Once again we have arrived at Sunday. Since I started doing this I have grown to love Sundays, purely because I love crazy-ass movies. I like all kinds of movies, you’re right, but my favourite genre as a whole is what I like to call bat-shit. Bat-shit is actually quite loosely-defined as genres go. It’s not as clear-cut as comedy, action, romance, Westerns and the like. Bat-shit is the category you put films in when they are just too insane to fit anywhere else even if they might superficially belong to another genre. Bat-shit is also the bedrock of WTF Sundays. And now I get to see loads of them. Sometimes I love this gig.
Watch out for that chimp.
There are times when you think Dario Argento has just been making the same movie over and over again. You know the drill by now surely. A new student arrives at an all-girls boarding school in a secluded location. Strange things are afoot. There is a murderer in the area, but you never see any part of them except a silhouette or a glance at a pair of hands in gloves. In the last twenty minutes, all hell breaks loose. In the hands of a lesser director this would be a flaw (*cough* Takashi Shimizu *cough*) but with Argento it leads to gold.
If nothing else, we can thank Phenomena for one thing: Jennifer Connelly’s first film role (not counting her small part in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America as the younger Deborah). Connelly was only 14 when shooting this film, but she already carries herself with the maturity that has been a constant in every role she has played. In Phenomena she is Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous Hollywood actor who has been dispatched to the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls, an exclusive boarding school near the Swiss Alps. Living nearby is renowned entomologist Prof John McGregor (the always classy Donald Pleasance) and his chimpanzee assistant Inga. Also living nearby is a psychopathic murderer! But then you knew that already. Let the slaughter commence!
Compared to some of Argento’s other experiments with this basic set-up, the school itself is a bit of a red herring. The headmistress is strict as all hell (in a rather sexy way, frankly) but there is no witches coven or secret society of devil worshippers hidden away somewhere. No, the horror in Phenomena comes from without instead of within. Argento really makes the murder scenes sing in this flick. For those of you not familiar with his work, the use of close-ups, Dutch angles and POV shots is very like early Sam Raimi, but Argento is much lighter on the comedy than the Michigander. The Italian plays these techniques more to heighten the sense of unease and terror. Saying that though, he’s not above the odd moment of lunacy, as the POV angle from a fruit fly will attest. Speaking of fruit flies, this would be a good time to mention our young heroine’s developing superpower – an empathic and telepathic connection to insects. If you cannot stomach the sight of the little winged beasties you should get over it, if only to enjoy the climax of ever escalating gonzo as our man Dario takes all the seriousness of the first ninety minutes and throws it back in your face. If you’ve seen it you know what I mean, and you know why Cap’n Spoiler will not be troubling the column today.
When Jennifer arrives at the school she already has a history of sleepwalking. Her doctors in the States regard this as possibly a precursor to the development of a new personality. When her ability manifests, she believes that this is that new personality they warned her about. What it actually is is Argento’s Carrie moment. Like Stephen King, he is looking at the changes in a girl when she reaches puberty and dressing it up in a horror story (as if puberty wasn’t enough of a horror story anyway, for boys as well). Dario does it much more discreetly than King however. The closest Phenomena gets to the second most horrific shower scene in cinema history is when the other girls at the school have seen a letter Jennifer wrote to her father telling him all about what was happening to her. They surround her as she runs through the hallways, taunting her individually, that cacophony becoming a chant, which is then overpowered by the buzzing of the millions of flies that have sensed her distress and descended on the building, covering every window with a solid black mass. It’s a powerful scene, all the more so for the subtext being just that instead of out in the open.
I just have to mention the soundtrack now. Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Goblin*… This is simply wonderful stuff. I would go and buy it but it seems to be running about $120 on Amazon, and it’s not available at all on the UK site. That saddens me. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to buy the movie instead. Blu-Ray for less than a tenner? That’ll do nicely.
*Of course Goblin is on the soundtrack, it is Dario’s own band after all.