Published on March 20th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley1
‘Evil is Alive and Killing’ – Film Review of Dario Argento’s ‘Phenomena’
Phenomena (also known as Creepers in the US) is a 1985 horror film by renowned Italian director Dario Argento, known for working on Dawn of the Dead with George A. Romero and his influential films tackling shock, suspense and terror.
One of his later films from his golden period of film making, Phenomena featured up and coming actress Jennifer Connelly in her first role (and a starring one) after Once Upon a Time in America also by an Italian director, Sergio Leone.
Connelly was only 14 at the time of filming, which is even more shocking than when I found out she was only 15 when she filmed Labyrinth only a year later alongside her senior David Bowie as a controversially “inferred love interest”.
Phenomena begins with a foreign student who misses her bus in a quiet area of Switzerland and soon meets her demise after accidentally freeing “something” from a seemingly abandoned house in the countryside. The film centres around Jennifer (her real name too) a young girl who is the daughter of a famous actor, that has been sent to Switzerland to attend a young girls school while her father is working. She soon discovers that an elusive serial killer has been operating in the surrounding area for the past 6 months with a penchant for murdering young girls.
Donald Pleasence has a brilliant role as a paraplegic entomologist whose helper was lost to the notorious murderer and vows to find the perpetrator. He owns a monkey that has become his new helper and best friend. He meets Jennifer after she has one of her sleepwalking bouts and had her first encounter with the killer and one of his victims.
Unable to remember the previous night’s events Jennifer befriends the man and his chimp, which soon leads to frequent visits, encouraged by the hostile environment the school has become after she tells her teachers about her sleepwalking antics. Her visits to Donald Pleasence start to show that Jennifer has a “psychic link” to the insects in his laboratory. Another murder happens at the school and Jennifer is led to a glove by a firefly, which she believes is directly related to the murder. The teachers at the school believe she is going mad and the students start to increasingly alienate her.
A seemingly normal horror plot is quickly appeased with supernatural powers revolving around ESP and insects and you realise the film is not quite what you expect.
Filmed on location there are many beautiful segments of footage of the surrounding area and architecture adding a serene mystery to the picture, Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence are both fantastic in the film and share an emotional rapport that is easily visible. The same cannot be said for Connelly and the chimp as she had part of her finger bitten off during filming. She had to have this stitched back on, a splendidly gross fact to accompany the film.
This film has a shocking amount of gore in and frequently leaves you wondering how they achieved some of the fantastic effects. There is a lot of glass-shattering and people going through panes and some of the glass looks painfully hard. In one scene at the beginning it appears like a giant shard landed directly onto one of the actresses head. It was glorious. There was also a part where a sharp incisive object penetrated the back of someone’s head and protruded through their mouth. Such unnecessary violence!
Sometimes I wondered if some of the stuff I was seeing were effects at all, and not just the director forcing horrid stuff on the actors. One scene the main character is seen to have an injection but it looks unbelievably real, bearing in mind how old this film is, it’s hard to imagine it being a complex gadget.
Near the end Jennifer is being ill in a sink and you can definitely see her hurl up clear water (a pretty decent amount of it too) and then start chucking up that awful orangey colour you get with real vomit, but all in the same take. Connelly must have been actually vomited.
The film is “Giallo”, an Italian genre comprising of mystery and horror, it uses some innovative film techniques and doesn’t show the killer until near the end. However there is one part of the film where you can see what I can only assume is the killer in the window of a scene where someone is killed, if not then someone appeared when they shouldn’t. Oops.
The original music is done by an Italian band called Goblin who had worked previously with Argento on earlier films, the soundtrack has some moody synths and some funky bass riffs. The main theme has some beautiful operatic vocals and organ arpeggios. During some of the scenes they play some Motorhead and Iron Maiden, namely “Be Quick or be Dead” which is unashamedly just inserted in the chase scenes but still manages to fit. I absolutely love all of the music in the film.
The film has become known as one of Argento’s best and has far reaching influence having been the sole inspiration for Clocktower (incidentally why I decided to watch this film) and Silent Hill with some of the characters being named after Argento and his family, but has also received lots of criticism from the mainstream as being the worst horror film ever. I really have no idea why, it’s experimental, sure, but there are a lot of very intriguing concepts not often used in other horror, like insect ESP.
An original film which takes many turns and introduces a great cast of new horror characters and tropes, while also managing to remain captivatingly beautiful throughout. I can’t believe I only just discovered this film it’s one of the best horror films ever made.