Whether or not he was the best director remains to be seen, when the topic of the Giallo comes up one of the first names to come up is Dario Argento. Even if his career took a near-legendary nosedive in the late 1980s-early 1990s, his peak stands among the best runs for any director in the genre film world. While Giallo was his main playground, there are a few of his films that span the divide between this sub-genre and more straightforward horror – Suspiria, most notably. There is also another film that fits that bill and like many, it is hidden in the shadow of that luridly coloured horror monster, and it is one of his stranger films in Arrow’s newly re-issued Phenomena.
To paint a full picture of this oddness you have to head to Hong Kong during the 80s and 90s and a group of film’s that came to be dubbed Category III. A category III film often paid little heed to the idea of logic, instead offering up a selection of different styles, genres, and ideas within the confines of a single, bewildering film; a mashup in the truest sense. Phenomena may be a $100million blockbuster compared to the ‘trash cinema’ being made within the realms of Cat III, but the philosophy is a mutual one.
In Argento’s Phenomena, a very young Jennifer Connelly heads to an all-girls school in Switzerland near which there is a mysterious gloved killer offing teenage girls, an area described by locals of the Swiss Transylvania. Traditional enough Giallo territory. One of the few characters who Connelly’s sleepwalking character, Jennifer Corvino, makes friends with is a wheelchair-bound Scottish entomologist in Donald Pleasence who also happens to have a monkey assistant. A monkey who plays a bigger role that would expect. The insects which Pleasence’s Professor McGregor studies share a psychic connection with Jennifer, a realisation which sees the young protagonist horribly bullied by her fellow students and threatened to be carted off to an asylum by the teaching staff. There’s also a mutated child providing a full stop to this already heady mix. A complex concoction by anyone’s estimations, surely?
Like the aforementioned Category III titles, Phenomena could be written off as incoherent junk but I am not going to do that. Argento’s film is far too enjoyable and far too accomplished in its craft for that statement to hold weight. Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini talk about man’s power over nature and whether it is appropriate and cast a gaze at burgeoning femininity and the sort of cracks that appear with troubled motherhood. Both of these add a subtext, it’s not subtle one – after all, this is a film in which a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connolly follows a fly she is psychically connected to find parts of a dead body. But let’s be honest with ourselves, who wants subtle? – subtlety is over-rated; also, that side of Italian cinema is covered by the 1960’s neo-realists.
Argento, like fellow Italians Bava and Fulci, has legions of fans who love the way he stages a death. Like I mentioned earlier, Phenomena is a Giallo that takes some satisfyingly weird left turns. While it is within touch of that debauched sibling to the murder mystery it gives us a solid kill, complete with slow single take point of view cinematography – a scene closed out by a nasty bout of scissor violence. There’s that subtle Argento textuality again. More interesting is the incorporation of the insects, there is a scene in which a potential death is reversed by a storm of winged insects unleashing their fury upon their poor victim. You can accuse this of being silly, but if you are going to write a film off for that, you really shouldn’t be mixing with Italian genre movies. As if to compound that sentiment, later on, there is a disgustingly gloopy pool full of filth, blood, and viscera like a 1990s kids TV show presented by the murderously insane.
The uncut version of this arrow release is fascinating. I watched in English and there are certain moments where the cast suddenly speaks in Italian or German. When this does happen its because there wasn’t an English version of the print to work with when reconstructing this beautiful print – it is a small price to pay and it compliments that earlier Cat III comparison. Plus, including a shot with a different language is better than no shot at all. So, Phenomena and the better Category III titles alike mix genre, style, and ideas into a dreamy otherworldliness; sudden changes in the language only take the gorgeously weird atmosphere that little bit closer to its natural conclusion. With its Goblin score and the inexplicable use of Iron Maiden and Motorhead, there is no better term to describe this overlooked Argento jewel – “gorgeously weird”.