Dario Argento has shown us some undeniably gnarly shit throughout his long and fascinating career of horror films but the jaw dropping visuals he employs can usually be split into two camps – the first is the slightly more realistic realm of the Giallo where deranged killers perform overly complex rampages are being activated by psycho-sexual triggers from their childhood, while the other are his rarer dives into the supernatural where all rules of logic and reason take a header out the nearest window.
However, planting itself stubbonly between these two poles is 1985’s Phenomena (aka. Creepers), a movie that combines Argento’s usual slasher antics with the truly batshit, anything-goes, unpredictable attitude of films like Supiria and Inferno. Spear wielding freaks, Jennifer Connelly conspiring with insects and a razor swinging chimp are only the tip of the maniacal iceberg in this insanely random, euro oddity.
Jennifer Corvino, the teenage, American daughter of a famous Italian actor has just arrived at the Swiss Richard Wagner Acadamy for girls at possibly the worst conceivable time as a mysterious serial killer has been killing young girls in the area. After in indulging in her unwanted habit of sleepwalking her first night there, Jennifer wanders out onto the roof and witnesses yet another student getting violently slaughtered by an unseen assailant with a collapsible spear. Fleeing the scene she stumbles onto the property of John McGregor, a kindly, disabled entomologist and his helper chimp, who take her in and give her shelter. McGregor has been using his knowledge of insects to aid the police in using the growth of maggots on found corpses to determine the time of death of the murdered girls and he discovers that Jennifer has a surprising gift: the ability to communicate with insects and as the two bond, they plot a way to combine their talents to hopefully track down the killer.
They’d better speed it up sharpish as the next victim ends up being Jennifer’s roommate as she’s brutally dispatched after she ducks out at night to smooch with her boyfriend – however, the fact that she was wearing one of Jennifer’s t-shirts at the time she was violently shoved off this mortal coil suggests that the killer has targeted the young girl specifically.
As her ability to be bosom buddies with bugs blooms, Jennifer finds she can urge fireflies to lead her to vital pieces of evidence or summon swams of flies to protect her, but even this might not be enough to protect her when the unpredictable and complicated identity of this local lunatic is finally revealed.
Easily the least of Argento’s impressively varied output of during the 80’s, Phenomena still manages to entertain and marvel simply down to the fact that it’s so unrepentantly weird. A truly deranged blending of slasher film, whodunit, Carrie and… Doctor Dolittle, I guess (?), it certainly scores highly on the random-o-meter but it’s also lacking any real forward momentum, with Argento obviously becoming more bogged down with the procedural nature of the story while seemingly being completely oblivious to how ridiculous it all is. In many ways, this (plus Four Flies On Grey Velvet) is the forebear to his fascination with more esoteric methods of detective work he would go on to further explore in movies like The Card Player, but while his attention is firmly fixed on a young girl using insects to crack a case (CS-Fly: Miami, anyone?), it’s truly a shame he’s not able to also wrangle the casual insanity into something a bit more cohesive.
Still, while Phenomena proves to be as distractingly random as socks on a salamander, a large part of what makes it so watchable is to see what steaming serving of highly stylish crazy the movie nonchalantly offers us next.
Having an impossibly young looking Jennifer Connelly play a sleepwalking, psychic child who can talk to bugs is literally the most normal thing the movie has to offer and it ups the ante almost with every scene that follows. Behold Donald Pleasance’s entomologist who bangs on in a Scottish brogue about how great insects are in the same hushed tones he usually reserves for describing Michael Myers; or his pet chimp, Inga who, (spoilers) in the event of his murder, finds a straight-razor in a public trash can (?) and goes on a quest to avenge his death; or that the killer’s identity is revealed to be both (more spoilers) the deformed, piranha-faced child of the school headmistress (Daria Nicolodi, finally playing an Argento villain) who has been murdering to protect her son while he pops out at night to slaughter girls and store their bodies in a corpse pit in his basement. And yet the film chooses not to lean into this unending stream of craziness, keeping the pace way too deliberate for a film that boasts a killer chimp.
Still, as per Argento’s usual modus operandi, Phenomena is still features moments of breathtaking stylistic flourishes such as the opening murder of a 14 year old girl abandoned by her tour bus in the middle of the Swizz countryside who head goes through a plate-glass window in agonising slow motion or the unforgettably squirm infusing sight of Jennifer desperately trying to claw her way out of a rotting, gloomy charnal pit while the headmistress cackles at her like a woman possesed – tetanus shots all round then… Another place where the movie flourishes is in its score which is not only provided by regular Argento contributors Goblin, but also features songs from head banging artists such as Iron Maiden and Andi Sexgang that blare on the soundtrack in the strangest of places – why exactly Motorhead’s Locomotive is playing while McGregor’s body is mornfully wheeled out of his house by coroners I have no idea, but it sure is memorable.
While I have many fond feelings for this highly uneven, yet hugely original slice of confounding cinema – you couldn’t have ended Friday The 13th with the heroine being saved by screeching chimpanzee as it carves up the killer with a fucking razor – it simply can’t keep a solid grip on all of the ideas that maddeningly buzz all over the place much like Jennifer’s buggy best buddies.