A killer is loose, but don’t worry. Jennifer is on the case.
Phenomena is a moody and atmospheric thriller featuring Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role. It’s quite different from most other horror films being reviewed this year, but still manages to deliver chills, disturb, and scare!
While it’s difficult to tell the plot of the film from this trailer, it appears to be a young American girl in a European school. There are surprisingly several scenes of scissors or knives impaling body parts. And insects. Lots of insects. Perhaps the girl has some sort of psychic ability to control them, since they “sense her mood.” This Dario Argento film, starring a young Jennifer Connely, looks to have a number of creepy vibes about it, so let’s get started.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
In the Swiss countryside outside Zurich, a Danish tourist, Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento), misses her bus and wanders until she finds a house. She is attacked by someone with scissors and chased into a viewing platform for a waterfall where she is decapitated. Eight months later Inspector Rudolf Geiger (Patrick Bauchau) meets with Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a paraplegic entomologist who helps identify the time of death in the decapitated head. He works with Inga, a chimpanzee that assists him as a “nurse.”
Teenager Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) arrives in the country to attend an all-girls boarding school. She is picked up and delivered by Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi), an assistant at the school. Jennifer becomes roommates with Sophie (Federica Mastroianni), a rebellious teen. Jennifer sleepwalks one night into the woods and over to Prof. McGregor’s house where Inga helps her inside. She doesn’t remember much and is wearing only her nightgown. The Professor provides her a coat and they discuss his many insects, which she is not afraid of.
Sophie is told by the headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro) to keep an eye on Jennifer, but instead heads out on the grounds to meet her boyfriend after lights out. On returning to her dorm, Sophie is chased and killed by the killer, presumably because she was wearing Jennifer’s coat. Jennifer sleepwalks around the same time and is led to a maggot infested glove by a firefly. Other girls tease the newcomer because of a shared private letter where she admits she can talk with insects. She uses her powers to draw thousands of flies onto the school as a warning to the others.
Jennifer collapses and is taken to a mental institution, but she escapes and goes to talk to McGregor. He lets her know about the Sarcophagus Fly, which is attracted to rotting flesh. The glove she found probably belonged to the killer. He gives her a fly and she takes the same bus route where the tourist was killed. When she notices the fly getting agitated she exits the bus and finds the house, which is empty. Back at McGregor’s house, Inga is locked outside and the killer comes and stabs the Professor, who now has no one to protect him.
Jennifer calls her father’s agent Morris (Mario Donatone) in Los Angeles to get her home, and then leaves the school fearing for her life. She is met by Frau Brückner, who spoke with Morris by telephone, in a bank and is taken back to the woman’s house to wait for her flight the next morning. The frau mentions she has a young son but not to worry, and gives Jennifer a sleeping pill which turns out to be poison. Jennifer vomits it up when she realizes that Brückner is trying to kill her. She escapes through an underground tunnel where she finds Inspector Geiger chained up.
The inspector, who had come upon his own investigations of the frau, escapes from the chains and strangles Brückner. Jennifer escapes but is chased by the frau’s mutant son onto a boat on the lake. Jennifer calls down thousands of flies that eat his flesh off and he falls into the water dead, but her boat catches on fire. She swims to safety and is surprised to see Morris coming to rescue her. He is quickly decapitated by Brückner who is not as dead as she seemed. But when the killer comes for Jennifer she is stopped by Inga who attacks Brückner with a straight razor saving Jennifer’s life.
“It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic.” – Prof. McGregor
Phenomena is an Italian horror film by director Dario Argento (Suspiria) starring Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, and second film. It is a beautifully shot and atmospheric film that takes a little while to build up to a frenetic pace, but once it does–in the last 20 minutes or so–it’s unrelenting. The film contains at least three fake out endings where it finally seems to be over, allowing the audience to relax and then jump again and again. It also features Donald Pleasence in a supporting role presumably meant to invoke his role as Inspector Loomis in the Halloween franchise. He is a helpful older man to the young girl in the film, but instead of helping beat the killer, he is killed after only a couple of scenes. Argento seemingly set him up as a red herring to throw the audience off.
While Phenomena has some similarities to Argento’s previous film Suspiria, an American girl in European school, weird killings, and atmospheric moments, they are really two different films. In the 1977 film, Suzy is just an average girl, while here Jennifer has some sort of telepathic bond with the insects around her. It’s a very strange aspect to attach to a serial killer film. It’s also rare for the protagonists of horror films to have powers of some kind. There are only a few I can think of including both the protagonist and antagonist of Scanners, Danny Torrence in The Shining, and Christopher Walken’s character in The Dead Zone. In most of these films the powers of the hero allow them to thwart the villain/killer even when they may not completely understand their own powers, much as Jennifer does here. The use of forensic entomology is also a strange choice for this film. It seems a little reminiscent of the way the serial killer was tracked in The Silence of The Lambs. But coupled with the fact that Jennifer is able to understand the insects, they do end up leading her to the killer’s original house. It’s an interesting plot device, even if she doesn’t find what she’s looking for initially..
The look of the film is something else that stands out. The cinematography by Romano Albani is beautiful, capturing alpine mountains in the backgrounds of some of the shots. There’s also a constant strong wind blowing the trees and other objects around. It’s not just there for the atmospheric look, but also part of the plot. McGregor mentions it several times, calling it the föhn, a warm dry wind that sweeps down from the Alps. He also mentions that “when it blows, there are those who say it causes madness.” Could this wind have led to the craziness exhibited by Frau Brückner and her son? Or is she just trying to cover up a moment of indiscretion by her offspring? Some people may be familiar with a similar wind in Southern California called the Santa Ana, which blows hot and dry off the desert out towards the ocean. This is also linked to changes in mood and behavior for citizens, but nothing like Phenomena shows.
Phenomena may not be as famous as some of Dario Argento’s other works but it still stands out as an interesting and different kind of horror film. It presents a strong heroine that gets herself into a series of troubles while attempting to figure out what killed her classmate. The biggest problem is the weak character dialogue, which seems trite and stilted. It could be due to the filming process where the Italian actors filmed in English with dubbed dialog, or maybe just the writing process. It features many close-ups of maggots and other creepy insects that make the audience squirm, but here they are portrayed as helpers for the characters rather than something to really be scared of. It may not be overall as scary as some other films with killers jumping out repeatedly, or things appearing just in the corners of frame, but Phenomena has its own brand of slow simmering dread that delivers a heck of an ending.
- The electronic rock band Goblin performed the score for this film as well as Argento’s Suspiria and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
- Inga’s use of a straight razor as a killing instrument may be a reference to the killer orangutan from Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.