Phenomena (1985)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Cemetery Man


Welcome to Spring Break

Phantom of Death


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Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.

"No, my coat is not 'pure evil'!
Why do you keep saying that?"
The really challenging part of writing a review of Phenomena is not making a "Jeepers Creepers" joke, because this film was released in the US under the title Creepers. Only those with a really strong will could resist.

Jeepers creepers, in this movie we get to see the world through an insect's peepers!

Okay, so you would have to have a will much stronger than ours. Phenomena is an Italian horror movie by one of the most popular directors of Italian horror movies, Dario Argento. Phenomena is also an early starring vehicle for Jennifer Connelly (Labyrinth, Mulholland Falls), and she plays a girl who loves insects. There is a scene in which she falls into a pool full of maggots, and another in which she gags herself to induce vomiting. In other words, it has everything you expect to see in a Jennifer Connelly movie.

Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous movie star who is enrolled in a boarding school in Switzerland. It turns out that in the general area of the school there has been a series of gruesome murders of primarily young women going back at least a year. And it doesn't so much seem that the police are baffled as that the police don't care, judging by how easy it is for a young woman to end up alone at night.

Jennifer is not happy with her new digs, which is understandable, because the school is housed in the second scariest building in all of Zurich. The other schoolgirls make fun of her, and the headmistress is creepy. Worst of all, Jennifer starts having fits of sleepwalking accompanied by weird hallucinations. During one of these trips, Jennifer wanders into the lab of Dr. McGowan (Donald Pleasence), an entomologist. This is a happy coincidence, because it turns out that Jennifer has the psychic power to control insects. Oh, and McGowan is confined to a wheelchair, and has a laser-guided chimpanzee that helps him out around the house.

McGowan realizes that Jennifer might be able to solve the recent rash of killers. Good idea: send the 12-year old girl out after the killer who has a proven track record of killing 12-year old girls. The plan involves Jennifer following a carrion fly around until it leads her to dead bodies. Somehow this works, but she only finds suspects, not definite answers.

Before anything interesting can happen, Jennifer finds out that her father has decided to pull her out of the school. Fortunately for the plot, there are no flights leaving that day, and she has to stay overnight with the school's Mrs. Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi), who lives in -- guess what -- the scariest building in Zurich. From this point on, it's one shocking twist after another. (Eight -- we counted.)

"I am going to need so much therapy!
Well they would be shocking twists, if it weren't for the fact that nearly everything that has gone before has nothing to do with what happens in the house. The movie keeps laying on all sorts of subplots, but there are no clues as to the killer's identity until it is revealed. There are some very impressive visual sequences early on in the film, like Jennifer's nocturnal hallucinations, but they never seem to mean anything. We got the impression that the hallucinations might have been brought on by some sort of childhood abuse, but after the first thirty minutes of the film they are never referred to again. Then there is the fact that Jennifer's love of insects seems to come and go from scene to scene.

And just because this is an Italian movie, don't think that the characters somehow avoid the American horror movie convention of acting stupid. At one point Jennifer needs to get the phone which has just fallen into a hole in the floor of the scary house. She could either pull the phone up by its cord, or she could crawl down the hole. Which does she choose? "Let's see. I'm locked in the scariest building in Zurich, there is an insect infested hole in the floor, should I go down there? It's danker, darker, scarier and it's quite likely to empty into some sort of subterranean pit where the killer lives. Yep, guess I'll crawl down there."

The film is full of Argento standards: abrupt music cuts, a rock n roll score, young women running scared through the woods. Plus, there's plenty of gore and gross stuff, although we probably could have done without the maggot pit.

The difference between Phenomena and the US cut titled Creepers is nearly thirty minutes. While this may seem like a lot of cuts, most of the edits are to dialogue passages that don't make a lot of difference to the narrative, such as a little more explanation as to why it takes so long for Jennifer's father to get her out of the boarding school. Thirty minutes of dialogue in this film might not be as much as it sounds, because the actors in this movie converse in a tortuously slow pace usually found only on C-SPAN.

"Hey lady, you think
Spanish fly is something..."
We have long held the opinion that Donald Pleasance (known to most horror fans as Dr Loomis from the Halloween franchise) has the ability to raise whatever movie he's in to a slightly higher standard. He always takes his roles seriously and delivers his lines earnestly. In Phenomena, he plays a Scots, and guess what? He actually has a subtle Scottish accent! Despite the fact that his sidekick is a monkey, he plays the role with some dignity.

Connelly is at least trying to do a good job. Some of her line delivery is a little awkward, but she does have a natural screen presence. It's nice to see someone as young as she was do a credible job outside of a movie that stars a basketball-playing dog or trained whale. (No, laser-guided, razor-wielding monkeys don't count.)

As valiantly as they may try, the actors here can't make up for the fact that some of the plot details are pretty silly (like the distinct lack of police presence for most of the movie), or for the fact that the director made some bad cinematic decisions. For instance, animating a firefly at normal speed and then playing the scene in slow motion completely destroys the illusion. In addition, the film's opening decapitation scene is hilariously sloppy.

As we have mentioned in our review of Cemetery Man, we are not big fans of European gore films, or giallo, and Phenomena did little to change our opinion. If you are a big fan of giallo, you might want to try this film. On the other hand, if you are a big fan of Jennifer Connelly you may want to skip this film. Unless you have really weird fantasies about Jennifer Connelly, in which case we don't want to know about it.

Review date: 07/18/2001

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