Generally speaking, when I do a review for a film I’ve reviewed before, I at least watch the film again to see if I’d missed something the first time — even if Iend up largely reproducing the earlier review. Phenomena is a good case in point. While the original review (reproduced with some changes below) still seems to pretty much cover my feelings about the film, I was stunned that I had somehow never noticed how much the film…er…apprpriates from John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). While I am one of the few champions of Exorcist II, I cannot imagine anyone in his right mind deliberately evoking it. (This, of course, raises the question of whether Argento is in his right mind — something a look at his 2012 Dracula 3D will make seem even less likely.) But there it is all the same. Not only does Jennifer Connelly have special powers over insects — a la Linda Blair with the locusts in Boorman’s film — but she’s photographed similarly, and the music does its darndest to sound like Ennio Morricone’s Exorcist II score. Why? Well, that’s a question that hangs over most things about Phenomena.
Heavy-metal music blares from the sound track—sometimes for no very good reason. Jennifer Connelly gets telepathic with insects. A crazed killer prowls a girls school (named for Richard Wagner — whose name is pronounced incorrectly in the film’s one use of narration) in Switzerland. Gory killings abound. There’s sleepwalking, unsafe buildings just anyone can wander into, a late-in-the-day plot twist involving an insane asylum, an over-the-top madwoman and more maggots than you ever dreamed possible (assuming you ever dreamed about maggots in the first place, which I’d advise against). Oh, yes, there’s also the world’s longest telephone cord and the possibly unique use of a simian ex machina. No, you haven’t lost your mind, it’s just Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), which played the U.S. in a cut version as Creepers. (What’s acceptable in barely clothed young girls in Europe isn’t in the U.S.) Now, here it is in all its whacked-out glory—and it’s actually one of Signor Argento’s more coherent efforts. (That’s not saying much.)
I should note I am not an Argento apologist, nor what you’d call an admirer. Though it used to be assumed that I was an admirer, because I wrote positively about his screwy movies during my tenure as a “contributing splatterologist” for John McCarty’s Official Splatter Movie Guides back in the late ‘80s. What readers didn’t understand was that I liked them because they were screwy. I wasn’t buying them as art and I wasn’t offering that old saw about them having “dream logic” to excuse their lack of coherent storytelling. I still don’t. But I do find a lot of Argento’s work fun in a goofy way—and Phenomena is at or near the top of my list. It also is blessedly free of the misogynistic sadism that marks a number of his movies.
Now, on a wholly technical basis, Argento’s films can be pretty impessive—even if his penchant for shooting from a high camera angle down on his actors is so overdone that it becomes comical or tiresome, depending on your outlook. The films are good-looking and the effects work—while utilizing pretty simple tricks—is always nicely done. In general, the movies are best viewed in the context of being “shock machines,” and Argento’s shocks are often very shocking indeed, though the shock is generally followed by a good-natured laugh at having been “gotten” so cheesily on examination. Don’t expect logic—and don’t expect anything remotely approaching reality—and you’ll be OK.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Phenomena Thursday, May 15 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.