Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence
"You're exciting him. And he is doing his best to excite you."
Phenomena is a bat-shit crazy film, even by Argento standards. However I have to add, that unlike some of his more famous films, like Suspiria, the narrative is pretty straightforward. It's less of a dreamy, psychedelic mood piece and more of a supernatural giallo.
Utilizing the familiar trope of a student in from out of town, Jennifer Connelly stars as "Jennifer", daughter of a rich and famous actor who is sent to an all girls school. Unbeknownst to Jennifer, and the rest of the students, there is a killer on the loose. And as the movie develops, it makes itself apparent that Jennifer is no ordinary girl. First she suffers the liability of sleep walking. Where she witnesses a murder in her sleep, only to fall off of a balcony, stumble into the road, and get hit by a car driven by two horny guys. But instead of taking her to the hospital, they drive off with her and intend to rape her, but she escapes.
Then she stumbles into Professor John McGregor's (Donald Pleasence) house/lab. He is a wheelchair bound entomologist (a science that focuses on insects) with a monkey for an assistant. It isn't long before the next unusual aspect of Jennifer is revealed: that she shares an unusual bond with insects. This becomes comically apparent, when a bug she is holding in her hand begins to discharge a sex pheromone in an attempt to woo her. Dr. McGregor remarks that it isn't even mating season. Rich stuff.
After another misadventure, the headmistress of the school becomes convinced that Jennifer is crazy, on drugs, or both. Jennifer even walks in on the girls reading pages from her journal out loud, with the headmistresses approval. Once Jennifer snatches her pages away, they immediately taunt her for her kinship with insects. Jennifer has enough, and has a breakthrough moment, where she gathers her energy and summons the insects outside to her. Everyone present is alarmed because a swarm of flies threaten to break through the windows.
After this episode, she is admitted to and escapes from a mental hospital. And after consulting with the good Doctor she is sent on a corpse finding mission. How is she going to find a corpse? By following a fly.
The entire premise of the film hinges on the believability of a young girl having a psychic connection with insects. In the world Argento presents, this doesn't seem too far-fetched. The general mood of the film is somber, with brief instances of intense commotion, which are accompanied by metal music. Specifically Iron Maiden's "Flash of the Blade", and Motorhead's "Locomotive". While this tactic has it's detractors, I think it works.
There are a couple of things that throw me off about the movie though. Right out of the gate, it is the narration. Firstly, this movie needs no narration, it's straightforward enough as it is. Secondly, the narration it has is limited to one scene, and comes out of nowhere. It's so jarring, that it will take you right out of the movie.
Another thing that bothers me, is the fact that immediately following any traumatizing episode, Jennifer instantly calms down. It is almost as if her adrenaline immediately evaporates and she defaults to a calm, and content place. As a viewer, this throws me off. It is very incongruent with the circumstances, and makes zero narrative sense.
Despite its flaws, Phenomena is still a great movie. Argento is one of the few Italian genre filmmakers to be afforded the budget to make a great looking film. And he knows how to use the tools at his disposal. Even though the plot is off the wall, the presentation is fucking classic. The lighting, and mood is unabashed modern gothic. This is a world where you believe a girl can harness the power of insects. The glint of polished metal is here as well, as Argento continues his seemingly fetishizing of cold, hard, steel. Marking the act of murder as an elegant art.
In Phenomena, a baby-faced Jennifer Connelly faces horny insects, straight-razor bearing monkeys, murderous psychopaths, and a hostile school environment. All of this is held together with the glue of Goblin's brilliant score. Most fans would package Phenomena in Dario Argento's b-roll. And maybe this is fair, but it deserves to be seen.