Directed by Dario Argento.
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Patrick Bauchau, Fiore Argento, Federica Mastroianni, and Michele Soavi.
A teenage girl with telepathic abilities moves to a Swiss boarding school and uses her gift to communicate with insects in order to solve a spate of murders.
If something is worth doing then it is worth doing more than once, and so Italian horror maestro Dario Argento begins another movie with a young woman arriving at an exclusive school in a foreign country just as strange events begin to occur. 1977 saw this approach set up Argento’s spooky masterpiece Suspiria and he used it again in 1985 for Phenomena (a.k.a. Creepers in the US) as actor’s daughter Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly – Labyrinth) arrives at a very expensive Swiss boarding school during a troubled time for the locals as a killer is on the loose. However, the spirited Jennifer has the uncanny ability to communicate with insects and uses this unusual gift to try and figure out who is responsible, with some help from wheelchair-bound entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence – Halloween) and his pet chimp Inga. No, really…
Eschewing the usual rapid-fire shocks and gruesome imagery that Argento was renowned for at this point in his career, Phenomena feels quite restrained for the most part and, let’s be honest, when you have a plot as bonkers and potentially idiotic as a girl and her pet fly telepathically solving a murder case it could have been so easy for Argento to throw everything into it to see what stuck. But instead the director uses pacing and control to the advantage of the story, keeping you engrossed with a relatively cohesive script that could so easily have fallen apart at any time and his usual high standard of camera work and cinematography. It also helps having a strong lead in Jennifer Connelly who holds the whole thing together with an impressively mature and nuanced performance, as well as solid support from veteran actor Donald Pleasence and his dodgy Scottish accent.
But there are times when the deliberate pacing gets a bit frustrating, especially if you are watching the 116-minute Italian cut of the film that comes in this set as that version does tend to meander all over the place and lose focus during the flabby mid-section. Helpfully Arrow Video have also included the international 110-minute cut and the 83-minute Creepers cut if your attention span can’t quite cope with the full absurdity of Argento’s vision, and to help give you a fuller perspective on the whys and hows of the three different cuts in the special features there is a visual essay comparing all three as well as a brand new two-hour documentary featuring interviews with Dario Argento, actress Daria Nicolodi, assistant director and actor Michele Soavi and several cast and crew members who go into the making of the film in some depth. All boxed up in limited edition packaging and including the soundtrack CD and a 60-page booklet with new writings on the film it is fair to say that whatever the merits of the film, this is a collector’s set worth owning as it does look pretty stunning.
But the film itself is a bit of a strange one. Coming at the end of Argento’s most prolific and commercially successful period – although there are those that will argue 1987’s Terror at the Opera was the last ‘great’ Argento movie – Phenomena does take some work to get your head around but once you are on board with a story about telepathic insects, razor-wielding chimps (a high point to be sure but still very bizarre) and Donald Pleasence using a stairlift while Iron Maiden and Motörhead thump over the soundtrack – great songs but why are they here? – then there is a certain enjoyment to be had, and naturally Argento is true to form as the film enters its final scenes and things go predictably batshit crazy, bringing the gore and frenzied insanity that made his earlier works like Suspiria, Deep Red and Tenebrae the genre landmarks they are recognised as today. The gorgeous 4K restoration makes sure that you can see everything as the director intended it to be – this is prime Dario Argento so what else do you expect when it comes to visuals? – and the 5.1 sound mix helps maintain the atmosphere as those swarms of buzzing insects take over the screen but unless you’re well-versed in Argento movies or Italian cinema in general then you may be wise to check out some other titles before settling down for a horror movie night with this one as it is a bit of a challenging one for a casual watch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★