Written by Franco Ferrini & Dario Argento
Directed by Dario Argento
I have tried to find something to like about Dario Argento’s movies for almost twenty years, and I have finally gotten to the point where I can say I dislike almost everything he ever made. Deep Red is a decent movie, but even Suspiria is a narrative mess. After seeing Luca Guadagnino’s take on that horror classic, it helped me know that I just don’t care for how Argento elevates style so far over substance to the point that his films devolve into incomprehensible messes. Phenomena is one of those movies that I tried my best to enjoy, but by the third act, I just wanted it to end.
Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is an American girl living abroad in Europe while her father shoots a film in the Philippines. She’s set to attend a girl’s school in Switzerland but stumbles into a town under siege from a mysterious killer. For eight months, young women have been disappearing only to have severed limbs and heads washing up, covered in maggots. These particular insects have helped entomologist John MacGregor (Donald Pleasance) determine when the first murder took place, allowing authorities to create a time table. Jennifer begins to have dreams, sharing a sixth sense with insects, and can see what the killer is doing and who his victims are. She and MacGregor work together to stop the slaughter but don’t realize the maniac is now onto them.
The essential elements of this movie work, but Argento’s plotting and execution of the story are where everything falls apart. He’s so tied to the giallo tropes that he adheres to them while doing harm to the narrative. As soon as Jennifer shows up at the girl’s school, I guessed there would be a handful of bitchy students and a scene where our protagonist is mocked by them. Of course, that happens. The flourishes of the killer are nothing you can’t see in any other Argento picture. When we finally get an explanation of who the killer is, it is so half-assed and out of left field, yet fits perfectly with the other endings of this director’s work.
You could see the influence of popular works in the script of this feature. A Nightmare on Elm Street had been a huge hit the previous year, so we have Jennifer’s stylized dream sequences, not a significant part of the film but definitely feeling like they were inspired by Wes Craven’s film. The most blatant knock off is the third act reveal of the killer who is straight out of Friday the 13th both in the characters and even a climactic boat scene where the murderer leaps out of the water at a boat.
The dialogue is atrocious and took me out of the film on multiple occasions. I guess some people just really like the stylistics, and I get that to an extent. I enjoy movies like Beyond the Black Rainbow for mostly visual purposes. And I don’t even hate the giallo subgenre of horror. I think Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani have done great versions of it in Amer and The Strange Colour of My Body’s Tears. I find Argento’s storytelling to be so unforgivably sloppy. I think he would make a fantastic production designer but leave the film direction to someone who is a little tighter.
Phenomena wasn’t enjoyable to me, but if you like Argento’s other work (I suspect you will have already seen it), you will love it. This feels like a lot of Italian produced cinema of the late 70s/early 80s, swiping from other popular movies of the day and making a mishmash of tropes with a plot that falls apart upon the smallest of inspection.