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 mentioning bug telekinesis?
Why do they keep talking about Paul Corvino?
Ok, here we go. There are no transitions or clean edits. We go directly back to the boarding school where Jennifer’s school mates are reading her diary, talking about her bug ESP. They mock her, tease her and call her Satan. She responds by telling them she loves them all and by summoning a horde of flies.
Back to Donald Pleasance. He informs Jennifer that the fly is called ‘The Great Sarcophagus” and sends Jennifer, armed with a fly, to go search for the killer. She finds the house, but nothing else. The random cop from the beginning of the movie appears for unknown reasons. The monkey flies a kite at night and gets it stuck in a tree, allowing the killer to sneak in Donald Pleasance’s house and kill him. They wheel Donald Pleasance’s body out while Motorhead plays absurdly loud.
And finally, Jennifer, scared for her life, tries to get her father’s lawyer to send her money so she can go home.
What? Why? How did we go from one firefly to a horde of flies?
Why is the monkey flying a kite at night?
Why are they playing Motorhead loud as fuck when the guy died?
Where the fuck is Paul Corvino?
The third act is upon us! The lawyer tricks Jennifer into going to a bank and waiting for money. He sends one of her teachers to pick her up. I think it’s her teacher anyway. It’s the woman who says, “It’s the Swiss Transylvania” and was never heard from again.
She brings Jennifer back to her house, where she is just a mean bitch to her. Clearly, she is the killer. Meanwhile, the detective goes to a mental institution to find out if anyone ever snuck in? Or something? The teacher tries to poison Jennifer.
There are maggots everywhere in this house and a nasty scene where Jennifer jams her finger down her throat to puke up the pill the teacher gave her. The detective arrives and questions the teacher, who informs us that she was raped through the bars by a prisoner at the insane asylum.
Wait a goddamn minute. This is it? One line? I was raped by a prisoner? I don’t know, I just can’t…An hour and 45 minutes of story and we get one-line explanation?
The teacher hits a button on the wall and metal barricades lower over the window. Jennifer is locked in a room and tries to reach a phone on the other side of the door with a long stick. The phone drops down a hole in the floor that is at least 100 feet deep considering the length of the telephone cord.
She climbs down the hole and is grabbed by bloody hands — which turn out to be the detective, badly cut up and chained to the wall. She is scared and falls…into a pool full of maggots? We cut to the lawyer landing in Switzerland, driving to save Jennifer armed with a gun. The teacher appears, laughing at Jennifer. But the detective brutally breaks his thumb, gets free from his chains and attacks her.
Jennifer runs down a weird hallway and finds a room with a little boy, the son of the teacher, who turns around to reveal the most hideous face ever.
Why is there a pool full of maggots in the basement?
What the fuck is this ugly kid?
At this point my wife says, “Wow, this is out there,” to which I had to let her know, “It’s not near over yet!”
The ugly boy chases Jennifer out of the house and into a boat. Jennifer summons a horde of flies who eat him alive. He falls in the water. She starts the boat, but it explodes. WHAATT! She dives into the flaming water, where she runs into the ugly boy. But she swims away. She makes it to shore where she sees the lawyer coming to her rescue. But the teacher appears out of nowhere and decapitates him. WHAATT!
She then tries to kill Jennifer, with what can only be described as a cookie sheet, when Inga (the chimpanzee) suddenly reappears! WHAATT! This time, armed with a straight razor, she hacks and slashes the teacher, saving Jennifer. And…roll credits.
How did the lawyer know where she was?
Is the ugly boy the killer? It appears that’s a possibility.
The monkey? Inga? Really?
In the end, we get no explanations. None.
There are just so many different things going. The cinematography for this movie is beautiful. The soundtrack is absolutely amazing! And the acting, well, the acting is amazing except for when the actors are hindered by the dialogue. Honestly, I wish someone would make a cut of this movie where they cut out all the dialogue and only kept the scene with background music. You wouldn’t miss any of the story. And you might be less confused while watching this insanity.
Hopefully someone on YouTube will get the right idea.
Phenomena is absolutely insane. Dario Argento, the writer and director, is clearly insane. It’s not like he directed a movie someone else wrote, and it doesn’t make sense. No, this is all him. This is his vision. This is him…and he’s crazy.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love this movie, so much. Every time I watch this one, it creeps slowly up my all-time favorites list. Also, every time I watch it, I have many more questions.
Although directed by a horror legend, PHENOMENA is under-watched, under-discussed and under-appreciated. This is a top-notch movie. A perfect example of the insanity that was Italian horror in the late 70s and 80s. If you have not watched this one, don’t fret over these spoilers. This beautifully insane movie needs to be seen to be believed. My words do not do it justice in the slightest.