“As a young boy chasing Dragons
With your wooden sword so mighty,
You’re St. George or you’re David and you always killed the beast”
- “Flash of the Blade” by Ironmaiden (from the Phenomena soundtrack)
A lot of horror films end up having a decidedly slow quality to them. Sometimes there’s enough atmosphere to sustain interest and build tension and heighten the tone as the film creeps along, and sometimes there’s not. Sometimes a horror movie works better because of the slow build, like The Shining. Sometimes that’s absolutely not necessary and a film will rely more on increasing a series of events, like Poltergeist or The Thing.
The 1985 horror film Phenomena was directed by Dario Argento. Argento is the talented director behind the fantastic horror film Suspiria. He’s perhaps best known for being one of the fore figures in the giallo genre – giallo being the Italian genre of serial killer film that was filtered and eventually turned into the American slasher genre. Phenomena, while having plenty of giallo trappings, has a definite fantastical/flimsily science fiction/fairy tale quality to it as well. It stars a very young Jennifer Connelly in her second role ever.
I really liked this movie, but I could easily see how its slow burn would turn a ton of people off. It opens pretty strong, but it definitely slackens a little. The first scene is this great murder, though maybe not as great as Suspiria’s opening murder, which is incredible. Immediately following that is a scene that introduces Donald Pleasance’s character, a wheelchair bound, softly spoken, Scottish etymologist. He’s helped by a chimpanzee, guide-dog style. He’s involved in the hunt for the killer behind the first murder, who has apparently killed again. He uses his etymology skills to identify how long people have been dead by the insect life in their decomposing bodies.
After a strong, compelling opening, we meet Jennifer Connelly’s character. Stuff still happens during this portion of the movie, it’s just that more often than not it feels like the volume has been turned down a bit. Jennifer Connelly plays Jennifer, the daughter of a rich actor who’s been shipped off to Swedish boarding school. Her first night at the school she sleepwalks, witnessing one of the murders during her sleep. She ends up getting lost in the woods and finds Donald Pleasance’s house. They bond over a shared love of bugs and Donald invites her to visit again.
Jennifer then sleepwalks again. In her sleep she follows a firefly to a glove covered in maggots. She takes the glove to the etymologist, John McGregor, who identifies the larvae as belonging to the sarcophagus fly, which only lives on dead bodies. Jennifer explains that she believes the firefly deliberately led her to the glove. After some scientific babble it is decided that Jennifer Connelly has a psychic bond with bugs. That is undeniably interesting and entertaining. Giving Jennifer these magic powers really adds to the film’s fairy tale vibe and generates some good sources of strife.
Specifically strife of the X-Men variety, where Jennifer’s gift also makes her a social outcast. The rest of the movie is fantastically wonderful, but it’s literally the frightening and insane last twenty minutes of the movie that sort of retroactively justify the whole thing. I both really want to discuss it and really don’t want to spoil it. So the next paragraph is SPOILER ridden.
First off, McGregor gets murdered by a mysterious coated figure. Jennifer Connelly eventually ends up in the house of one of the teachers from the school, who is meant to be getting her a plane ticket home. Instead she tries to force Connelly to take a mysterious pill, which Jennifer spits back up. The Teacher then goes outside and attacks a police detective we’ve seen investigating the murders throughout the movie. Jennifer tries to get to a phone in the now locked house and ends up in the basement, alongside a captured police officer who is chained to the wall. She tumbles into a cesspool of rotting bodies and maggots as the Teacher returns, cackling and menacing her. The cop breaks free and overpowers her, letting Jennifer escape. Jennifer runs down the hall and finds the Teacher’s child. He’s horribly deformed, not to mention the real murderer. Turns out the Teacher’s murders were only to protect her teenage-girl-killing son. There’s an exploding motorboat, swarms of killer insects, surprise decapitations, and a vengeful chimp all in the last, say ten minutes of film. Which is amazing.
SPOILERS ARE FINISHED
This is one of my first Halloween binge films that really deserved having its twist and turns protected. They’re just so manic and delightful it’s really worth experiencing yourself. It’s also by far the most frightening part of the film. It’s sorta brilliant in fact. If the rest of the movie felt like the volume was turned down, this part feels cranked. Like Dario Argento is a firm believer in the Pixies’ quiet-loud-quiet formula. It totally makes the last portion of the film so much more dramatic.
A lot of what’s truly great about this movie just comes with Dario Argento’s involvement. They’re almost givens, but still worth pointing out. For one the cinematography is utterly opulent and wonderful, enhancing each and every scene by spades. Also great – the soundtrack! Frequent Argento collaborators Goblin do a lot of the heavy lifting in Phenomena, and their work is almost always stellar. I already adored the soundtracks from their past Argento collaborations, Suspiria and Profundo Rosso, and Phenomena has easily joined the list. There’s also a scattering of other metal songs, including the aforementioned Ironmaiden song, which serves as a recurring needle drop throughout the film.
Trust Argento to create one of the best films in my binge yet. Sure, parts of it might feel slow to some, but lots happens and it all pays off to the utmost degree. A fantastical, frightening, aureate movie. Definitely worth your time. It would make a great viewing Halloween night guys.
Up next: A classic I hadn’t seen before. Think something that rhymes with trilobites.