Dario Argento’s Phenomena

Dario Argento’s Phenomena isn’t one you usually see in a greatest hits list offhand from the oddball Italian horror-meister, but it ranks number two for me in his filmography. Set in the already spooky, airy Swiss Alps, this one sees a very young Jennifer Connelly and her classmates at a boarding school terrorized by an unseen killer who, like in most Argento films, just loves to stab people with super sharp objects in excessive closeup. Connelly has a special power and affinity for insects, which comes in handy when she meets entomologist McGregor (the lovely Donald Pleasance), his pet chimpanzee and they try to snare the killer using their own keen instincts and that of the vast collection of bugs in his care. It’s a unique, eclectic setup for a horror flick, but what’s interesting here is the outright horror and nastiness doesn’t even show up until the hectic, gross out final act. Most of the film is like an atmospheric, eerie fairy tale. Connelly is a darkly radiant beauty and you can practically see the effortless star-power percolating even at the age of fifteen. This film is unique in Argento’s career for several reasons; he takes full enjoyment and advantage of the setting here, the cavernous, looming alps and vast, flower speckled fields of Switzerland provide a more nature themed, organic palette here than his usually urban choice of old European cities and historic edifices, it’s a switch up that works quite well. Mostly though this one is notable for a sense of compassion that isn’t there in any of his other films, brought in by kind eyed Pleasence and his friendship with Connelly. As per usual, some of the acting, pacing and continuity is really off balance here, but that has become an Argento trademark and you kind of have to just roll with it at this point, the guy’s forte has always been atmosphere, music and the feeling behind what’s onscreen, not so much the logic of plot or realism in performance. Speaking of music, this also has to have the coolest soundtrack he’s ever amassed. Not only is there an electrifying, thunderous synth score by Goblin and Claudio Simonetti with a very lyrical, dreamlike vibe, we’re also treated to original rock compositions by the likes of Motörhead and Iron Maiden, making it one of the most collectively memorable soundtracks out there. There’s another cut of this film called ‘Creepers’, but it’s awkwardly edited down by chunks and loses all the magic, so don’t even go near it. The Anchor Bay DVD is the way to go. One of Argento’s best, and a gem amongst horror films.

-Nate Hill

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