Some fans of Dario Argento’s films feel that Phenomena (1985) should have been the third film in The Three Mothers trilogy and not the official installment Mother of Tears (2007). Structurally and, at times, visually Phenomena bears a striking resemblance to Suspiria (1977), the first film in the trilogy, in that they have a dark fairy tale vibe and feature young women battling against malevolent forces. Both films also begin with the brutal murder of a beautiful young woman. In Phenomena, a school girl (Fiore Argento, the director’s daughter) in Switzerland just misses her bus and looks for help at a nearby house. Argento cuts repeatedly to someone or something trying to free itself from chains attached to a wall. The killer chases the girl through the woods and then kills her with scissors in a way that evokes the first operatic death in Suspiria.
Inspector Rudolf Geiger (Patrick Bauchau) and his assistant Kurt (Michele Soavi) enlist the help of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) to help them solve a series of murders via a radical theory that involves using insects to tell them the time of death. Meanwhile, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), an American student, attends the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls in Switzerland, chaperoned by Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi). We learn that she has a natural affinity for insects. She’s also a child of divorce who has been dumped there by her globetrotting father, a famous actor, and her estranged mother who lives in India. There is a really nice scene where Jennifer bonds with her roommate Sofie (Federica Mastroianni) as she tells her about how her parents split up. This scene is crucial in that it personalizes the film as we go from an objective third person perspective to the first person, empathizing with this poor girl who has been dumped into a foreign world with no friends or family.
Jennifer experiences eerie nightmares scored to Iron Maiden and is prone to sleepwalking on the ledge of a school building where she witnesses a murder and is eventually hit by a car. Only Argento could get away with orchestrating such an audacious sequence. Much like David Lynch he is able to seamlessly blend the dream world with reality. To make matters worse, Jennifer’s habit of sleepwalking makes her an outcast among her fellow classmates and a guinea pig to her teachers who poke and prod her like a lab rat. She meets McGregor and he helps develop her telepathic power over insects and they team up to stop the serial killer. He is the father figure that she is looking to fill the void left by her absent parent. In a nice bit of casting against type, veteran character actor Donald Pleasence plays a kindly old man, an academic type fascinated with the pursuit of knowledge along with his trusty chimpanzee attendant Inga (Tanga). The professor’s relationship with Jennifer is quite touching even though they make for an unlikely pair of amateur detectives.
With only one film on her resume prior to Phenomena (Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon A Time in America) and a background in modeling, Jennifer Connelly delivers a grounded, naturalistic performance devoid of the acting tics she would develop later on in her career. Under Argento’s expert direction, she creates a fiercely independent girl who also has a vulnerable side as evident in the tour de force scene where her classmates tease and torment Jennifer until she lashes out with her powers and the façade of the school is enveloped by flies while she looks on. Your heart really goes out to her as she’s misunderstood by her teachers and ostracized by her classmates. In addition, she’s learning to use and understand her telepathic powers. It’s a lot for a young girl to deal with and this is all beautifully realized by Connelly who acts very mature and poised for her age.
The origins for Phenomena came from a German news item that Argento discovered about crime investigators studying the behavior of insects in a room where a murder had been committed, leading to clues pertaining to the crime. He was intrigued by this idea and talked to the police who were quite supportive of this technique even though it was mostly theoretical and had only been applied once and not in a serious way. Argento then went to France and met with a famous entomologist who told him about how the world of insects applied to the criminal world. Co-screenwriter Franco Ferrini and Argento came up with the idea not to make a horror film but rather a supernatural thriller with this element introduced via Jennifer’s ability to telepathically control insects.
Argento sent actress Daria Nicolodi to the United States to cast Phenomena but she was met with a lot of rejection because of the subject matter. Argento originally wanted to cast Liv Ullman’s daughter Lynn in the role of Jennifer but when her agent read the screenplay he turned it down because it was a “splatter movie.” Another woman threw the script in Nicolodi’s face telling her, “You can’t torture an adolescent with such violent images.” Argento was taken with Jennifer Connelly’s beauty, in particular her eyes, and Nicolodi organized a meeting between them. She even showed the young actress’ parents a few scenes from Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which they liked. Nicolodi even became good friends with Connelly and they bonded over dinner. The two became close during filming with Connelly regarding Nicolodi as a kind of second mother.
Like most of Argento’s films, he creates an incredible mood and atmosphere and this is particularly evident in the way cinematographer Romano Albani photographs the forests that feature prominently throughout. For example, the establishing shot of Professor McGregor’s house shows trees blowing ominously in the wind at night – the elements at their most primal. Argento also employs his trademark saturated lighting in a given scene, like bathing Jennifer in cool blue while she dreams. Heavy metal and horror films have been linked together for a long time – both are marginalized genres within their respective mediums, never getting the respect they deserve and never being particularly interested in getting it. So, it makes sense that for Phenomena, Argento uses songs by Iron Maiden and Motorhead along with a creepy electronic score courtesy of Simon Boswell, Claudio Simonetti, the Goblins, and a slumming Bill Wyman.
As is typical with many of Argento’s films, Phenomena builds to an absolute batshit crazy finale as Jennifer confronts the killer along with the help of a straight razor wielding chimpanzee. At times, the film tends to defy logic (like how the chimp obtains said razor) but that was never one of his main concerns. Phenomena follows its own kind logic, which can be maddening sometimes (like the boneheaded choices Jennifer occasionally makes) but one ultimately has to surrender to the fairy tale vibe that Argento creates and enjoy one of the more original Italian horror films to come out of the 1980’s. Much to his chagrin, the film’s title was changed to Creepers in the U.S. by distributor New Line Cinema and almost 30 minutes was cut, including bits of gore and crucial character development. Thankfully, it has been restored in recent years and Argento considers it his most personal and best film to date.