Phenomena (1985)

A monkey. A girl who can talk to bugs. Donald Pleasence. All directed by Dario Argento. If you don’t immediately say to yourself, “I’m in,” you’re reading the wrong web site.

Within the first two minutes of the movie, you realize you’re watching an Argento film. A tourist misses her bus, somewhere in the Swiss countryside, before she is attacked by an unseen person and then beheaded.

Fast forward a bit and we catch Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly, Labyrinth, The Rocketeer) arriving at the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls — did I tell you this is an Argento movie? The head of the school, Frau Brückner (Dario Nicolodi, Argento’s wife (at the time) and mother to his daughter Aria, who also co-wrote Suspiria and appeared in Deep RedInfernoTenebre and Opera amongst other films) already sets up an air of menace. Even her roommate offers no relief, telling Jennifer how much she wishes she could have sex with the heroine’s famous actor father. At this point, Jennifer relates a horrifying story about how her mother left her — it’s a moment of pure pain in a film that hasn’t led you to expect it. That’s because it’s a true story. The true story of how Dario Argento’s mother left his family.

Jennifer tends to sleep walk, which leads her through the school and up to the roof, where she watches a student get murdered. She wakes up, falls and runs from the murderer, ending up in the woods where she’s rescued by Inga the chimp — again, did I mention this is an Argento film? Inga works for forensic entomologist John McGregor (Pleasence). Argento was inspired by the fact that insects are often used in crime investigation to learn how old a body is and worked that into this film. McGregor learns that Jennifer can talk to the bugs.

After returning to the school, things go from bad to worse. Jennifer’s roommate is murdered and a firefly leads our sleepwalking protagonist to a glove covered by Great Sarcophagus flies, which eat decaying human flesh, which can only mean that the killer is keeping his bodies — again, Argento.

At this point, Phenomena pays tribute to Carrie, with the other students making fun of her in regards to her love of bugs. She calls a swarm of flies into the building and collapses, which leads to Frau Brückner recommending her to a home for the criminally insane. Luckily, Jennifer runs to McGregor, who gives her a bug in a glass case that she can use to track the murderer. Again, you know who. The bug leads Jennifer to the same house we saw at the beginning of the film.

Meanwhile, McGregor is killed after Inga is locked outside (True fact: the chimpanzee who played Inga, Tanga, sounds like she was uncontrollable. She ran away for an entire evening of the shoot and later, nearly bit off one of Jennifer Connelly’s fingers.).

Let me see if I can sum up the craziness that ensues: Jennifer calls her father’s lawyer for help, who ends up bringing Frau Brückner back into this mess, who tries to poison Jennifer and then knocks her out with a piece of wood,. She then KOs a cop before Jennifer escapes, going through a dungeon and a basement until she falls into a pool that is packed with maggot ridden corpses. This is the point in the film where you may want to stop eating, because it gets rather intense from here on out. As Jennifer escapes that watery tomb, she hears someone crying. That someone is Frau’s son, who was born from a rape. Jennifer asks him why she thinks he’s a monster, to which he turns to face her and scares the fucking shit out of her. Seriously, it’s jolting — the kid has Patau Syndrome, a real chromosomal abnormality (it’s makeup in the film, but looks quite true to life). He then chases Jennifer into a motorboat, but at the last second, she calls a swarm of flies to attack him. He falls into the water and the boat explodes and he dies and…whew.

 

I know this film is 32 years old, but I’m going to put in some spoiler space here because what happens next is crazy.

Jennifer reaches the shore just as her father’s lawyer arrives. All well, all good and then, out of nowhere, Frau cuts the dude’s head clean off. Plus, she’s already killed the cop and she goes absolutely shithouse.

“He was diseased; but he was my son! And you have… Why didn’t I kill you before? I killed that no-good inspector and your professor friend, to protect him! And now… I’m gonna KILL YOU TO AVENGE HIM! Why don’t you call your INSECTS! GO ON! CALL! CALL!”

At this point, Inga the chimpanzee comes out of nowhere and kills Frau dead with a razor. Keep in mind, this is not just one cut. This is a simian that knows how to get murder business done.

Jennifer and Inga hug. Roll the credits.

Phenomena was the last Argento movie to get major distribution in the U.S., thanks (or no thanks) to New Line Cinema, which played it here as Creepers. This version is 33 minutes shorter than the original and has so many scenes so shuffled, it makes little or no sense. Also, unlike other Argento films, Goblin only have two songs in this, as modern bands like Iron Maiden and Motörhead are featured.

I actually kind of love this movie. It makes little to no sense at numerous times, but you don’t walk into an Italian horror film expecting narrative structure. You hope to see some crazy gore, some interesting death scenes and maggots — all things that this film more than delivers. I’m not the only fan of this flick — the Japanese video game Clock Tower is an homage to this film, even featuring a heroine named Jennifer.

BONUS: We did a podcast all about this movie and you can hear it here:

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