Would you enjoy watching a fifteen year old Jennifer Connelly get chased around and communing with bugs for about two hours? Sure we all would! Well, you’re in luck! If you enjoy Italian slasher films from the undisputed master of unflinching violent gore (Argento), and you like teenage girls, this is your film. If you subscribe now, you’ll also get: Donald Pleasence doing, is that a Welsh accent?, as a handicapped Entomologist with a chimpanzee helper, a touch of actual insect information (replete with a lot of close-ups), and, if you act now, a bevy of young women to scream and lose their heads in the forest! What more could you ask for? Honestly?
Granted there’s a whole level of Rolling Stone’s singing about a thirteen year old girl layered onto this horror film, but then who were these films made for? These girls are pretty much the target audience. Plus, there’s a whole industry built around the powers of the nymph that never cease to thrill our imaginations, despite most of us having lost our minds spending time with said fifteen-year-olds. For Connelly’s part she’d pretty much reprise this walking around with a bland look on her pretty face in Labyrinth as well (though that film had decidedly far fewer perils). And it also reminds me of the more recent Pan’s Labyrinth (labyrinth being the key denominator here) which fused a fantasy, a young woman having to navigate that strange colorful monster world, with a goddamned partisans fight Nazi’s war film. I didn’t get it, but half the film was almost charming if it wasn’t so loaded with war atrocities. I suppose there are a number of major films I’m ignoring here which continue this tradition (Black Swan comes to mind) but that’s not my business, I’m here to tell you about Phenomena.
At least when watching a “horror” movie, you can sort of prepare yourself for the standard gags you’re going to be subjected to. If you’re queasy about insects, you might wanna give this a skip. We get lots of close-ups of maggots. We’re even given a technically faulty, but overall correct smattering of forensic entomology. Yes insects arrive their first, generally flies of the Calliphoridae (blow flies and blue bottle flies which are the metallic ones we sometimes see on garbage and roadkill). Hell the film even makes very good use of Sarcophagidae even explaining where the name came from. The close-ups of the little booger are actually a Sarcophagid, so Argento gave a shit enough to actually have the correct FLIES in the film. That’s kind of a bonus. Meanwhile, however, we’re expected to imagine our Jennifer (actually called Jennifer in the film to make things easier I suppose) can somehow TALK to the insects. All of them! She’s a sort of Dr. Doolittle of the wide variety of insects. However, being insects and all, short lived, and without much in the way of a brain, they’re not exactly sharing stories, they just sort of react to her. Connelly does a pretty good job handling the bugs, but when it comes time for her to nose around following an animated one, we start to chuckle, don’t we?
Here’s the thing my friends, I did forensic entomology and if you’re anywhere near rotting corpses, or flesh, or even goddamned trash, you’ll know it. How will you know it? Let’s put it this way, law enforcement often put gas masks on to deal with it. The two main stench amines that alarm our senses (and I do mean alarm) are called: Putrescine and Cadaverine. The flies can pick up these molecules from amazing distances, measured in parts per billion. It’s what they do. However, in most of the sequences in this film, the piles of putrescence are within yards of people, and there’s just no way any normal human being could survive that!
Argento piles on the characters in this whodunit, and every time you think Jennifer has finally stumbled onto what should be bringing the tale to a close, we’re reloaded for another round of stabbing and bashing. After years of watching these sorts of films you start to feel like a veteran boxer sensing the end of the rounds, so I suppose it’s well that our director messes with our training. Plus, I feel like, this was the era that built block-busters like Se7en. Watching that movie an aficionado is just rattling off the films the scenes have been borrowed from, much the same way an Asian film lover can dissect any Quentin Terrantino film (QT is really a master of dipping into the unseen stocks of East Asian cinema and surprising us with it).
Phenomena is weirdly named, weirdly assembled, and a bit long. But the psychological horror-thriller was probably not done better to date (1985). It’s a little like watching a Marx Brothers movie and wondering why people think it’s funny. Dude, they invented those jokes! Or why people are so amazed by The Beatles (Dude, they invented the writing performers and the pop rock they played!) the list goes on. Argento is a genius even if this film falters a bit in being a bit too expansive. I don’t blame him though, I enjoy a wide-angle as a writer, and it’s good fun to surprise people with . . .
CHIMPANZEE! Yes! You didn’t see him coming did you!?
This will cost you no more than your prime membership on prime! FUN! Even the lobby card seems to suggest a different kind of film. Imagine if Argento made Pan’s Labyrinth!