Argento once again returns to the supernatural as the basis for one of his more creepy movies ‘Phenomena’. The movie, rather predictably, has always been met with a mixed reception from fans, those most fond of his more traditional thriller (giallo) titles no doubt finding Argento’s use of almost fairy-tale fantasy somewhat contrived, and heavily contrasting with his shockingly feasible crime mystery masterpieces. For me, however, I have always been a fan of the director’s creativity, rather than expecting a new movie which would almost pay homage to his last, I prefer to simply critique each movie independent from his other work.
The plot follows the misunderstood ‘Jenifer’ who unwittingly becomes entangled in a murderers killing spree which takes place in and around her new boarding school campus. Whilst she is troubled with her own problems, a famous father who won’t give her the time of day, and a mother who walked out on her family on Christmas day (apparently an reflection of Argento’s own childhood), she also has a unique ability in that she can communicate psychically with insects. It isn’t long before she receives some harrowing visions of the killer’s deeds from her 6 legged friends and teams up with a local entomologist to find the truth. Typically this is yet another mystery, Argento style, but with a much heavier emphasis on atmosphere rather than a true-to-life investigation.
It is the atmosphere, enhanced by the unique flair of Argento’s direction, and of course supported by yet another Claudio Simonetti soundtrack which is the movies strength. Much of the techniques, namely the lighting and wind effects, are certainly reminiscent of the successful ‘Susperia’, and are once again put to great effect with wide open beautiful sets offering an ominous backdrop for some of the movies creepy night-time scenes. The murder scenes too make the impact they need. Heavily cut for its original theatrical release under the title ‘Creepers’ in the US, much of the violence, again filmed in giallo first person, offer stark contrast to the more dreamlike imagery I’ve already mentioned. The deaths aren’t as brutal as they were in ‘Tenebrae’ or Argento’s next instalment after this movie ‘Opera’, but they remind you that, despite the whole fantasy premise, this is still a true Argento movie.
The character ‘Jennifer’ (Jennifer Connelly) is perfectly suited to the role. She is innocent, sweet and plays such an unlikely role with conviction. Also stepping up to the mark is horror veteran Donald Pleasance who plays the disabled entomologist with his usual doom-and-gloom intensity. Sadly the same cannot be said with some of the other cast, which when coupled with dialogue/dubbing which is inconsistent a best, highlights all too well these are not big named actors. Sadly too the criticism doesn’t stop at the acting. The story, which starts off really strong gets a little bogged down in the mid-section. It isn’t so much that the pacing is bad, there is still plenty to catch your eye, but the story progress stalls and then right at the end there are some revelations which come a little out of the blue. I have already said this in one of my other reviews, but I am such a sucker for wanting to work out who the killer is, or their motive, by myself. I like having little clues to follow throughout the movie, not just one long exposition at the end. ‘Phenomena’ delivers such an ending, which, don’t get me wrong’ is truly one to remember, but it does feel somewhat disjointed; almost like the 20 minutes before it didn’t quite get the point across.
Overall, Argento is clearly a director who not only enjoys taking risks, but one who clearly sticks to his convictions. Despite a fairly modest budget, here he delivers a movie whose ambition occasionally exceeds capability. That said, and it’s true the ending is a little bit contrived, and yes, the widely criticised use out of place heavy metal tracks doesn’t help some scenes flow as well as they might have, but as usual with Argento the premise of the movie is very unique, and when all the pieces which make his movies so fantastic drop into place, there is so much to enjoy in ‘Phenomena’. If you enjoyed his other supernatural movies, namely ‘Susperia’ and ‘Inferno’ no doubt you will see this as another cannon in his arsenal.