Monday, September 19, 2011

Phenomena (1985)

Spoilers, if you haven’t seen it – don’t read this. But I do recommend you to watch the movie.

How to you write a review of a movie that has been dissected and analyzed thousands of times the last couple of years? I always wanted to avoid movies that has been written a lot about, but Phenomena is such a unique movie that I can’t stay away from it. Maybe it’s because of the wonderful new UK Blu-ray which made me see the movie in a new light, realizing that it’s probably Argento’s most coherent thriller – just masked as a chaotic and uneven supernatural giallo. William Fawcett, NerdoCulto on Twitter wrote something that I now can agree with: “has always reminded me more of a fantasy film than a horror film, but with more violence...” – and yes, it is – but it’s still one of the most original and bizarre giallos ever made.

I’m really not interested in writing about the story, but a killer is stalking schoolgirls in a small Swiss town and Jennifer Connelly, who can communicate with insects, befriends an old wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasence who has a monkey with a fondness for razors. And somewhere something or someone is chained to a wall, wanting to get out for more blood!

That’s all you need to know and believe me, in the end it will feel like the story comes together to a satisfying ending. Italian horror movies often are compared to dreams, at least those made by Fulci. But Argento, when he goes into supernatural territory often produces a very dreamlike state of filmmaking and Phenomena is the one movie that forever will feel like a dream to me. Just try to explain the story and it’s like fragments of what you dreamt last night: a scary child, a monkey, insects, a spooky school, big forests and deep valleys, slow-motion, heavy metal, dreams-within-a-dream… it’s almost like Argento wanted to go the Fulci-route, but it ended up with Fulci doing his own similar movie, the extremely uneven Aenigma (a movie with some flashes of brilliance). It’s still, in the end, a classic giallo but packed with so many weird ideas that it stands on its own easily.

I know it’s been debated over the years, but I think the use of metal/rock in the films of Argento is brilliant. It adds to the surrealism, to the off-beat genius of the thrills he’s creating. The oddest use of metal is in Phenomena, when Jennifer slowly is reaching into a thorn-filled bush trying to reach a glove belonging to the killer. The music is not there to build up tension, it’s there to create awesomeness. And that what makes Argento so damn cool.

Okey, this is something I will get shit for, but the hell with that. Argento can sometimes borrow stuff that he likes, for example the ending of Opera – which is totally copied from Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon from 1981. In Phenomena he borrows from a source that might be weird for those that don’t want Argento to be mixed up with lower forms of horror culture: Friday the 13th, yeah, the one where Mrs Voorhees runs amuck at a camp killing horny teenagers for fun. Why? Ok, let’s see: we have in both movies the crazy mother with a retarded and disfigured child, the latter living like an animal and the mother being very nice and polite until she’s pushed over the edge. In the end the final girl flees out to a lake, gets on a boat and gets attacked by the freaky monster-son. There’s also a final scene at the beach where in Friday the 13th the mother gets decapitated, but in Phenomena the character of Morris gets it the same way. This might seem like small details, but next time when you watch the ending you will notice the similarity. Actually, the ending could have been from a later Friday movie from the eighties. It’s both very cheesy and brilliant at the same time.

Except a few of the girls at the school the acting is nothing to complain about. Donald Pleasence is unusually low-key and Jennifer Connelly is excellent in the lead. I can’t see anyone else playing that part. Daria Nicolodi is good too, one of her best performances in an Argento movie. Talented Patrick Bauchau is wasted in a boring part. Keep your ears open and you will also hear Nick Alexander as the real estate agent and if you keep your EYES open you will see Michele Soavi in two parts, both as a cop and as the killer when Donald Pleasence bites the dust!

I’ve done it and now it’s time for you all to revaluate Phenomena as the horror classic it actually is. If you already done that; good, but I’m sure there’s many lost sheep out there in need of guidance and support in this matter…


Nigel M said...

I was unsure about Phenomena on first viewing but grew to love the film later. Wish I could reconise the flashes of brilliance in Aenigma though, I thought that one was pants.

Ninja Dixon said...

Let me quote my review of Aenigma:

"There's one stunning shot in Aenigma. The spirit/astralbody of the braindead girl is leaving her body, moves up through all the floors, out on the roofs, floats over a very cool miniature landscape and lands at the St Marys Boaring School. This is a vintage Fulci in the works, very atmospheric, orginal and with stunning visuals. It's a pity that the rest of the movie don't have that magic we love much."

There you have it, and it's a fantastic sequence.

Rich Flannagan said...

I've tried a few times with Phenomena, but fail miserably to get to the end every time.

Richard of DM said...

For many, many years, Phenomena was my favorite horror movie of all time. It's recently been replaced by The House by the Cemetery in the number one spot but I am still obsessed with Argento's very, very bizarre 1985 offering. Nice work on your review. The Friday the 13th and Red Dragon comparisons never even occurred to me but you've definitely got a point there.