Master of Italian cinema Dario Argento has had a slew of hits and cult favorites in his long career. Heís most known for his gialli Deep Red and Tenebre, as well as the hallucinatory beauty of Suspiria. Here, with Phenomena, Dario mixes a giallo with the eerie horror of supernatural gifts. While The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red were mixtures of thriller and horror intertwined, this 1985 classic is a ghastly fright night all the way. He brings beauty to the world of insects, sticks to his mystery roots, and sets it around a Swiss boarding school. Phenomena manages to horrify without throwing up over-the-top gore as with his most memorable outings. Still, itís a graphic movie, and one of his darkest. Is this terror another brilliant effort from Argento? And can it rival his previously mentioned wonders?
Young Danish tourist Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento) misses her tour bus in the middle of nowhere. She enters a nearby house, hoping to find somebody to help her out, but she is chased by a figure with a pair of scissors and decapitated. Eight and a half months later, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) flies over to Switzerland from the US to attend an all girls boarding school while her famous father Paul Corvino is in the Philippines. Sheís an average teenager who is just trying to make friends with schoolgirl Sophie (Federica Mastroianni). The headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro) and Frau BrŁckner (Daria Nicolodi) are a pain, but easy to deal with. Whatís out of the ordinary is the fact that Jennifer can communicate with insects. She loves them. I guess sheís not so ordinary after all. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks out of the school and subconsciously witnesses the brutal murder of Gisela Sulzer (Fiorenza Tessari). When she snaps out of it, she comes face to face with Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), and learns that she can use her power to solve the identity of the murderer. But she could never have suspected such a surprise when all is unraveled from this weird but highly exciting Phenomena.
Once again, here we have an excellent electric scoring, this time with a tense invigorating guitar soundtrack. The music chosen for the forest scenes is almost too perfect, as it brings out the calmness, but somewhere in the sound, thereís a feeling of lonesomeness. You believe that nobody but Vera is around the countryside. Of course, going in, you know something is there, but the presence is remarkable. It brings me back to a time when I was innocent and six years old, unable to defend myself. The whole film is disturbing, but you crave more. The other music choices, such as the main theme, is dabbed with delicate electronic pricks and angel-like voices calling out. Along with Inferno and Deep Red to name a couple, the sound of Phenomena is phenomenal and one of the best scores Iíve ever witnessed. Hereís an example of using the modern sprinkles (for 1985 at least) of an electric guitar solo in a way thatís new, but works just as well as the old.
Seeing Donald Pleasence light up the screen again is wonderful. Heís perfectly cast as the intelligent professor whose kind enough to let Jennifer into his house after his pet chimp finds her. Heís gentle and loves insects just as much as Corvino does. He can tell the time of death on a corpse eight and a half months old just by looking at the growth of the insects. Jennifer is not the best when it comes to speaking parts. When she and fellow actress Federica Mastroianni have a conversation, the acting seems pure but flawed. Still, everyone is utterly believable. The schoolgirls at the boarding school are cruel bitches, as is the headmistress. They read Jenniferís personal letters which explain the insect communication blessing Corvino has. The girls tease poor Jen, making buzzing sounds and claiming to be spiders. Poor Jennifer faints, waking up later in a bed. The headmistress wants to send her to a mental hospital. What a monster! Itís no shock when Corvino escapes the school and returns to John McGregor.
No woman is safe in this film. Hell, even some men fall victim to the neurotic blade handler. Jenniferís only school buddy Sophie is the prey one night. With Corvinoís few friends quickly dying off, sheíll find out that only she can stop the madness. Though, I suppose sheís not completely friendless. All the insects love her, and whether itís by using them as a compass, following a firefly to a clue, or a last resort on the offensive, sheíll always have someone. Phenomena is remarkably unique and a joy to watch. Itís not just another giallo. Itís an experience. We have two worlds colliding. The killer story meets a girl with an incredible power, one that demands your undivided attention. What makes this evildoer different than many other movie killers is the aura of insanity and cruelty that follows them. The murderer chops off a fourteen-year-oldís head and sends it bobbing down a waterfall. Another is stabbed through the back of the head, releasing a sharp blade through her mouth. Body parts are kept hidden throughout atmospheric buildings, and the person behind the weapon is practically a dark entity what with all of the terrible ideas being practised on the people of this small area in Switzerland.
Phenomena is pretty gross and gory but is just under the level of a mega spotlight for goopy red effects. Stabbings with scissors and knives are juicy enough, and even the off screen kill is frightening. An onscreen decapitation near the featureís end is not a shocker to an audience who has lived through many surprise kills in horror films, but itís startling to know that the terror isnít over yet. You feel bad for the girls at the boarding school, because although they are indeed turkeys to Jennifer, they are surrounded by a killer who...well, wants them dead. But who? And why? Youíll have to watch to find out. The finale is worth runtime of well over one hundred minutes, as itís drawn out for about twenty-five minutes. Donít you just hate when youíve watched an excellent movie, and then you come to the lackluster ending which, although good, does not give enough justice to the footage shot before? Well thereís certainly enough here, and it flows through mini events with Jennifer smoothly. Sheís drugged, sheís trapped, she attempts to find a way out by phone, discovers a gruesome torture chamber, a pool of sick and horrific ingredients, and so much more. Body horror also makes an appearance as another monster attacks Jennifer, only this time, it really is a monster. Short, but deformed, itís a lead up to one of Argentoís finest moments in his movie history.
With a finale that doesnít hold back, Phenomena is the adventure that Iíve been waiting to see for quite some time. Jennifer canít get a break, but lucky for her, McGregorís monkey comes to help her out. But will he be enough? As Iíve said, watch to find out. Itís no secret by now to the readers of this review that I absolutely love this film. Itís beautiful, itís dark, itís true horror! Whether or not it measures up to other Dario favorites is up to the viewerís distinct opinion. Though Iím not scared of horror movies, Phenomena is definitely one of the creepiest Swiss tours Iíve ever been on. Pleasence and Nicolodi are fantastic, although I wish Daria was in the entire first half more. She makes up for it in the second part, but I found it to be wasted talent. This classic feast of an insane giallo can be found on DVD by Anchor Bay on a separate release, but I watched the disc that came in the ď5 Films by Dario ArgentoĒ collection released in 2008. The audio comes in clearly detailed and the picture has been freshened up in color from the previous release in 2000. It comes with the directorís other movies like Tenebre, Trauma, The Card Player, and Do You Like Hitchcock?. On Phenomenaís disc we have a director and crew audio commentary, a Phenomena focused featurette, a macrophotography featurette, an interview from 1985 with Dario Argento on The Joe Franklin Show, an international trailer, a Dario Argento bio and two music videos featuring music from Phenomena. I was on the fence with how to recommend this film, but it has left such an impression on me that I can honestly say that this here is a must see masterpiece. Thereís no doubt in my mind. Phenomena is one of the creepiest and best of Argentoís directorial catalogue. Essential!