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Crazy, hallucinatory horror disorientates and delights

Image of Phenomena

Dario Argento/ Italy/ 1985/ 116 mins

Available on dual-format Blu-ray/ DVD Mon 15 Jan 2018

It might sound weird to say that a film involving razor-wielding chimpanzees, mutant children, fetishistic numbers of maggoty corpses, and a psychic teenager communing with insects ranks among the most narratively coherent of a filmmaker’s work.  However, most filmmakers aren’t Italian giallo pioneer Dario Argento.  Never knowingly straightforward in his storytelling, this is either dream logic or absurdity depending on where you stand on his work.  Sometimes though, absurdity really hits the spot.

Fans of Argento’s most famous work Suspiria may find the plot familiar, featuring as it does a pretty American teenager arriving for her first day at a sinister European teaching establishment.  In this case it’s a very young Jennifer Connelly as Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous film star enrolled in the Richard Wagner institute for girls (a big clue as to how operatic the film is going to be).  She witnesses the murder of one of her schoolmates during a bout of sleepwalking, and takes refuge at the house of Scottish entomologist McGregor (Donald Pleasance) who lives with his chimp companion Inga.  Things get truly weird soon after.

Phenomena is often pinpointed as the moment that Argento began to lose his touch.  This was the last of his films to get any real critical attention, and it was mostly negative after being chopped by twenty minutes and released under the title Creepers in the US.  Its reputation has risen in recent years however, with more viewers appreciative of its utter dedication to its bizarre premise.  It also contains sequences as horrifically beautiful as any Argento has ever filmed.  The opening scene of a young girl chased with scissors and decapitated (played by his daughter Fiore) is particularly elaborate and immaculately shot.  It’s Peeping Tom point-of-view shots, utilised throughout the film, still look great.

Connelly brings an ethereal fairy tale edge as the cherubic heroine, plunged into a nightmare she shouldn’t be anywhere near.  She may put arthouse fans in mind of young Jaroslava Schallerová in Jaromil Jireš‘ slightly unwholesome oneiric fantasy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.  Part of this may be down to her blank performance, as she wouldn’t really find her feet until a few years later when she was cast in the more family-friendly dreamscape Labyrinth.  Donald Pleasance is always a welcome presence and Daria Nicolodi veers from demure to demonic.

It’s got to be said that Phenomena probably isn’t the best jumping-on point to Argento’s work. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria, or Tenebrae may be the best individual examples of his various obsession as this is a genre mash of all three – giallo slasher, procedural, and his twisted take on the coming-of-age tale.  It is however, so much fun if you surrender to the heady brew.  There are some delightfully queasy set pieces and model work (and okay, some very cheap-looking effects later in the film), and is perhaps, rather sadly, Argento’s last good movie.