Sunday, September 20, 2009

Phenomena (1985)

I remember the ads for the butchered American version of this film when I was a kid, and was always fascinated. Seeing the unedited version now is a welcome hoot. Enjoy the fourth entry in the prelude to Hail Horror 4:
Dario Argento is one of those filmmakers you can't help but run across if you're looking at horror. A disciple of Hitchcock and one of the people to bring the giallo genre to a much wider audience, his films are a classic example of perspective. To his advocates they're surreal nightmares, relying more on dream logic than anything resembling reality. To his detractors his work is derivative, dated, poorly acted, and otherwise nonsensical. But I think that's not giving the man his due: Argento's carved out a very specific niche for himself and, with limited ways and means constantly manages to churn out arresting visuals and ideas.

My first memory of PHENOMENA was its initial release in the 80's as CREEPERS. Shortened by almost 30 minutes, it was lambasted for not making any sense, although it did introduce many male audience members to the lovely attributes of Jennifer Connelly. The plot may be thin and slightly silly, but it's only the hook on which Argento's visuals are hung. The film opens with a young Danish girl missing her tour bus and going for help to a house on the hillside. Something's amiss: chains bolted to the wall start snapping as if some feral beast is struggles to break free. Well, break free it does, and the chain wind up wrapped around the tourist's throat. An enormous pair of scissors drop to floor, and it's one of Argento's signature shots:

A little stabbing and decapitating, and she dead, her severed head found almost nine months later. The time of death is determined by the cycle of insects that feed off the remains, the "Eight Squadrons of Death," as detailed by Donald Pleasence, who keeps a monkey. More on this later. This dialog with some police gives us our first taste of insects, and then we slingshot to Connelly, playing a young girl named Jennifer (ah ha!) going to stay at a Swiss academy/boarding school while her famous father is away. A car ride with a bee demonstrates a peculiar bond with the insect world. But the powers don't stop there. Her first night at the academy she experiences a strange vision and, in a somnambulist state, visits an old house where she witnesses a murder. Earlier the murdered girl is seen being pursued by the unknown killer, and Argento makes the odd choice of scoring the scene to Iron Maiden's "Flash of the Blade" thereby cementing my love for the movie. One of the signature shots of any Argento movie are the super-clear close-ups of the items of death. Before we saw the scissors; this time we're treated to the assembly of a surgical spear, which is used to dispatch the girl in another grisly manner.

Things continue to get screwy from here. Jennifer runs away from the scene, is hit by a car and then, as they drive away with her, attempt to molest her. She refuses, and they push her out of the car.

Yeah. At this point I was saying "WTF?" too.

Well have no fear, because it gets stranger. Jennifer meets up with Donald Pleasence's doctor again, and he and his monkey make her feel right at home. The monkey even takes her up an elevator system to get her a warm coat. When she returns to the academy, she's taken for crazy and is forced to submit to an EKG.

At this point logic has pretty much flown the coop, but everything is so interesting that you forgive the lapses in sanity and questionable motivations. The dialog is corny but oftentimes imbued with a hokey humor that's infectious. When the frigid headmistress admonishes her girls, "What about Shakespeare? What about Richard Wagner?" one girl screams back "Richard GERE!"

When Jennifer's roommate is pursued, the dreams begin again. The camera rushes through a white, oddly geometric corridor, meant to signify Jennifer's descent into the dream state. She wakes herself up, though not in time to save her friend Sophie (and not in time to put any clothes, opting for some seriously sexy lingerie). A lightning bug comes and guides her along to a prog-rockin' soundtrack courtesy of Argento stalwarts Goblin. A clue is discovered, and another arresting image: a close-up of Jennifer's hand reaching through the brush to pick up a piece of cloth:

Throughout PHENOMENA shots are over lit, colors are over- or under-utilized, sounds jumps up out of nowhere. Even if the story is sedate, the way it's filmed is exciting and sprightly. The camera moves everywhere, and all of this is put to use when Jennifer is later tormented by her fellow classmates, only to pull an awesome CARRIE moment. Calmly saying "I love you. I love ALL of you," she summons all the insects to her, and the following scene of the hording over the building is a pretty classic moment. She's comforted afterwards by Pleasence, who gives her a magical insect, telling her to use it as a magic wand and find the bodies of the dead girls.

So finally the two plot pieces connect, although why it's the role of a young girl to go after the killer is a question best left to the side. The last half our or so drags a bit - there's no doubt some judicious cutting and editing would have made PHENOMENA an even better movie than it is. Suckered into going home with the killer (killers?) the climax is again scored to Iron Maiden, which is really disconcerting to the movie but entertaining if you happen to be, well, me. Hidden passageways are found, a game of pole fishing is attempted (and failed), the thing that was chained in the beginning puts in an appearance, and a maggot-filled pool of dismembered body parts definitely ensure that things remain creepy and twisted in a way only Argento can really pull off.

Oh, there's also a creepy kid-in-the-corner thing a la BLAIR WITCH that is 100% Grade A Freaky. The insects show to put things right, and then things become even more crazy. And remember the monkey? Oh yeah, he's back, and he is pissed that Donald Pleasence is dead! Although not as famous as his giallo films like DEEP RED or TENEBRE, or his supernatural masterpiece SUSPIRIA, PHENOMENA has more than its share of charm an excitement. Does it make sense? Not really. Does it need to? Not really. Not when it's bat-shit crazy and so much fun to watch. You'll never think of Jennifer Connelly the same again.

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