Dario Argento is a horror legend. He may also be legitimately insane. We examine the 1985 cult classic “Phenomena” — a trip into the mind of madness.
A good director can translate his vision to the screen. But a great director gives you insight into who they are. They peel back the curtain for 90 minutes plus and allow you to see what is going on in their head. No translation needed — a raw, unfiltered examination of the mind of a great director. Sometimes this vision can be sublime and beautiful. Other times, it can be a nightmare of a tormented soul. But once in a while, the view you get is one of insanity — a clash of both unbelievable beauty and unfathomable brutality.
A peak into the mind of madness will leave you with more questions than answers. And in the genre of horror, there is no one more visionary, eccentric or insane as Dario Argento.
His most notable work is Suspiria, which has been labeled as a technicolor nightmare. But his lesser known work, the 1985 cult classic Phenomena, is the perfect example of his insanity. This movie is frantic, insanely paced, and at time confusing with the number of revolving doors of plot devices that exist throughout the movie.
Let me try to sum it up with some questions I was asking along the way. (Note, there will be spoilers below, as we’ll be diving deep into the film’s plot.)
Phenomena starts off unassuming enough in the Swiss alps as a young girl, played by Dario’s daughter (Fiore Argento), misses her tour bus and needs to seek shelter in a nearby house. Uh-oh! Wrong house! She ends up brutally murder with a pair of scissors and falls to her death via slow motion crashing through a window.
We then cut to a couple of detectives who are meeting with a local etymologist (bug scientist) played by Donald Pleasance, who discusses with them the patterns of decay of human flesh. He reveals a severed head in a glass box covered in maggots to make his point. And since he is wheelchair bound, he is assisted in his work by Inga, a chimpanzee.
Why does he have a severed head in a glass box?
Was it necessary that a large chimp be this man’s assistant?
Moving on, we are introduced to our heroine, Jennifer Corvino played by Jennifer Connelly. She was sent to Switzerland to attend the Richard Wagner Academy for girls. As she rides the bus to the school, a bee lands on her. Everyone freaks out about it, but she remains calm. “Bugs never hurt me,” she says, letting the bee crawl on her. While on the bus, one of her teachers mentions that this area is known as the Swiss Transylvania. Jennifer asks why, but the teacher doesn’t know.
It’s worth noting that some of this part of the movie has a male narrator, but he is never heard from again.
Was it necessary to have that tiny bit of dialogue about Swiss Transylvania? Why is it so windy in every scene?
What happened to the narrator?
We then are provided a bit of insight into the goings on in the boarding school. Jennifer and her roommate Sophie, who we can tell is a bad girl because she smokes, have a weird conversation about baby food and Jennifer’s father, Paul Corvino. Suddenly, we cut to a scene with a random girl running through the woods set to Iron Maiden’s Flash of the Blade. The girl is chased into an abandoned part of the school, while Jennifer begins sleep walking.
She wanders around long enough to see this random girl murdered by a knife attached to the end of a metal pole and then her head smashed through the glass window. We know it’s a knife attached to a giant metal pole because, although we do not see the killer, we see the knife being assembled (which you think the killer would do beforehand). Jennifer sleep walks into the middle of the road. She is almost hit by a car full of Swede Bros, who get too handsy and throw her out of the car into the forest.
Inga, the fucking chimpanzee, comes to her aid and leads her back to Donald Pleasance for some exposition about “Foehn Wind” — which apparently makes people crazy and causes avalanches.
Why do they keep talking about her father being Paul Corvino?
Why is there a monkey wandering the forest in the Swiss Alps at night?
The Wind? Is it the Wind that’s making the killer kill?
Did I hear this right? Is Jennifer is making bugs horny?
This movie has a lot of hard edits. One moment we are in Donald Pleasance’s home with the monkey talking about bugs. Next thing we know Jennifer is strapped to a hospital bed and her teachers are trying to give her an EKG. Again, we cut abruptly to Jennifer asking Sophie to watch her while she sleeps to make sure she doesn’t sleep walk. She doesn’t. Instead, she sneaks out into the windy forest where a killer is stalking to meet her boyfriend.
She brags about wearing Paul Corvino’s daughter’s shirt and then quickly send him on his way. Sophie is chased by the killer. Jennifer sleep walks into the windy forest, where a firefly leads her way to a mysterious clue: a glove in a bush. She takes this to Donald Pleasance because it has maggots on it. Don explains to Jennifer that she has bug telepathy.
Fucking what!? Why in the hell did it take a full hour before they felt like mentionin