View Full Version : Argento - Phenomena

03-10-2003, 05:06 PM
Here is a copy of a post I made in another forum - reviewing the movie "Phenomena" by Dario Argento (this was not a review for that site, just a forum post). Might just kick of this forum - and I no longer visit that other place, so it keeps this near at hand ;)

Needless to say - MAJOR SPOILERS!


Phenomena (aka Creepers) was released in 1985. The writing was done by Dario and Franco Ferrini. This was the first time they had worked together, but Dario must have liked the experience, since Franco went on to write for other Dario films such as Opera, The Stendhal Syndrome and Sleepless.

The story is typical Argento. Jennifer Corvino (played by Jennifer Connelly) is a girl who arrives at a private school in Switzerland. Coincidently, at the same time a mad killer is roaming the lands. Jennifer, an American in a strange place, helps track down the killer. She does this somewhat in cahoots with Professor John McGregor, played by stalwart Donald Pleasance, aided by his pet monkey.

What sets the story apart is the Jennifer has a unique ability. This is the skill of communicating with insects. This aspect is woven into the basic storyline, as the insects act as detectives along with their new friend.

Phenomena - A Critique

Along with Trauma and Phantom of The Opera, Phenomena comes in for the most criticism. Even Argento fans – of which I consider myself one – often find this film disappointing. Nailing down just why this is so, is my assigned task.

During my latest visit to Phenomena, I have come up with some of the answers. I will say up front, my overall impression of the film is slightly better than it once was. Don’t confuse this with any idea that I might suddenly be becoming a huge Phenomena fan. It’s better, but it’s still not a great film.

Phenomena opens in a very strange world. The setting is not classic Argento at all, or is it? As we all know, the fully restored version of Opera ends with a scene played out in the Alps, like a nightmarish rendition of Sound of Music. Phenomena starts there. You can easily imagine the final hell of Opera playing out on the other side of the trees.

I don’t know if Dario just liked the setting and found himself inspired, or what. But there is a connection here. This connection is strengthened by the fact the his co-author, Ferrini, worked on both Demons and Demons II right after Phenomena, and after that he helped co-author Opera with the aforementioned scene. Or perhaps, after his Phenomena experience, he just wanted to revisit calm settings in order to further tear down that tranquility. Regardless, given his roots, it is curious that he has found himself in these settings on more than one occasion (Opera came just two years after Phenomena).

Something else worth noting in this opening scene is some of the camera work. At one point the camera rises up above the trees, looking over the expanse of land. Soon after, we have the camera following the first victim up a dirt road; toward the house were the killer lives. In both these instances, the camera shakes and weaves slightly side to side. Dario uses this technique later in the film, when we’re seeing through the eyes of a fly tracking down the killer. This leads me to believe that the opening shots are in fact, shots from the insect’s point of view. We don’t register it – because the insect plot elements have not been introduced yet. Subsequent viewings however, show the reality.

Of course, what is Dario without his killings? When people talk about Phenomena not being your typical Argento movie – a lot of the complaints revolve around the uninspired set pieces. Some even argue that any analysis of Dario’s films is unnecessary, and that Dario is simply making excellent set pieces strung together by a flimsy plot. If this is the case, then Phenomena must be slightly disappointing.

In Phenomena, sadly, Dario is very much uninspired. The first murder is that of a young schoolgirl (played by Dario’s daughter, Fiora). We have a halfhearted attempt at a stabbing, with a close-up of the knife going into the victim’s torso. This is a sad echo from the first killing we see in Dario’s classic, Suspiria. In Suspiria, the feeling is palpable, horrifying. Here, it’s a bit like a made for TV effort (probably a “made for the US audience” effort, actually.)

The climax of the first killing is when the head of the girl crashes through the window of an observation deck. This is another thing we have seen before, and indeed, is the fate of the victim in the stabbing scene from Suspiria that has already been mentioned.

There are two things that go horribly wrong here. First, the US Anchor Bay release I was watching presents this scene with nasty grain. The transfer overall is serviceable (it’s no Suspiria, that’s for sure) but this scene looks like stock-footage.

Secondly, Dario does not help by deciding to play it out in slow motion. This might have worked, but for me it takes all the impact out of the scene. Couple this with some really poor sound effects of that window breaking, and we have a climax that is quite annoying.

After this scene, the body of the girl is pulled off screen. At some point it is beheaded, and we see the head thrown into the waterfall that was visible from that observation deck. This is reprised by Dario later in is career, with The Stendhal Syndrome.
Right after the murder Dario cuts to a jarring shot of a monkey running outside a house. This is an excellent move. Taken from the murder to this surreal sight is masterful – we wonder what is going on, what is this animal doing? Is the animal somehow involved?

The trick is perhaps meant to lead us to imagine that the monkey is the killer. Sadly, this idea is not examined in the rest of the film. No-one ever suspects the monkey, even the police don’t seem to care when it comes in through a window with a scalpel in its hands! As we know, the whole monkey killer thing is a red herring, but I feel it could have been better developed.

Once Jennifer arrives on the scene we see her driven to the school. As the car pulls into the school grounds we are treated to something rather strange - a voice over from nowhere. Not only does the voice not fit the film (it never ever reappears) but what it tells us is self-evident! I really cannot imagine why this was put in – maybe to cover for a foreign censors cut?

Another area where Phenomena remains flawed, is in the lighting. Dario fans make high demands in this area. Ever since Suspiria and Inferno, we expect great things from the man with his use of both darkness, light and color. Phenomena just fails to deliver.

I understand that Dario is not only about the rich hues of Suspiria and Inferno, and that he has indeed deliberately tried different schemes. These are evident in films such as Tenebrae, where he wanted lots of bright light and whites. With Phenomena though, we have dull colors, and everything looks flat. Argento particularly lets the film down during the nighttime scenes (which are plentiful). The camera will often pan to a beautiful blue moon, only to pan back to characters, supposedly lit by the moon, which are instead bathed in white light. It just seems a wasted opportunity.

The lead character here, Jennifer, is typical of many of Dario’s female leads. The actress playing her only just about walks the line between being good and horrible. At times she seems wooden, other times good. Some of the things her character says and does are a bit odd. For instance, at the start of the film she tells her roommate that the next day she’s going to put posters of her father all over the walls of their room. This struck me as a bit odd (father complex anyone?), and not quite believable (yes, I know he’s supposed to be a big film star, but the idea that his child covers her walls in posters of him just seems strange.)

03-10-2003, 05:07 PM
Once she reaches the school, Dario starts using tricks I have never noticed before. From this point on, we see a lot of rooms, shot from a high angle, from a corner for instance, with the camera on the ceiling looking down. The rooms are very large; sparse furnishings accentuate this. It has the effect of making the characters appear very small, as though they are children living in an adult’s world. This is probably very much what the nightmare dwarf we met later feels like, and it gives a connection between him and the rest of the characters. The childlike nature of the film is maintained this way throughout.

This technique is especially evident in the second murder set piece. The victim stumbles into a room, just before being killed. The room has a huge fireplace, and chairs that look as though they we made for giants. She then runs down a corridor, with walls that loom up over her head.

The second murder, sadly, is also very much uninspired. Once again we have the face through the window trick, and it is maybe a bit better this time. It dovetails into a very strange sleepwalking sub-plot that I don’t quite understand, and in fact becomes one of he most ludicrous elements of the film. I’ll get to that in a moment. The second murder doesn’t offer Argento fans much to see, and its similar climax to the first murder doesn’t help either.

Soon after this we have one of strangest scenes. In it, we see through the eyes of a ladybird, watching Jennifer walking through the woods. On its own, it really is a pretty daft view. However, Dario returns to it later on. In a later scene the lead picks up a glove, and a larva gets stuck under her fingernail. This larva lets her see through the eyes of the ladybirds once again – this time revealing her dead roommate. In Phenomena you just have to go along with the whole insect story, and this is an example of it working – at least within the context of the film.

Actually, it is worth noting that I have been critical in the past of the whole bug angle. I did not feel that it really belonged in the story, that it was not integral enough. I was in error, there. It is integral (a firefly leads her to a clue, a fly leads her to the house where the first murders took place, and flies protect her on two occasions.) It is fairly interesting. In my defense, I’ll still say that I’m not really sure the film needs all this hocus-pocus. But it is there, so we must go along with it.

Of course, this film has the honor of including Donald Pleasance in the cast. He’s a favorite of mine, and it’s always nice to see him. I do have to say though, never have I seen him so wooden as he is here. His first meeting with Jennifer is really painful to watch. Their dialogue is achingly slow and stilted. He never seems to get existed about his wheelchair bound role.

One of the things that comes out in this scene is mention that the location of the film is considered the “Swiss Transylvania”. Transylvania is associated with Dracula, and try as I might, I cannot tie in that story with Phenomena. Any clues from someone else would be appreciated. I would brush it off as totally irrelevant, but it appears twice in the film from different characters. Clues, anyone?

A moment ago I mentioned the sleepwalking scenes. On their own they can play as a good device, but the reaction of the adults in the movie is just baffling. In fact, the adults end up tying the poor girl to a table, and attaching all kinds of devices to her head. They tell her that sleepwalking is the “first step to schizophrenia” and that it’s “another personality trying to come though”, which I found really strange.

During the sleepwalking scenes, Jennifer sees a corridor, with doors on either side, lit by a bright white light. This corridor resembles the corridor at an asylum that we see later in the film. In fact, the sleepwalking dream seems to be another hint toward the lead characters special powers – she sees the asylum, but never figures out the connection between the two places.

Another unconvincing element to this film is the school Jennifer has been sent to. She is supposed to be the daughter of a famous actor, yet the place that has been chosen for her education is a very depressing and nasty. We have disobedient kids, strange doctors who strap a student to a table because of a single sleepwalking exercise and then tell her she might be schizophrenic, derelict buildings on the school grounds that are apparently too dangerous to go in etc. Along with this, we have teachers, and a head-mistress, who do nothing about severe bullying, even when they are in the same room (utterly a single, “Stop it!” but ignoring the girls when they continue, just standing there watching.)

Finally, there is no security at the school. Murders are taking place all around – and two girls are killed at the actual school itself, yet Jennifer can sleepwalk all she wants, and walk around at night, even leaving the building. How believable is that? All in all, you’d have to say the whole school is a bigger nuthouse than the asylum we get to view later on. Not a place you’d want to send your kids, that’s for sure!

From an Argento perspective, some similarities exist between the school Jennifer attends, and the dance school in Suspiria. Both are very strict places, run by stark looking women. They are strict to the point of being uncomfortable, and you can’t help feeling sorry for any child made to go there.

In one of the most dramatic scenes, a scene where Jennifer is bullied by her schoolmates, we have yet another lapse in logic. At one point, Jennifer breaks out of the gang of girls who are bullying her and goes to stand by an open door. This is the precursor to a swarm of flies that are about to engulf the house. Before they arrive, however, wind starts blowing through the room, making Jennifer's hair blow back as she says, “I love you”. No-one, but no-one, notices this strange wind. They really don’t even seem surprised by the swarm of flies, but that’s beside the point.

What we’re left with is what appears to be a hair band rock video sequence. No tension, dumbfounded actors who don’t seem to know how to respond, followed by what should have been a highlight of the film. In the event it is rendered flaccid.

A question that has been asked before, revolves around when did Jennifer get her powers over insects? I think the answer is in the middle of the film, when Pleasance says, “when the car bashed into you”. I guess we’d have to say that she always had a latent power, as evidenced by the ludicrous bee scene at the start of the film, where poor Daria Nicolodi is left to act like a complete fool in the back of the car. However, it’s only fully realized after the car accident she suffers while sleepwalking.

Of course, Donald Pleasance does not make it to the end of the film. Sadly, he’s taken out by the murderer. If there is a really a question on anyone's mind about whether the set pieces are inspired or not, this one should settle it. Poor Donald is sitting in his wheelchair, a single stab to the stomach, and he dies. That’s it. A little blood, nothing more. Not your typical Argento termination.

About the only thing I can say about this scene, is the clever way it tips us off to the final demise of the murderer. We know from earlier in the film that the monkey remembers anything that is illuminated with Donald’s red laser beam. As he is coming down the stairs on the chairlift, he shines this light onto the face of the killer. Hence, in the climax to the film, the monkey knows exactly who the bad guy is. It is a nice touch.

It does not, however, lead me to forgive Dario for one of the most disappointing set pieces he’s ever done. Poor Donald just seems to fall asleep from a mere flesh wound. The monkey is tearing at the doors to get in, but it really doesn’t work with only the merest hint of violence. That’s not something you can often say about Dario!

Talking of the monkey, another failing of this film is that it seems to have the run of the entire town – and no-one cares. At the start of the film, we see the detectives asking questions of Pleasant’s character. During this scene, the monkey comes in from outside, holding a scalpel. Now, given that murders were going on, don’t you think the cops would have at last ASKED about it ? Nah.

03-10-2003, 05:08 PM
Later the monkey finds a razor in a garbage can. I don’t know how it got there, but then, this monkey just finds all kinds of weaponry. The idea that it can just walk around town (even showing up at the home of the murderer in the climatic scenes) is all a bit much.

This film also has that strange mix of music Dario loves so much. I can’t say I miss the heavy metal and thrash tunes from his 80’s movies, but like them or love them they are there. They were used in the same way, but more effectively in Opera, of course. Here they are used similarly, with the exception of one scene where they are out of place. That scene is the one when the ambulance arrives to cart off the body of Pleasant’s character. Quite why Dario decided this would be a good time to start a heavy metal track I don’t know. In the past he used it to accentuate a violent or energetic sequence. This time, well, nothing is really going on. Very strange indeed.

While I, and others, have said this film does not have any Argento moments, I acknowledge that’s not quite true. As the film is reaching its conclusion, we are presented with a basement scene that can only be described as classic Dario.

In this scene we have a bloodied man chained to a wall, a cackling murderer towering over the latest victims, and a girl swimming in a pool of body bits, maggots and scum. Not only that, but we see the guy break his own thumb in order to escape. This is seriously and delightfully wacky stuff. Only Argento pulls this kind of thing off effectively, and explains why we all like him so much. It’s over the top, it’s frightening, but most of all – it’s plain nasty!

Jennifer escapes this room, running down the corridors trying to find an exit. This leads us to our introduction to the mutant child. The reveal on this child is a direct steal from the excellent “Don’t Look Now”. In both cases we have someone coming up behind a child, whose face is turned to a corner. The child slowly turns around to reveal a monster. Don’t Look Now will always be remembered for this scene, and it works quite well here too.

Of course, the film ends with a water sequence. Dario has a fondness for water, especially evident in Suspiria and Inferno. Earlier in this film we have the first murder, which takes place at a waterfall, for instance. There seems to be something about flowing water that inspires Dario, and let’s not forget that I have already noted a similar scene in The Stendhal Syndrome.

The scene at the end of this film leads to the demise of the mutant child, with the help of the killer flies (are they bee’s or something, I mean, they almost eat the head of the child!) Anyway, the water here is some kind of lake. Most of the action takes place in a boat.

After the child is killed by the flies, he falls into the water. At this time Jennifer starts the engine, and it bursts into flames. This causes her to have to dive into the lake herself. What we get next is a watered-down replay of the classic scene from Inferno, a young woman, swimming underwater, trying to escape a horror.

In Inferno, the water was a submerged room. In Phenomena, we are to believe it’s a lake. Sadly, it is quite clear that this was filmed in a tank or swimming pool somewhere. I never buy that it’s a lake. Further similarities with Inferno are seen when the mutant child reaches up and grabs at Jennifer's legs. It’s a homage that does not quite come off, since the original scene had much better execution. Still, if anyone can reuse it, it’s Dario, so it’s a nice connection.

As an aside, since Dario likes water so much – it’s a crime he has yet to make that film in Venice…. Oh well.

Overall then, Phenomena leaves us a lot to talk about. It is not the vapid film some claim, and perhaps even I have said in the past. The issue here is that much of the criticism of it is legitimate. This film just lacks some of the good things Dario is known for. It’s sure to disappoint all but the most rabid fans. There’s just no punch, nothing to excite the senses once it’s done.

During the era this film was made, there appears to have been a move to make Dario more attractive to a mainstream audience. In that sense, I can certainly accept that things had to be toned down a bit. They’re not toned down to the extent where the film can be called generic – Dario is not exorcised completely. However, enough is missing to reduce this to a minor player in his career.

Not as bad as some, better than others. Inspired in some ways and just boring and silly at times – Phenomena rightfully belongs as part of Dario’s history. I can’t say I’m sorry he went back to his own style that will undoubtedly be his true legacy. On the other hand, you never know unless you try – and he certainly tried here.

03-10-2003, 11:04 PM
Ummm but how is the dvd?

03-10-2003, 11:10 PM
from what i understand the dvd from anchor bay is cut.

PHENOMENA (Anchor Bay) - Scene where Daria Nicolodi hits Jennifer after she takes pills (while on the phone) has been abbreviated - The struggle before Jennifer is hit is missing. When Inspector is fighting Nicolodi in the basement, an additional few frames of him struggling with her are missing. Also, the end credits cut out an additional 10 seconds of music!

very minor , but cut is cut.

03-11-2003, 12:33 AM
It's cut the way Dario wanted it to be cut, so I have no problem with missing a few seconds. Hell I wouldn't have minded missing most of the movie, but I digress...

03-11-2003, 12:41 AM
The AB disc is Argento's preferred cut, especially over that "integral" version or whatever the heck it is. So, if it's good enough for Argento, it's good enough for me! :)

03-11-2003, 01:08 AM
Well, it is the "Director's Cut" when it comes down to it so I'm not complaining.

03-11-2003, 07:47 AM
--LOL-- This is my critique of the MOVIE, not the DVD. There are tons of reviews of DVD's out there, and most of them say next to nothing about the damn film itself (other than a brief synopsis.) So I wanted to go all out. If you just want a review of a specific DVD, there are a lot of places to go for that. I just don't think writing a review of the DVD itself is very useful - UNLESS - you're going to compare it with all the other DVD's out there.

As for the cut thing, there is a longer version out there. Can't say it bothered me one bit.

I think we're still setting rules for this forum. If reviews need to be short - and only about specific DVD's - you only need say :)

04-15-2003, 10:12 PM
Nice review, very much disected. Thanks.:D

04-15-2003, 10:16 PM
yeah - this was before I found out people could less about long reviews OF THE FILM --LOL--

04-16-2003, 01:04 PM
And we thought there was a lot of nitpicking in the Corpses reviews, geesh! :D

Stuff that's wrong with it aside, I love this movie. Sometimes I like stuff that doesn't make sense because it forces you to use your imagination to as why it's there, or why it happened. I don't care to have every single little thing throughout a movie explained to me. I also don't mind a scene here or there that isn't as clean as the rest of the movie. It's one of those things, to me, that makes Italian stuff so fun to watch. Oh well, I'm done rambling because I probably sound like some dumbass who doesn't know anything. ;)

As far as the review itself goes, it was very thorough to say the least.