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The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…
Let us get this startling revelation out of the way: I think that Dario Argento is overrated.
I have seen half a dozen of his films and I have been equally bored by most of them. These dullards include Deep Red, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Suspiria, and, the sole exception that I enjoyed, Tenebrae. In each case I found the dialogue atrocious, the acting poor, the plotting ludicrous and the production values overblown. To my mind, these titles are just slightly better dressed Troma films.
Allow me to also state for the record that I do recognise Argento’s skills as a film maker. I do actually respect that he has developed his own style of film making. His signature traits often include an over saturation of primary colours, complex camera movements, first person kills and pulsating soundtracks.
I believe that this focus on the hyper-real is great in principal, but in execution I think that far too often Argento’s aesthetics make his films seem like a badly shot acid trip from an anti-drugs video, rather than an unsettling experience that heightens terror.
The fact that Argento may want to ram his techniques into the audiences mind rather than letting the suspenseful/horrific events speak for themselves is his own choice of expression. Even if I do not like his style, it does not mean that I believe him to be a hack. In fact, I even intend to give his alleged-masterpiece, Suspiria, another chance one of these days. Yet the fact is that for all intents and purposes, I am unimpressed with Argento’s work.
Now, with that all laid out, for those of you paying attention at the back will have noticed that I wrote that I have seen half a dozen of Argento films. Yet I only listed five. This is because my most recent Argento viewing was only a week ago – and I am not sure if the evening counted as watching a film or experiencing a frontal lobotomy. Why, I was even forced to rewind moments to ensure I was had not fallen asleep and dreamed up plot points.
So unique was this Argento movie that I knew I would have to ponder him and his films as it simply had to be discussed here in Hollyweird. Ladies and gentlemen, this… is… Phenomena.
Phenomena opens in Switzerland. A Serial Killer claims a young, female victim. This is from the killers perspective and features a girl being stabbed- anyone familiar with his Giallo movies could rightfully say, ‘so far, so Argento’.
Cut to a few months later and a young American girl called Jennifer, conveniently named as she is played by Jennifer Connelly, is arriving at an all-girls Boarding school in the same area.
Jennifer is a sleepwalker, and on her very first night at the school she ends up wandering the grounds at night. This results in her unfortunate witnessing of a fellow student being murdered by the mysterious Serial Killer.
Fleeing, Jennifer ends up at a world renowned Forensic Entomologist Dr McGregor’s house. McGregor is confined to a wheelchair and played by a Scottish-accented Donald Pleasance. Luckily for Donald though, despite not being able to walk, what he does have is a helper Chimp.
So to recap the film so far; Somewhere in Switzerland, a sleepwalking American has become a murder witness, and has subsequently befriends a Scottish, paralysed, expert in Insect-based crime in, and fantastically there is a Chimp-assistant.
Now if the opening few scenes of Phenomena sound a little unusual, then just wait for the next bit- McGregor explains to Jennifer that she is having a strange effect on the insects in his Study. Consequently, he informs her that she must share a telepathic bond with insects.
Returning to school, Jennifer deals with bullies via her newly discovered power to control flies. Such a talent could be useful for enjoying picnics, one would imagine. Slightly less enjoyable for Jennifer though, her new room-mate is murdered that same night by the Serial Killer.
Jennifer is now the main suspect within the school on the rather flimsy grounds that she is ‘weird’. The headmistress, Frau Brackner, does what any respected authority figure would do. She agrees to have Jennifer locked away in a Mental Hospital without bothering to inform Jennifer’s parents or the Police.
Seeking to avoid being unfairly locked up, Jennifer escapes back to McGregor’s house. McGreogor suggests Jennifer head off with a special fly that is attracted to carrion. The plan is that if Jennifer can find the bodies of additional victims, she may find also find real perpetrator, clearing herself in the process. As with Frau Brackner, McGregor also does not bother to alert Jennifer’s family or the Police that he is sending out a teenage girl to hunt a killer. Perhaps Europeans really do look down on Americans.
Later that same night, the Chimp gets locked out of McGregor’s house just as the Killer attacks. McGregor is slain in a Stair-lift incident that sadly pales in comparison to the mightier effort in Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Enraged at McGregor’s death, the Chimp chases the killer. A high-speed car chase occurs, which yes, including the Chimp, but the Killer escapes.
The next day, Jennifer has hit the road with her new, carrion-sniffing pet. After a slanging match with an OAP on a bus for no particular reason, she ends up checking out a cottage that the fly is attracted towards. Finding a phone, Jennifer calls her father’s lawyer. Not her father mind you, just his lawyer. The lawyer then calls Frau Brackner and informs her of Jennifer’s location.
Brackner tracks Jennifer down and offers to put her up for the evening and before taking her to the airport in the morning. Once Jennifer agrees, Brackner promptly knocks her out and locks her in a broom closet. Jennifer manages to tunnel her way out (seriously) and ends up in Brackner’s underground lair. Here Jennifer finds a chained up Police Officer who had popped up briefly earlier in the film.
The officer’s appearance was so brief in fact that I purposely did not bother to mention him.
Frankly any film with a sleepwalking teen, chimp-car chase and telepathic insects has more than enough going on without ‘Johnny Law’ getting involved, too.
Brackner appears and throws Jennifer into a slurry pit of corpses to drown a nasty death. Brackner laughs maniacally whilst the Police Officer secretly escapes his chains. He seemingly beats Brackner to death whilst Jennifer escapes the pit and flees.
Escaping the carnage, Jennifer stumbles across Brackner’s son. Brackner’s son is a deformed, flat-faced mutant boy, and it turns out that he is as keen to kill as his mother was.
He attacks Jennifer with a pike- the medieval weapon, not the fish- and he ends up chasing her out of the secret lair altogether. They end up tussling on a small power-boat. Now out at sea, Jennifer uses her powers to call a swarm of flies to devour the boy whole. Panic sets in -induced for the boy and an accident leads to him roasting alive as the boat explodes and Jennifer swims ashore.
Once out of the water, Jennifer is relieved to spot her beloved father’s lawyer- not her beloved father, mind. The lawyer is decapitated by the not-really-dead Frau Brackner, who intends to repeat the process on Jennifer. Just as the heroine is about to be slaughtered though… the amazing, unstoppable chimp re-appears with a razor blade!! He hacks Brackner to death and saves the day in the way that only a homicidal Simian can.
I do not need Miami Vice or the craggy faces of faded Rock Stars to convince me that Cocaine ran rampant in the 1980’s. I have Phenomena for that. The sheer insanity of the film is not my issue why I dislike it though. In fact that lunacy should be what I love about it. Given the general theme of this blog, it should be clear that I can certainly appreciate films with unusual scenarios.
My issue with Phenomena is not with its level of insanity, but rather that even with all this insanity I still found the film very, very dull to sit through.
As already explained, I find the handful of Argento film that I have seen to be generally united through bad acting, over-powering colours, and Synth-heavy scores. Consequently is may be easy to assume that the reason I disliked Phenomena would be due to these same elements. However this is not true as Phenomena tactually has more variety to it than the other Argento films that I have seen.
Phenomena notably features rocks songs by Iron Maiden, Motörhead and Bill Wyman. Combining these artists songs with the Synth-Score offers some aural variety to an audience missing from his other outings. So automatically the film is not as a-typical to my ears as Argento’s other films.
In regards to bad acting, Phenomena actually features the two respected Thespians; Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasance.
Admittedly Connelly is incredibly young here, and her performance is limited to hitting her spots whilst looking pretty. I also suspect that Pleasance was doing the bare minimum with his part. It is undeniable though that Connelly does have an air of innocence that suits her role and is certainly game for a lot of animal and gore-based scenes, whilst Pleasance somehow brings an air of dignity to the role of a crippled-Chimp assisted-Bug- scientist. The acting here is certainly better than the c-grade script deserves.
Finally, the colours in Phenomena are split between tonal blues and greens for Exteriors, and whites and browns for interiors. They are still bold, but compared to the reds of Deep Red or the bright lights of Tenebrae, the palette here is more subdued. So once again I can see that this movie does differ in its own right.
So even by my own, limited exposure to Argento’s repetitive film work I can still recognise that Phenomena does have its own traits to some extent. Conversely though, this is why the film’s utter dullness is such a shock to me. I cannot blame the things I generally find frustrating in Argento’s other features, and certainly nobody can accuse Phenomena of lacking action.
Instead the problem seems to lie with the sheer sincerity of it all.
At no point does the film suggest there is something jovial or fun about telepathic insects, mutant children or armed and dangerous chimps. Instead everything is presented so straight that Phenomena has a certain pomposity to itself.
I would argue that film this loaded with lunacy needs just the tiniest amount of self-awareness to keep an audience on board with it, or at the very minimum to be gleeful in its many ideas. Instead Argento presents this work in the same tone as his more dramatic Giallo movies and I think Phenomena actually comes off the worse for it.
Incidentally, I am aware that Giallo and Argento’s supernatural films are somewhat silly. Indeed, many people like this camp aspect of silliness played straight. However Phenomena is just too nuts to pull it off. I was left sighing at every line or action rather than simply enjoying the ride.
I do not mean to attack Dario Argento on a personal note. Having filmed a Q & A with Dario Argento earlier this year, I can say that in person he seems both humble and intelligent. I also am not dismissing his whole body of work, as I have seen a relatively small sample amounting to 6/23 films that he has directed. I have enjoyed an Argento film and I am certainly open to trying more of his movies. But at the end of the day, when a horror movie containing Jennifer Connelly and a killer chimp leaves me checking my watch, it’s a disappointment all round.
Phenomena is just more proof to me that Argento’s work is over valued, and that not even an excursion into Hollyweird-territory could prove otherwise.
Next time- well, maybe there will be no next time!!
I’m actually curious to find out if there is anything that anyone wants me to cover. It could be specific films, genres or you can ask for my opinion on something.
Leave some suggestions under today’s entry and we’ll just see what happens next time. No suggestions just means a nice easy week off for me…
Thanks for reading,