Phenomena AKA Creepers (1985)
For those unfamiliar with the work of Italian director Dario Argento, Phenomena may not necessarily be the best place to start. It is somewhat excessive movie even by the film makers own standards. Yet if approached with the right mind set, then it can be a very rewarding film. Mainstream American cinema often has a clear and linear framework. It is constructed in an established fashion and despite adopting techniques and styles from other countries, is frequently somewhat conservative in its presentation. Italian cinema, especially the work of Argento, focuses very much on visual aesthetics. Framing, the use of colour, editing and atmosphere often take priority over narrative and logic.
Phenomena centres on Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor who starts at an exclusive girl’s school in Switzerland. She befriends Doctor MacGregor (Donald Pleasance), a disabled entomologist who is helping Police with their enquiries regarding a serial killer. The Doctor also has a Chimpanzee. I mention this as it is an integral plot device. It should also be noted that Jennifer is a somnambulist and has a telepathic link with insects. It is not long before Jennifer crosses the path of the serial killer, yet because of her strange gifts suspsicion falls on her.
On paper the plot does sound somewhat ludicrous and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t come across that way in the film. However Phenomena is beautifully shot on location in Switzerland and manages transcends its storyline through its audio visual excesses. Argento uses crane shots and stedicams to construct audacious and shocking set pieces, which are beautifully grotesque. European cinema always seems to depict acts of violence in a far more horrific way than the US. It is hard to put a finger on what the exact difference is. Colour and sound play an important part in the construction of Phenomena. The music veers from soft choral motifs, to burst of eighties metal. Night scenes are bathed in blue hues and blood is often splattered against lighter colours that starkly contrast it.
If you have a curious nature, a liking for the horror genre and an interest in European cinema, then this film is certainly a “baptism of fire”. Just to re-iterate the plot contains a killer dwarf, flesh eating insects, bad Scottish accents and a chimp with a cut throat razor. The final twenty minutes are quite gruelling but it is also an exquisite assault on your senses and for that reason alone I feel compelled to recommend Phenomena. Try and avoid the US release of the film which was renamed Creepers. This version was heavily edited from one hundred and ten minutes down to eighty two. Most of the violence is missing and the bizarre plot is rendered even more incomprehensible.
Phenomena features a soundtrack by long time Argento collaborators Goblin and their musical style contributes greatly to the film. The main theme is repeated in subtle variations throughout the course of the story. Although very much a product of the time, their unique European ambiance is still quite striking and the complete opposite of a traditional melodramatic orchestral score. This combined with the ambient sound effects and cacophonous sound mixing adds an extra dimension to Argento’s work and reflects his established aesthetic. One way or another Phenomena is a movie that leaves a lasting impression