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"It causes Madness "

Feb 9th, 2012

If I said that there was a film starring Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence trying to track down a serial killer using the psychic ability of insects you'd probably assume that the two actors had fallen on hard times or that I had watched a film heavily intoxicated. If I was to follow that up with the fact said movie was directed by Dario Argento the above plot seems more than expected (and a sight tamer than his current output). Phenomena even with its daffy premise manages to engage and entertain throughout its 2 hour running time.

After witnessing the brutal decapitation of a teen wandering alone in the Swiss countryside we flash forward 8 months to discover she was only the first in a series of victims. Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) enrols at a local boarding School for girls that our killer takes a liking to. Jennifer discovers an ability to communicate with insect kind as the pupils around her begin to drop like flies (pun intended). Can Jennifer use her new found superpower to track down the killer? Or should she take the advice of the teachers and mind her own business.

I'm a huge fan of Dario Argentos film work (even his modern outings) but I have to admit some of his storylines can be a hard pill to swallow. The first time I saw Phenomena (Under its censored cut named Creepers) it never left that much of an impression on me as it was quite subdued when compared to the likes of Susperia and Inferno (Argento's other supernatural Giallo). As time has passed however I find myself returning to the film far more frequently and a lot of that has to do with the fantastic performances by its cast.

Jennifer Connelly even at a young age displays such great talent as her character takes the weight of the entire movie on her shoulders. There are very few young actors who can give believable performances (just look at the Harry Potter franchise). What makes this even more impressive is the fact she makes you believe in the absurd with every twist and turn of the films plot. By selling the silly insect story it makes the film more accessible.

In a supporting role we get the wonderful Donald Pleasence who lays wheelchair bound insect expert. Much like Connelly he helps ground the movie in reality even though on second analysis his encouragement of the young Jennifer can be seen as ill advised. Unfortunately his role is all too brief with his helper monkey clocking in more screen time (yes there is an Ape in this film). The only downside has to be his rather dodgy Scottish accent which he tends to forget in a couple of scenes.

Usually the acting takes second fiddle to the stylised gore sequences but Phenomena manages the balance well elevating it above quite a few of Argento's back catalogue.

Now the story itself is going to appeal to those who have a fondness for Giallo or other Italian horror of the period. If you eliminate the strange supernatural bits the story is a by the numbers serial killer slasher. While I like the black glove obscured head look I must say keeping the killer obscured in such a manner gives off too many vibes of a Scooby Doo mystery. Where modern slashers and horror have a plethora of potential suspects when your cast consists of a little girl and an old man it's hard to care who the eventual killer turns out to be.

One real downside I came across was that the first half of the film seems like a beat for beat remake of Susperia sans the Ballerina setting. Our main hero arrives late to her new school and encounters hostility from the students and the staff. The sequences in the school are far too familiar and the story only really picks up when it deviates from the formula and removes Jennifer from the school setting.

Another flaw is the fact that the insect device that while taking up a whole buch of screen time really only serves to provide a tenuous link between our main heroine and the killer. The abilities are rarely used to full effect and make you wonder id they had been eliminated from the plot would it have made that much difference.

That said the final act is a genuine thrill ride as the killer and motivations are revealed. The manic pace is a genuine highlight as Argento does macabre like no other.

Another positive is that the sequences with the killer are shorter than most Argento fare. While I know he is known for creating prolonged sequences of terror and celebrated by many for such I do feel that sometimes they can be overly long which tend to grate on repeat viewings. Phenomena avoids this. The gore itself is graphic but not so much that it deserves it's 18 certificate (Im not sure why it's an 18).

One strange aspect is the sound mix which seems quite schizophrenic. The original score is fabulous and really complements the picture but it seems that Argento's own musical preferences are influencing choices. At random points blaring rock and heavy metal accompany scenes. The choices seem rather odd as they do not compliment the original score. I'd prefer that the movie made one decision and stuck to it. That and the fact the rock sections appear out of place (one plays over a sombre scene as a characters dead body is removed from the premises).

While most Argento fans tend to gloss over the existence of Phenomena as an average outing it's a far more competent and entertaining piece than given credit for. I managed to watch the film again in it's uncut form on blu ray from arrow video (who deal in the more obscure grind house features of the world) and it was well worth a return visit or discovering a new sub genre of film history.

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Movie Details

Movie Poster Here
Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento
Franco Ferrini

Released: 1985
Rating: 18
Starring: Jennifer Connelly
Donald Pleasence