Phenomena gets a raw deal. It’s often held up as the first sign of Dario Argento losing his masterly touch, an overblown blend of greatest hits and daftness.
However, while it shares several key plot elements with Suspiria and arguably never really squares its blend of creature feature, serial killer horror and fairytale, it’s a charming and compelling curiosity that features some genuinely brilliant sequences and an incredible soundtrack.
A 13-year old Jennifer Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of an American film star who arrives at a boarding school in the Swiss Alps just as someone starts brutally murdering teenagers. Jennifer stands out due to her celebrity status and her sleepwalking, but what really makes her special is her relationship with insects.
Can she and entomologist John McGregor (an endearingly Scottish Donald Pleasence) use her talents to find the killer?
The opening sequence (starring Argento’s daughter Fiore as the doomed schoolgirl) is one of the director’s finest and, although it’s somewhat uneven, Phenomena is beguiling precisely because of how much it’s trying to do. Jennifer’s age gives the mystery an innocence and fable-like quality even as she comes up against some truly shocking horrors.
It’s pretty bloody gory in places and the corpse-pool finale is suitably stomach-churning, but her special ability keeps the film out of giallo territory and makes it something more fascinating. And how can you not love a film that features a loveable chimp setting out on a mission of bloody vengeance?
Arrow Video’s special edition is a treasure trove for fans of the film, featuring three different cuts as well as an excellent feature-length documentary detailing the torturous production, from the casting difficulties (Orson Welles nearly played McGregor) to the problems with handling the insects to the torturous separation of Argento and his wife and collaborator Daria Nicolodi. It should be noted that it is also very up-front about the treatment of the animal cast, which is more than a little upsetting.
Phenomena may not be as consistent as Argento’s masterpieces but it’s frequently fantastic and deserves a reappraisal.