- Monthly Theme: Giallo
- The Film: Phenomena
- Alternate titles: Creepers (Censored U.S. version)
- Country of origin: Italy
- Date of Italian release: January 31, 1985
- Date of U.S. release: August 2, 1985
- Studio: DACFILM Rome
- Distributer: Titanus
- Domestic Gross: ?
- Budget: $3.8 million (estimated)
- Director: Dario Argento
- Producer: Dario Argento & Angelo Jacono
- Screenwriter: Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini
- Adaptation? No.
- Cinematographer: Romano Albani
- Make-Up/FX: Sergio Stivaletti, Antonio Corridori & Luigi Cozzi
- Music: Goblin
- Part of a series? No.
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Giallo regular (and wife of Argento) Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red, Inferno, etc.). Horror movie icon Donald Pleasence (Halloween, Wake in Fright, etc.). Dario Argento’s daughter Fiore Argento. Future horror director Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man, The Church) plays a small role here.
- Other notables?: Yes. Jennifer Connelly of Labyrinth and Requiem for a Dream fame.
- Awards?: n/a
- Tagline: “Jennifer has a few million close friends. She’s going to need them all.”
- The Lowdown: For Phenomena, Dario Argento moved his regular antics to a remote all-girl boarding school in the Swiss countryside. The whole set-up is very reminiscent of his classic Suspiria (considered by many to be his signature masterpiece), in which an American girl finds herself abroad at a strange European school where uncanny events occur. In this version of the story, the American girl is played by Jennifer Connelly. Her character is the spoiled daughter of an international movie star. Oh, and she also happens to share a psychic connection with insects. The film also stars horror legend Donald Pleasence as a wheelchair-bound entomologist with a chimpanzee nursemaid, who joins forces with Connelly to solve a series of brutal murders.
If you haven’t seen Phenomena our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: So, I had no time to do any research on Phenomena except one tidbit. On imbd.com it said that Inga the chimpanzee attacked Jennifer Connelly and bit off her finger?
Kristine: I love it. I guess the chimp was feisty and didn’t want to stay still, so Argento told Jennifer Connelly to hold her down and Inga did not like that. Afterwards, she hated Jennifer Connelly and was antagonistic to her and then during the climactic chimp-freak-out scene she bit Jennifer Connelly’s finger off.
Sean: Oh, Inga and her filthy naked asshole. I’m sure Argento was like, handing the chimp a razorblade and yelling action.
Sean: So you are telling me that Jennifer Connelly, one of the world’s most beautiful women, has a prosthetic finger?
Kristine: I don’t know, we need to do some research on the veracity of the story.
Sean: She should have just told Inga, “You have a beautiful mind.”
Kristine: Inga did have a beautiful mind. She was my favorite character.
Sean: Why did you love her?
Kristine: She was a chimp and she was the hero! What more needs to be said?
Sean: She did get to climb on a car roof while it was speeding down the dusty Swiss back roads, slice a madwoman’s face off, and other assorted antics.
Kristine: She was the best.
Sean: Did you expect her to swoop in at the end to save the day?
Kristine: Yes, I did expect it and I also knew it would be with the straight razor. But it was still exciting and cool when it happened.
Sean: How did you know it would be with a razor?
Kristine: Because of the extremely unsubtle foreshadowing? When Prof. McGregor warns Inga for about 45 minutes about how razors are not toys, they are dangerous?
Sean: I think that was a scalpel in that instance, but touché. I remember that the first time I watched this I had totally forgotten Inga – in fact, I think when Patau, the mutant dwarf son, showed up my mind just went blank, erased – and then when she popped up to kill Frau Brückner I was like, “Oh yeah! You!”
Kristine: Ha! I was mad that stupid spoiled Jennifer was planning on leaving the country knowing that McGregor was dead and that Inga was out in the wilderness alone. I hated Jennifer, by the way, and it annoyed me that her character’s name was “Jennifer C.” in the movie. I believe Dario Argento was in love with her and that makes me mad.
Sean: I don’t think I was able to hold a single, solitary thought in my head during the last 20 minutes of this movie, which are insane.
Kristine: The final bit of this film has virtually nothing to do with the first hour and a half.
Sean: I have the feeling that I need to defend this movie, but I don’t know. Did you like it?
Kristine: Sean, let’s face it, this movie is a mess. I totally enjoyed watching it, but it is a wreck.
Sean: So then, I do need to defend it.
Kristine: If you want to take the position that it is not a mess, then yes, you do.
Sean: I would say that you are correct. It is a mess, but it’s a glorious, beautiful, fascinating mess. That is my position.
Kristine: I don’t dispute that. There were a lot of things I loved about it, but it is ridiculous. Extreme ridiculousness.
Sean: Oh, total extreme ridiculousness. I mean, batshit ridiculousness. Well, can we start with what you liked?
Kristine: Okay. I liked the setting. I loved the mean schoolgirls in the Swiss boarding school. I liked the threat that Jennifer was going to end up like, with a Rosemary-Kennedy-style lobotomy courtesy of the ice queen Headmistress. I liked the schoolgirls being hunted down contrasted with them all being girly and obsessed with pop culture. I loved Inga. I loved the ridiculousness of the insects getting horny for Jennifer. I loved the sinkhole with the rotting bodies and maggots and I really loved Jennifer getting dumped in there in her Giorgio Armani alabaster outfit complete with the menswear influence.
Sean: I agree with all that. In fact, here we have Argento doing another “American abroad” story, except one that’s very different from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Kristine: I also liked the storyline of Frau Brückner being raped “through the bars” by an insane person, even though all that exposition was so crammed in at the end. Through the bars, Sean. Through the bars!
Sean: That whole thing of the woman raped by a madman and then giving birth to a mutant is such a fucking Catholic story. Like that the circumstances of contraception determine the quality of the offspring’s soul. Or that “perverse” sexuality leads to literal, physical deformity (as well as spiritual deformity).
Kristine: I was struck by the similarities between this and Friday the 13th. The climax happening on a boat in the middle of a lake? The mutant man-child? The murderous, over-protective mother?
Sean: I never even realized it, but it’s true.
Kristine: Right? By the end, I was like… how did this turn into Friday the 13th?
Sean: But this movie has so much style and gusto in comparison.
Kristine: I agree, but still. Lots of similarities, including – of course – the one-by-one hunting down of the victims and the imaginative yet consistently brutal kills. My favorite was the spear through the mouth, of course.
Sean: I think the murder of Prof. McGregor was the stylistic centerpiece of the movie and was amazing.
Kristine: Poor McGregor trapped on his automated wheelchair lift was scary.
Sean: That sequence was Argento showing what a master he is, I think.
Kristine: Inga screaming outside really added to that scene, all frantically trying to get in.
Sean: That red pointer light glistening off the eyeball of the killer? The glow of the blade in the dark, against the outline of the killer at the bottom of the stairs? I found that whole sequence masterful and genuinely unnerving. Also, Donald Pleasence’s Scottish accent was ridic. And wouldn’t his named be spelled MacGregor (not McGregor) if he was Scottish?
Kristine: Yeah. I also liked when Vera, the tourist at the beginning, entered the house and it kept cutting to the monster straining against his chains.
Sean: Oh yeah, the unseen thing tugging on the chains was great. The whole mutant chained in the basement thing is so Gothic. That’s one thing I wanted to discuss, is how much more Gothicism is in this movie, more than any other giallo we’ve watched.
Kristine: Okay, but first I have a question. Did Patau, the mutant son, kill Vera in the beginning or did Frau Brückner?
Sean: I think Patau killed her. He killed all the girls, Frau Brückner killed the men (which is no small coincidence, I’d say).
Kristine: But. Patau was like one, single foot tall. Why didn’t Vera just stomp on him?
Sean: I thought when he was menacing Jennifer in the boat with the spear that he was really scary. I would die if he came after me.
Kristine: I love how you want to conjure up ghouls with a Ouija board or black magic ritual, but one downsy sends you into a tizzy.
Sean: I just have a fear of downsies, I guess.
Kristine: Oh my god! I cannot even believe you right now.
Sean: Um, you are the person who said “downsy”!
Kristine: Can we talk about Jennifer’s extremely politically incorrect reaction to Patau?
Sean: Retarded folks used to chase me at the county fair back in Connecticut and I would die of terror.
Kristine: What? What is this?
Sean: There was a yearly fair called The Big E and all the homes for the mentally/developmentally disabled would like, take the denizens for an outing there.
Kristine: Did they knock you down, sit on your shoulders and spit in your mouth?
Sean: No, they would like, run at you and spazzily flap their arms and drool mucous down their chins. I am not saying I am proud of my reaction, I am just saying that they really scared me as a kid. Especially because they were full-grown, so they were supposed to be “adults” but yet they were not adults. I think the fact that they were something indeterminate between adult and child, and yet possessed adult bodies, scared the ever-loving-crap out of me.
Kristine: You realize that when I worked with developmentally disabled adults (which is the proper term, by the way, you monster) I took them on outings to such events.
Sean: They terrified me. Deal with it.
Kristine: They weren’t chasing you. Maybe they were joyfully running.
Sean: I think I thought they wanted to rape and murder me.
Kristine: You are a hideous, brutal monster, Sean.
Sean: Look this is a horror movie blog. The whole point of horror movies is to look at and explore dark truths, and this is a dark truth. Deformed and/or “developmentally disabled” people are scary, and everyone thinks it and everyone feels it. I think once you’re actually around and get to know people, obviously those feelings get replaced by their humanity and you get over it and the fear looks stupid and ignorant. But there is an intrinsic human recoiling from deformation and disability, which is real and is a part of the human experience. Is it “right” or “wrong”? I don’t know, it just is. For example, in 1960s Japan I guess deformity was considered a huge taboo and there was an Island of Dr. Moreau-style movie called Horrors of Malformed Men that like, made everyone freak out and it was censored and banned and excoriated, just because looking at or talking about human oddities or people with deformations was considered so controversial (a similar thing happened in the States in the 1930s with a movie called Freaks). The outcry was around it being exploitation of “developmentally disabled” people. But this is the whole thing with horror movies. They want to tap into gut, instinctual primal fears and loathings, and it is part of our intrinsic nature to recoil. Why do you think Jason Voorhees is deformed? Or Patau? I can think of a million horror movies (The Funhouse, The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance, etc.) that exploit that primal recoil.
Kristine: So, you’re saying that you think Jennifer’s reaction to Patau is totally valid? And that all non-normative-looking people are loping beasts that it is “natural” to recoil from in terror?
Sean: Argh! Can you explain what about her reaction was so bad?
Kristine: Jennifer finds Patau standing alone in a room, facing the wall and crying. He looks to be about 6 or 7. Jennifer approaches and gently talks to him and tells him not to be afraid, that she cares about him and is there to help and to turn around and trust her… and when he does and she sees his slightly unconventional looks, she screams “NOOOOOOOOOOO! OMG!!! NOOOOOOO!!! IT’S HORRIBLE! GET AWAAAAAY” and runs away from him, later setting him on fire and drowning him. She is a lookist.
Sean: “A lookist.” I love it. One of my favorite details of that whole scene is that before he turns around they loop in a normal child’s voice crying and speaking normally, but then when he turns and shows his hideous face, all he can do is gurgle and screech like a thing.
Kristine: Ha ha, this is true. Remember how in the beginning of the movie there is a random, one-time-only voice-over that is all, “And so Jennifer arrived at the school for girls, clutching her Armani to her budding breasts”? And then there is never another voice-over ever again, and it is ridiculous?
Sean: That voice-over is demented madness. I think Jennifer screams and runs away from Patau because he is a murdering, rampaging creature.
Kristine: She doesn’t know that at the time. All she knows is his face. She has no idea he is the murderer. Well, one of the murderers…
Sean: If we walked into a room and saw that face, you would push me towards it and trip me and run.
Kristine: If he was holding a chainsaw, yes. I am not bigoted against non-violent mutants.
Sean: I adore all the close-ups of his seeping mouth and puffy, mongoloidal eyeslits. Hilarious and terrifying.
Kristine: His mouth was pretty bad. But address and acknowledge the fact she didn’t know he was a murderer when she reacted that way.
Sean: Well, but you’re also reading Jennifer the riot act for setting him on fire and drowning him. 1) She actually doesn’t set fire to him, her psychic bug swarm chews the flesh off his body and he falls in the water. Then, because he all mutantly tries to stab her with a death spear and punctures the gas can on the boat, the boat explodes and the lake gets set on fire. 2) He drowns because he is trying to claw her feet off in the water and she, in a completely justified action, kicks him in the face and he dies. I just want to add, I love Patau. When he appeared in the movie, this instantly became one of my favorite Argento movies.
Kristine: Wow, really?
Sean: Yes, I love this movie with all my heart. I love all the craziness. I love the twee magical realism shit with the bugs.
Kristine: I loved the decapitation of Morris.
Sean: I love the total incomprehensibility of anyone’s behavior.
Kristine: And of course, Inga forever. Admit that Jennifer was a little bitch.
Sean: I love the schoolgirls rioting and yelling “Screw the past!”
Kristine: “Richard Gere!”
Sean: And refusing to follow the Headmistress’s lesson plan and saying that all poetry comes from Bee-Gees albums.
Kristine: I loved the bugs swarming. I need to ask you as someone who is insanely, violently phobic about swarming bugs… How did those scenes make you feel?
Sean: I have gotten better about bugs with age. I stopped violently spazzing out around bugs in like, say, my late 20s. Living in the rotting swamps of north-central Florida kind of forces you to just deal. I don’t even run away from bees anymore.
Kristine: I’ll believe it when I see it.
Sean: The scene with the swarming flies were amazing, though. This is what I mean: Argento imagines this pubescent girl’s psychic energy as swarming flies and insects. It’s so not-girly-girly and so awesome. She is a very genderqueer character.
Kristine: Here we go.
Sean: And I totally picked up lesbo vibes between her and Sophie. I loved Sophie, by the way. Sophie all yelling at that boy and running into the woods, cackling, was amazing.
Kristine: I loved her too. Why lesbo-vibes, because Sophie says she is pretty and borrows her ‘80s gear?
Sean: Just, they want to be all up in each other’s babyfood. I loved the Armani off-the-shoulder number that Sophie got killed in.
Kristine: There is no reason to discuss any outfit other then the white ensemble Jennifer is wearing when she gets dunked in the corpse-hole.
Sean: And remember that Jennifer resolves to solve the murders “For Sophie.” Also, all the talk between Jennifer and Sophie about Jennifer’s sexy actor dad was… incesty.
Kristine: I agree. Who brings numerous posters of their dad to hang in their dorm room? Even if their dad is a movie star.
Sean: Sophie and Jennifer’s lusty dad-talk was also part of their lesby bonding.
Kristine: I’ll tell you who was a dyke: Headmistress. How did you feel about her egging on her students to torment Jennifer?
Sean: Headmistress gets the best line ever when she goes, “She’s diabolik!” But then she’s all yap-yap-yapping away about “Baal-ze-bub.” I was like, stop reading ancient demon scrolls, lady. You know too much about demons.
Kristine: Heh. Did you feel like Jennifer was sexualized?
Sean: I think that everything in the movie is a metaphor for incipient sexuality. The bugs are her pubescence.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: I think there’s a vaguely weird, possibly sexual vibe to her friendship with Prof. McGregor. It is significant that he is in a wheelchair, because it neuters him and turns him into a safe paternal figure. The sexual threat of the grown man around the pubescent, blossoming girl-woman is obviated by his wheelchair. But everyone knows that sexual predators lure children to them with chimpanzees (Bubbles).
Kristine: McGregor constantly comments on her sexuality.
Sean: But the movie still finds a way to imply the threat of rape and violation with those rapey guys who pick Jennifer up after her insane, out-of-nowhere sleepwalking sequence.
Kristine: Those rapey boys were very confusing. Like, at first they are concerned for her well-being, but then she’s suddenly slung between them in their little roadster, and then they dump her. Were they driving her to a Swiss rape dungeon like the one in Martyrs, Sean?
Sean: Probably. And they don’t “dump her,” she jumps out of the car. It’s like, one of the few times the movie imagines her doing something of her own free will. Even later when she goes on the quest to find the killer, she’s just following McGregor’s set of instructions. She’s sort of a cipher/vessel throughout the movie. Jennifer’s sleepwalking is one of the grossest ways in which Argento forces the character into passivity and zombification. If this is a movie about pubescent sexuality, then the sleepwalking is there – I guess – to emphasize how out-of-control her own body/consciousness is. But it also feels like a weird male fantasy of her, with her nightgown constantly blowing up to her ‘nani lips, being suggestible and passive and just a body without a will and the instinct for self-preservation. When she like, steps off of that broken chateau ledge and then is swinging, ridiculously, by her virginal nightgown? Also, her visions of a white tunnel filled with doors seems like Freudian erotic dream imagery to me.
Sean: Do you remember when one of Jennifer’s peers at the all-girls-school is like, “Sleepwalking? What a showoff!” I was like, WTF?
Kristine: Oh, I know. But that feels true to actual teen girl behavior.
Sean:It’s hilarious. Like, why would sleepwalking be showing off? It makes no sense.
Kristine: It makes no sense to you because you do not understand the dream logic of being a teenage girl. To them, anyone who has an eating disorder or any self-harm issue, really, is considered to be “doing it for attention.”
Sean: “Bulimia?! What a showoff!”
Kristine: Sean, that’s exactly how it is between teenage girls and I am not kidding.
Sean: Speaking of bulimia, Jennifer making herself puke up the pills in Frau’s bathroom was…. a shout-out. Just fyi, Asia Argento’s half-sister Anna Ceroli struggled with eating disorders. Fiore Argento, Dario’s other daughter and Asia’s other half-sister, played the part of Vera, the tourist girl who is the first person killed in this movie. Both Anna and Fiore also appear in Trauma briefly, the first film Asia made with her father, and Asia’s character is a troubled girl struggling with anorexia (reportedly based on Anna). Anna died in a motorcycle accident just a few months after Trauma was made.
Kristine: Huh, interesting. Is Jennifer Connelly an Asia Argento stand-in for this movie, do you think?
Sean: It’s possible.
Kristine: I thought she was definitely a stand-in, and her character’s famous movie person dad was a stand-in for Argento himself.
Sean: Argento was like, interested in teen girl drama in a way that is almost creepy for a heterosexual man. Though he had daughters, so it does make sense.
Kristine: I know what you mean, but admit that teen girls are inherently interesting.
Sean: Totally. But he like, doesn’t get them at all, yet wants to represent them. It is a weird mixture.
Kristine: I don’t know if he doesn’t get them. He might get them.
Sean: I also thought the flies swarming as Jennifer’s being bullied and then her being like, “I love you l love all of you” was a Jesus thing, and part of the film’s Catholic subtext.
Kristine: I agree with that. She surrendered and was all beatific. But she is also vengeful…
Sean: See I think the point is that she’s not wrathful, she’s angelic. I think she is meant to be Christ-like in that moment.
Kristine: Well, I slightly disagree. I thought that at first because it seems as though she is saying “I love you” all to her schoolmates, the message being “You are all bullies and monsters, but I turn the other cheek” but really she was talking to the flies that were doing her bidding. There was a very strong sense that if the girls didn’t quit it, the bugs would smash through the windows and attack.
Sean: I wanted them to so bad. I wanted all those girls and teachers to die horribly. Bullying scenes make me blind with rage.
Kristine: Inga-abuse scenes make me blind with rage.
Sean: I think that’s a good point about Jennifer talking to the flies. See, I think her anger and stuff all gets externalized through the bugs which accomplishes two things – 1) it absolves her of “unclean” feelings and 2) again, it turns her into a very passive figure.
Kristine: You keep ducking the question of whether you “liked” Jennifer Connelly’s character or not.
Sean: I duck nothing. I mean, Kristine, she’s a total cipher. There is nothing “there” to like or dislike, I thought. She is a pure contrivance for Argento to explore all his weird obsessions. I don’t even see her as real.
Kristine: I disagree. When she is all, “I am calling the Jew. Wire me money. Daddy won’t stand for this.”
Sean: You call him “the Jew.”
Sean: She called him “Morris.”
Sean: He shows up to rescue her! And then gets bitch-beheaded by Frau Brückner.
Kristine: You are being deliberately obtuse.
Sean: Explain. Also, shades of our Anna discussion on Martyrs here.
Kristine: He was obviously a Hollywood Jew money guy. His name was Morris Shapiro.
Sean: Ha! I mean, I guess….
Sean: I guess I just don’t care about that or him. Why should I care? Are you saying that Jennifer is an anti-Semite?
Kristine: I am saying she is a bit of a Hollywood princess.
Sean: Oh, most definitely. Sure. But that didn’t make me dislike her. She’s Sofia Coppola.
Kristine: Right. Or Asia Argento…
Sean: Um, I guess, but I don’t think of Asia like that. I think of Asia as 1/2 Courtney Love and 1/2 Marion Cotillard.
Kristine: Let’s talk about the gore or lack thereof. Body sinkhole.
Sean: Hahaha. That sinkhole really left an impression on you.
Kristine: So gross.
Sean: What do you think is significant about it?
Kristine: It’s gross.
Sean: Well, I actually thought it also brought this killer to a whole other level in the giallo. Like, to have that hole is depraved. Keeping the bodies rotting in there? It’s a different kind of maniac than the ones in the “classic” giallos we’ve watched up until now. Much more “Ted Bundy” than the stylish psychos of Blood and Black Lace or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, or even the priest in Don’t Torture a Duckling.
Kristine: Okay, I am confused about a plot point. Remember the loooooong scene where Jennifer is “led” to where the bodies are by the fly (ridiculous, by the way)?
Sean: I love that scene. But yes.
Kristine: And it takes her to the house from the opening scene where the tourist girl was killed? And the handyman whatever confronts her there?
Sean: She goes to a rental house, where the Frau and her son lived at the beginning of the movie. There’s an 8-month time jump from the cold open to the arrival of Jennifer in Switzerland.
Kristine: Oh, so Frau and Patau moved? And moved the bodies?
Kristine: That’s weird. How do you move a sinkhole of rotting bodies?
Sean: What makes you think they had a sinkhole at their previous house? When Inspector Geiger (another entirely incidental joke of a Rational Inquiring Maculine Authority, by the way) runs into Frau on the front porch, the fact that she moved eight months ago is one of the things that makes him suspicious of her. Because of the timeline of the murders. When Frau Brückner confirms that she moved eight months ago, Geiger is like – “But that was right when Vera was killed.” Remember the very first scene of Prof. McGregor is him being consulted by Inspector Geiger about how he determines the time-of-death by using all his bug science on the rotting body parts?
Kristine: Yes, I remember the bug science. I missed all the rest of that, I guess.
Sean: Remember how the fly leads to a rotting hand under the floorboards at the old rental?
Sean: That was the movie confirming that the killer did indeed live there once. That they were definitely stashing and keeping bodies as trophies in that house. That’s the biggest difference between them and the other giallo killers we’ve met this month. They turn bodies into trophies and like, revel in the aesthetics of death and decay.
Kristine: Yes, I agree, no other giallo killers were interested in that aspect of death. They were more interested in the fear right before death or just the act of killing or were killing for a purpose. But one thing this had in common with all the other giallo movies we have watched is that the killer, or one of the killers is a lady. In all four movies, the killer either was a crazy woman (this movie and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), a tormented woman (Blood and Black Lace and this movie) or you thought the killer was a woman (Don’t Torture a Duckling). And even though the killer in Don’t Torture a Duckling was a man, he was a eunuch/priest figure, so not a “real” man, right?
Sean: Totally. He was a “neutered” male, a celibate priest.
Kristine: Hetero males can’t or don’t kill, according to giallo movies?
Sean: I guess.
Kristine: I mean, I know the primary killer in Blood and Black Lace was a man but he was doing it for strictly mercurial reasons.
Sean: He was a lothario also, that character.
Kristine: Whereas the woman in Blood and Black Lace was doing it out of love, emotion, a.k.a. craziness, right?
Sean: Well, think about the contrast between these movies and the U.S. slasher and it reveals so much about Italian vs. American psychology, no? As you pointed out when we watched Maniac, the slasher is often all about scaring/warning women about the dangerousness of men. But the giallo is the opposite, it’s warning men about what crazy fucking bitches women are.
Kristine: Totally. But they are all gorgeous. Except maybe in this movie….
Sean: Also, by the way, the evil Frau is played by Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s muse, his former wife and the mother of Asia Argento.
Kristine: That’s fucked up. The evil Frau who was raped…”through the bars.”
Sean: I know. They remained close after the divorce and made many movies after the split.
Kristine: If my dad directed a movie and asked my mother to play a woman who birthed a monster baby, I would be offended.
Sean: But the gonzo evil killer parts that these women get to play are pretty amazing, I think.
Kristine: Oh definitely. Way better then the parts for women in the U.S. slasher, which is just victim or barely competent survivor.
Sean: Just wait until we watch The Stendhal Syndrome. The psychology of the Argento family gets very demented, very quickly in that movie.
Kristine: We need to discuss the soundtrack, I think.
Sean: Oh you mean the scenes of bored girls walking around rooms while Motörhead is blasting?
Kristine: Sean. Ridiculous.
Sean: Yeah, that incongruous metal is over the top.
Kristine: Over the top of the rainbow of insanity.
Sean: It is bizarre to the nth degree. Well, this actually comes back to my earlier point about how many Gothic elements are in this movie. I think that the metal soundtrack is part of Argento’s take on the Gothic. The huge mythic structures. The girl wandering the moors in her white nightgown.
Sean: And then metal, for him, is part of that world. But for the audience, it is just crazy. He is in his own universe.
Kristine: Ha ha, exactly. That’s why I am dying to visit his shop/museum in Rome. It’s like the Dario Argento amusement park.
Sean: Where the dance of the lightning bug leads a young girl to the killer’s glove?
Kristine: Like you said, he is so twee with his dark side.
Sean: And he has shots that are from the point of view of a ladybug and a maggot. I mean, holy shit. He is Wes Anderson and Rob Zombie.
Kristine: Exactly the kind of person who would cast a very angry chimp and give it a straight razor. Viva Inga.
Kristine: I want Phenomena 2: Inga’s Revenge.
Sean: She had her revenge. On and off screen it sounds like to me. She sliced off the killer’s face and bit off Jennifer Connelly’s finger.
Kristine: I want more!
Sean: I guess there was going to be a sequel once, but it fell through… Okay, I have one more thing I want to discuss: the Swiss setting. We’re back in the country for this movie and there’s all this talk of “the wind.” The blasts of warm air from the Alps. Remember when Prof. McGregor gives that weird monologue about how the winds make flowers grow but also cause madness? He refers to the area as “the Swiss Transylvania.” You can’t get much more Gothic.
Kristine: Oh yeah.
Sean: That connection between the exterior landscape and the interior emotional lives of the characters is classic High Gothic/Romantic shit. Like, a character is in turmoil so they are standing on a cliff overlooking a storm-tossed ocean with fifty-foot waves smashing on the rocks. Interior and exterior mirror each other. All McGregor’s talk abut the wind causing madness is like a perverse equivalent to that.
Kristine: Yeah, it almost feels like as we’ve progressed through these movies the motivations/explanation for the killer(s) have gotten more and more bizarre and outlandish. In Blood and Black Lace it was very practical – to cover up an earlier crime that was committed for material profit – but now here we are and the explanation is just… “devil wind.” We’ve moved out of the realm of human psychology and into the realms of metaphysics, the supernatural and the uncanny/occult.
Sean: Remember, also, Frau Brückner accuses Jennifer of having a fever and says “In this part of the country –with this wind….” I think there’s this idea that the madness is like, carried on the wind. That part of what makes them crazy is the land, the environment.
Kristine: By the way, I do believe the wind makes people crazy.
Sean: Well, El Niño, right?
Kristine: I think “crazy wind” is a viable defense of homicide.
Sean: I have never encountered a crazy wind. Do you think full moons make people act differently?
Kristine: Yes. You?
Sean: Um… maybe. But why the wind? I get the whole thing about the moon’s tidal pull. But the wind? How is that evil?
Kristine: Sean, there’s a bad wind on the rise.
Sean: Kristine, McGregor literally says, “What is this association between insects and the human soul? Is it because of the multifarious mystery of them both?” I was dying. He also tells Jennifer, “That fly is your magic wand.”
Kristine: Some of the dialogue was bananas. “That fly is your magic wand” is from the Patented Twee Pronouncement Generator Machine. Also McGregor sends Jennifer off with the fly to umm…find a serial killer.
Kristine: And, oh yeah, gives her a dead girl’s coat to wear! Do you remember the fabulous brooch on that Armani coat?
Sean: He calls them, “The two greatest detectives ever known…or unknown. You and the Great Sarchophagus.” The fly is called the Great Sarcophagus.
Kristine: That coat was so AbFab.
Sean: More like, CrabFab. Did you catch all the butterfly symbolism? And what did you think of it?
Kristine: I hate “metamorphosis” as a system of metaphor.
Sean: Kristine, Prof. McGregor says that the human soul is like a butterfly…
Kristine: That is gross.
Sean: …and then do you remember why Inga is outside and gets locked out so that McGregor can be killed?
Kristine: Chasing a butterfly? With her filthy butt?
Sean: No. But close.
Kristine: I realized when I am tired I start becoming very childish in our discussions. Have you noticed this? I become petulant.
Sean: Well, can you give me ten more minutes? And then you can go lie in bed and think about how fascinating your personality is.
Kristine: Dario would think so. He would make a movie about me.
Sean: Inga is outside because a gigantic butterfly kite is caught in the tree, and she is trying to pull it down.
Kristine: That’s right. God, I love me some Inga.
Sean: The butterfly kite is tangled in the branches. Just as we are tangled in this mortal coil…
Kristine: He needs to quit it.
Sean: That’s the thing, Argento is just off the charts with his leaden, heavy-handed symbolism. It’s like, so high school poetry journal…
Kristine: It truly is. A butterfly, caught in branches, longing to be free.
Sean: Just like the human soul, Kristine…
Kristine: Ha! Dario’s giallo about me would be called The Armadillo Rolls Over (Twice).
Sean: That’s a pretty great title.
The Girls Rating: Mamma mia!
The Freak’s Rating: Batshit insanity. AND Masterpiece!
17 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985)”
The mini schoolgirl riot was my favorite part of the movie. I kinda wish I’d gone to that school, just for that.
Also, Kristine is totally right about teenage girls. At my school it was like, “oh my god, [classmate] was in the psych ward/is depressed/has an ED? What an ATTENTION WHORE OHMAHGAH.” Which just made the person in question feel worse. Obviously.
So would a teenaged girl see Patau and be like, “He has a deformed hairlip rape-monster face? What a SHOWOFF!”?
More like, “I know he can’t help having a deformed hairlip rape-monster face, but he doesn’t have to make such a BIG DEAL over it! I have problems, too, you know!”