There is no doubting Dario Argento is a master of horror with classics like Suspiria, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Tenebre all hailed by film experts, filmmakers and fans alike as true genre masterpieces but what is it about his movies that really gets under our skin and stays there?
For me the answer can be found in another of his petrifying pictures 1985’s Phenomena where Argento directly tackles nightmares and dreams and in doing so taps into what truly terrifies us, the unknown and the unknowable.
Opening on the brutal murder of a young tourist stranded in the Swiss country side after missing her bus we are transported 8 months later where Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) the American daughter of a famous movie star arrives at the exclusive Swiss Richard Wagner Academy for Girls to continue her studies.
Tipped off that the area she is staying in is dubbed the “Swiss Transylvania” due to the strange goings on and serial killer slayings Jennifer finds it hard to fit in especially as the headmistress seems to hate her but she soon makes bonds with her roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni) who is obsessed with Jennifer’s father.
One night while sleeping Jennifer sees a series of strange images from the unfamiliar interior and starts sleepwalking finding herself in a locked off area of the academy where she witnesses another student being murdered.
Ending up awake and confused in the woods she is lead to the home of wheelchair bound insect expert Professor John McGregor (Halloween’s Donald Pleasence) by his nurse who just happens to be a chimpanzee named Inga.
Striking up a friendship with Professor McGregor over their shared love of insects Jennifer reveals she has a special bond with them feeling like she can not only communicate with them but see through their eyes and even command them all of which the Professor believes and attributes to Jennifer having telepathic gifts.
Distressed and convinced the killer will come for her Jennifer and her new friend decide the only way to stop the psychopath is to catch him herself and so she begins a rather unusual investigation which not only reveals the true extent of her powers but places her in more danger than she could ever conceive.
Although the above plot synopsis may sound insane it all somehow works hung on the familiar tropes and clichés of the Giallo genre. What is interesting is that although Giallo films always appear as simply police procedural stories with a serial killing psycho the crazy twists and turns employed especially by Argento propelling them into other realms from the psychological to the supernatural to all out Sci-Fi confounding the audience’s expectations.
What Argento is really dealing with within Phenomena is dreams not only via the plotline of Jennifer’s nocturnal wanderings allowing her to witness a murder and be privy to clues on the culprit but through the haunting nightmarish imagery and unstable unpredictability of the entire film.
Jennifer’s powers are never explained however like the wish fulfilling day dreams of a bullied teen they allow her not only to reap revenge on her cruel classmates and teacher who get swarmed by flies but solve an unsolvable murder case via her telepathic communication with insects.
By far the most stand out moments seem ripped from each of our nightmares and happen suddenly and shockingly, distorting and disrupting the story, the characters and the audience all at once, a masterful trick Argento pulls off several times within the movie.
Combining luscious cinematography with a pounding prog rock score by Goblin and some fine performances especially from Jennifer Connelly, Phenomena is drenched in a deep atmosphere of uncertainty and dread keeping the audience unnerved throughout and rightly so.
One of Dario Argento’s best horror’s and further proof of his genius as a filmmaker in Phenomena he taps into our nightmares reveling in their rich revolting randomness and making us face the things we forget when we awake.
Phenomena – The Arrow Video Story: