeply connected to it by her psychic link with all insects and by her changing body – she and the other girls are all 14, 15, or 16, in the midst of puberty and on the verge of sexual awakening. And while animals play a role on screen in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, and Tenebre, this is Argento’s first film with an actual animal star in the form of Inga the chimp.

This is also perhaps Argento’s only film to wander into the body horror territory so thoroughly explored by directors like David Cronenberg and Stuart Gordon. While Deep Red and Suspiria include some particularly graphic, effecting death scenes, many of these are stylish exercises in onscreen murder as art. In comparison, the murders of Phenomena are ugly, devoid of art deco set pieces and bold, primary-colored lighting. There is a gruesome decapitation where the victim’s head is tossed unceremoniously into the water, Jennifer vomits up pills in a lengthy sequence, and she crawls through dirt and, perhaps most memorably, falls into a brown slush of refuse and rotting flesh. Maggots squirm, flies pick a face and crowd the windows of Jennifer’s school when the girls pick on her, and a detective macerates his own thumb to get free of handcuffs.

SPOILERS. The film’s sense of the grotesque and of sexual hysteria is compounded by its complex examination of parenthood. While many of Argento’s films have troubled parent-child relationships, such as Deep Red and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and characters with teenage/young adult trauma, like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Tenebre, Phenomena’s violence revolves around painful family relationships. Jennifer’s mother abandoned the family and her father is absent due to his work. The killer, a young boy with a disfiguring disorder that makes him look monstrous and fear mirrors, is the product of his mother’s rape. He slaughters young women and his mother (Daria Nicolodi, the mother of Argento’s daughter Asia, whom he would split with that year) kills to protect him. She is the film’s most horrible figure, akin to the monstrous hysteria of the two witches in Suspiria and Inferno, and is the culmination of female violence present in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red.

Phenomena is one of Argento’s most difficult films, but is also among his most unique. It will likely frustrated unprepared horror fans expecting a straightforward giallo, but this film is a strange blend of fantasy, science fiction, dream logic, and the grotesque. It’s available uncut on Blu-ray (avoid a censored American version titled Creepers) and comes recommended for more adventurous viewers, anyone who wants to see Argento at his strangest, and all fans of the young Jennifer Connelly. I honestly wish Argento had made the time to further explore her relationship with insects, something that is unfortunately overshadowed by the serial murder plot.

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