Sunday, August 15, 2010

Phenomena (1985)

Yes, there's a lot going on in Phenomena. It remains my favourite film because of that. I discovered people who walked in their sleep have an affinity with insects. Schizophrenics too...and mediums. When you are in another dimension it becomes possible to talk to insects. And being schizophrenic means you are practically in another dimension. Unlike animals, flies don't hear, so you can only have a telepathic relationship with them. I put insects in the script after discussing them with Roman entomologists. Franco Ferrini and I spoke for weeks with them. We also spoke with police about how important insects were in their investigations. Maggots usually provide the date of death during an autopsy. Sergio Stivaletti wanted to include some stop-motion fly special effects but I refused as I wanted the insect footage to be completely realistic. It was horrendously complicated to film but I'm glad we did it that way. Phenomena was also about the loss of innocence too. I was attracted by innocence when I came to write it. I became a vegetarian and stayed in a Zurich clinic which prompted the lifestyle. It was like being in school all over again escaping through windows for midnight feasts--and I came back to Rome feeling like a child. The school in Phenomena is a clear mother-figure for that reason; don't do this, do that etc...Chimpanzees are childlike too. Does that explain the ending for you? I chose Jennifer Connelly to play the lead role after Sergio Leone showed me Once Upon a Time in America. I thought she looked fabulous in it and wanted her from the start.
All my films have given me lots of experience and I don't think I have a particular favourite. For a short time after making Phenomena I thought it came as close to the real me as any of my movies did. Now I look at it and I'm not so sure. That's one of the reasons why I considered going back to its themes and reinventing them again for a possible sequel after Nonhosonno. There is a lot going on in Phenomena. Ever since I was a child I've had a strange attraction to insects. I've always had a hard-to-define feeling when I'm around them. I used to impale flies on pins or else use a piece of thread to tie their legs together and watch them struggle. It was when I discovered through an American newspaper story that sleepwalkers, schizophrenics and mediums have an affinity with insects that prompted the story. When you are in another dimension it becomes possible to talk to insects. And being schizophrenic means you are practically in another dimension. Unlike animals, flies don't hear, so you can only have a telepathic relationship with them. I spent a whole year and a half immersed in insect studies and talking to noted entomologists before tackling the script. One of the many curious things I discovered was that the female fly is capable of laying as many as 5000 eggs in its brief lifespan. Thank God for us that their lifespan is only 20 days otherwise the whole globe would be covered with them. I also learnt how important insects were to police investigations. Maggots usually provide the time of death during an autopsy.
[The above quotes by Dario Argento are from Mondo Argento and Profondo Argento, respectively. The first, p.71, Mondo Argento by Alan Jones, Ed. Paul J. Brown, Midnight Media Publishing, England, 1996; and the second, p 127, Profondo Argento by Alan Jones, FAB Press, England, 2004. While perusing my collection of fanzines, magazines, and film books and the like, of which I have quite a bit, I pulled every instance of mention within each of an interview with Argento. To my surprise, Phenomena (1985) receives little mention, not only from questions to Argento from interviewers but in his responses to general questions. This fact by itself is of little value as it only shows how limited my collection is in regards to Phenomena. I chose the two quotes for I find the two highly informative, not only in their substance but also in their delivery. If nothing else, the two quotes are eerily similar but have notable differences, and I think that it's fun to play the two off of each other.] Dario Argento's Phenomena is an odd film and not easily digestible. On the one hand, it's neither a character-driven nor a plot-driven film, although it has elements of both. By far not a traditional film in the classic style of its predecessors in the horror genre nor is it more ethereal or symbolic in the "arthouse" style of previous cinema, especially from Europe (although, again, it has elements of both). An initial viewing by anyone would find Phenomena disorienting as the film defies many traditional modes of viewing. I am reminded of a conversation that I had years ago with a friend regarding David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), and we were speaking about the abrupt shift in the film towards its protagonist. I was asking my friend if the events subsequent to the character shift were a rendition of events from the mind of the original protagonist. He responded, "Perhaps they are events coming from the mind of David Lynch." I first saw Phenomena over twenty years ago under the title Creepers on its American VHS release (heavily-edited) then to search out an Nth generation VHS copy of a Japanese VHS then to see it again on laserdisc in a beautiful print from The Roan Group then to purchase the first DVD release from Anchor Bay Entertainment to a recent viewing on DVD again from Anchor Bay Entertainment as a re-release (this time in anamorphic widescreen). After this recent viewing, I recalled again my friend's words from that Lost Highway conversation, and my intuitive feeling is that Phenomena is a rendition of events from the mind of Dario Argento.In a particular sequence, Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) is locked in room in a mansion. The door leading to an exit has a transom above it. Outside the door is a telephone that she wants to reach to dial for help. She pulls a chair against the door in order to reach and unlock the transom above. The telephone is on a table right outside the door and is connected to its socket by a long cord. Jennifer cannot reach the phone with her arms. From the bathroom in her locked room, she exits with a large metal pole which appears to have a white grip, is extendable, and has a white hook at its end. I've attempted to rationalize this object as a shower-curtain rod or a hanging-curtain rod, but its appearance leads me to the conclusion that it is an extendable rod with a grip and a hook designed to manipulate objects from a distance. After a bout with attempting to hook the phone cord and pull the phone into her chamber, while bloodcurdling screams are heard elsewhere in the mansion, the phone slips and falls into a large hole in the floor. Jennifer drops the rod and reveals that she is able to escape the chamber by climbing through the transom. The hooked rod is the very definition of a deus ex machina; and her use of the rod was not only counterproductive but unnecessary as she reveals she could crawl out of her space quite easily and use the phone. The phone had to enter the hole as Jennifer had to enter the hole to encounter what was waiting for her there. This sequence of events appears to follow from Jennifer's deductive reasoning as to how to escape; and the presence of the rod fractures the narrative technique (although it could appear in a dream). Beyond this conclusion what remains is that this contrived and discursive sequence of events must come from somewhere else. During the first hour of the film (and over half of its duration), the majority of the dialogue within Phenomena is exposition. Even if Franco Ferrini and Dario Argento's script were one-hundred-percent literate and compelling, an hour's worth of expository dialogue would become tiring to most viewers. Even more fascinating is discerning what does the dialogue explain. Much of the it is redundant. In the opening sequence of the film, a young tourist (Fiore Argento) is left behind by her bus. With strong wide compositions, the mountains of the Switzerland locale are focal. She shivers and shakes on the road from the fierce wind. In a medium shot of Fiore, the camera even appears to shake from the violent wind. Cut to the credits with a powerful visual sequence of an upwards tracking shot of the wind blowing fiercely through the trees. Above the forest is revealed an isolated villa where the young tourist seeks solace. More than one subsequent character will tell Jennifer about these "fierce winds" in the region which has been dubbed, because of them, the "Swiss Transylvania." While these dialogue sequences explaining the origin of the region are fun in a Gothic, Poe-esque sense, the wind motif is rendered far more powerfully visually in the film's opening sequence. Further, in Jennifer's opening sequence, she has a dialogue with Daria Nicolodi's character, much of it expository. When she arrives at her destination, the one-time appearance of a detached voice-over narration occurs. This narration serves only to reiterate what the viewer has learned from the previous dialogue scene. The majority of the dialogue during the first hour fails to explain the plot while its minority only slightly enriches its characters.Beyond the one-time narration appearance, Phenomena has other odd creative inclusions. The soundtrack has original music from both Bill Wyman and Claudio Simonetti, for example, side by side with heavy metal songs from Iron Maiden and Motorhead. While Iron Maiden's song during its first appearance seems to match the energy of the film's events (the killer stalking a young victim), when Motorhead's song appears in the film, it is an odd juxtaposition (it plays over a sequence depicting a character being rolled out on a gurney, having been attacked by the killer). Jennifer has communicative ability with insects, and once, Argento shows his viewer the P.O.V. of an insect watching Jennifer walk away, hand-in-hand with a chimpanzee. Much of the energy in Phenomena is derived from its rebellious spirit. Seeing the film through Jennifer's eyes, it is easy to feel it. During her first evening at her school, she has an eventful bout of sleepwalking. The following morning the headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro) forces her to see the doctor, and their treatment is extreme: since no one in the school has ever left the grounds by sleepwalking, Jennifer must be seriously ill. In fact, she might just be crazy. Instead of talking to the young teenager, the adults would rather strap her down and plug her into a machine. During her first class, Jennifer causes an impromptu coup by feeding answers to her new friend Sophie, turning the students against their teacher. When Jennifer finds the headmistress and other students going through her personal letters in her room, she has had enough. It leads to a forceful confrontation between her and all of the others in beautifully odd sequence. Through Jennifer's eyes this rebellious spirit is certainly linked to a juvenile nature. It doesn't reach the heights of a lofty ideal of anti-authoritarianism, but it also does not seem the idea that Argento was trying to convey.I greatly admire Phenomena, and if it still is Argento's most personal film, then I believe, today, I understand why. Perhaps it is just my bias, as I feel a strong kinship with outsiders. Certainly, there are few films like Phenomena--it's truly a puzzle with some very creative and audacious visual sequences. At times, it appears truly nightmarish and dream-like. The mélange of artists who comprise the soundtrack greatly contribute to its atmosphere. An overall unique experience.

18 comments:

Erich Kuersten said...

I agree 100%! I love this film and consider it a perfect film for cold, weird autumn nights. I love the windy Swiss hillsides and the cozy rapport between Jennifer and Donald Pleasance. you really feel sad when he's killed as he's the only one who can probably help Jennifer harness her insect controlling abilities. I love the line "Why don't you call your insects!?" at the climax. It's a personal film because it's so unique and does whatever the hell it wants, logic be damned, and yet it's not "bad" logic defiance, like say some of Fulci's worst films, or even Argetno's worst, like Mother of Tears.

I think a lot of the dislike of the film comes from Argento fans who tried to love it in its CREEPERS form, which I've never seen.

The heavy metal is distracting and kind of wrong, but I stand by Argento's choice to use it. It's kind of like what Godard said about his use of endless quotations in his films, "Why not, if it pleases me?"

Hans A. said...

Thanks Erich for taking the time to read (it was quite a long post) and share your thoughts. Obviously we're simpatico. Hope all is well.

Emily said...

You definitely make me want to seek out the original cut, as opposed to my butchered (but so free!) Mill Creek Creepers edit. Very neat stuff.

J.D. said...

What a fantastic review! This is one of the few Argento's films I haven't had the opportunity to check out yet but you've certainly inspired me to track this down and give it a go. It sounds like the atmosphere and mood that Argento creates in this film has an almost hypnotic dreamy quality. Sounds really intriguing!

Richard of DM said...

Wow! You really nailed this one, duder. Excellent write up of my favorite horror film of all time.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I enjoyed this one more on a visual level than anything, I liked those scenes where she is having her sleep walking moment and she sees everything in glowing black and white...love that effect.

I liked the idea of Connely having a connection with the insects, and the idea that the insects can actually talk to her and point her towards the killer. I mean thats an extremely original idea right there.

My only problem with the movie is the heavy metal, but Im willing to put that aside just so I could enjoy the movie.

The premise, of Conelly arriving at this special school reminded me a lot of the way Suspiria started with the girl arriving at the dance school.

Great review!

Hans A. said...

@Emily & JD: Thnx. The Anchor Bay rerelease is fairly cheap and also looks beautiful in its anamorphic print with nice audio. Hope you both check it out and share your thoughts.

@Richard--thnx! I need to hit you up with an email on contributing to your Asian horror series, btw.

@Francisco--Thanks also! I totally agree with you. As for the heavy metal, I can't think of really any kind of appropriate use in this film. It's just an odd touch that goes a really long way.

Thank you very much to all and I really appreciate the time spent reading and sharing your thoughts.

Didier Vanheusden said...

Thank you! I simply love this film, I actually grew up with it (i was 15 when it was released and I got to see it for the first time, luckily to us Europeans in the original uncut version) and it has always remained one of my personal favorites. It was the first Argento I ever saw and I totally fell in love with his style and visuals and, of course, Claudio Simonetti's haunting themes. I'll post some lovely orginal Jennifer Connoly stills from the movie on my blog. It's nice there are still so many people who love this much maligned masterpiece.

Hans A. said...

@Didier: Cool! Thanks! I'm glad that you liked it. I checked out the stills of Connelly that you posted on the blog. Super cool!

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent review Hans and I admire your bravery in attempting to offer a postive defence. A lot of pieces I've read over the years have suggested that this is the moment it all went wrong for Argento. When his dedication to stylisation and formal experimentation eclipsed the need to tell a satisfyingly plotted story. This is was in evidence long before PHENOMENA - INFERNO is a complete narrative failure in my opinion. I think the vast majority of Argento's films have been personal (is it possible to live with a project for so long and not be personally committed?)so I wouldnt use that line of argument to explain away or defend the strangeness of this film...its just weird, and im afraid self-consciously so in this case. Thoughtful stuff as always Hans...take care!

Hans A. said...

Thanks, Shaun. As you've probably noted from my other reviews, I find narratives usually the least interesting aspect of a film. Hence that puts the majority of my criticism in the distinct minority. Your sentiments echo Alan Jones very persuasive negative review of Phenomena. I cannot say that I disagree with it. I do believe, however, there is something within Phenomena not present in other Argento cinema.

Neil Fulwood said...

Hans, Shaun offers a thoughtful take on 'Phenomena' as the moment when it all went wrong for Argento, but I will forever treasure it as Argento's last hurrah. It never ceases to amuse me that critics of the film cite its outlandishness, its almost arbitrary denouement and its crazed use of the deus ex machina (ie. a monkey with a straight razor) when most of those selfsame critics are first in the queue to laud 'Suspiria' - a gorgeous and unforgettable masterpiece that, on any and all levels, makes no fucking sense whatsoever as Argento's masterpiece.

Hans A. said...

Neil (and to Shaun)--Shaun's thoughts are totally insightful. He's a fine writer and critic. I hope I didn't come off in my previous comment as not being appreciative. Same for you, Neil. I very much respect what you two have to say; and we're often in agreement.

I could probably write a whole thesis on Argento criticism. Maybe it is us critics who are problematic when it comes to his cinema. I don't know. I'm sure we'll all have more to say in the future.

Aaron said...

Hans, this is a GREAT, detailed write-up on one of my favorite Argento films (top 3). Awesome. I'm glad you took the time to give this one the Quiet Cool treatment because, as you said, it doesn't get talked about a lot in general, let alone when Argento is brought up. I love pretty much everything about it... the atmosphere, the cinematography, the MUSIC, the fact that Jennifer Connelly is in it, the chaotic climax, the false endings, so on and so forth. It's truly a one of a kind film.

Hans A. said...

Thanks a lot, Aaron. Really appreciate it. I love all the aspects that you described. I would probably rate Phenomena in my top-three, all-time Eurocult favorite films, the other two being Nightmare City and Zombi 2 for their sheer enjoyment that they bring. Be cool and looking forward to reading more cool stuff on Death Rattle.:0

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I totally agree with anyone who appreciates the images in PHENOMENA...its a beautiful film, and Argento had a particular gift for visual presentation at this time. So from that perspective I admire the film greatly. I also appreciate your attitude to narrative, but the problem here (and with most Argento films) is that he is trying to tell a story. The film does have a plot and a narrative trajectory...it isnt entirely senseless...nobody would argue for example that it is avant-garde. Narrative is a major stumbling block in Argento criticism, which is why I find Argento/narrative so fascinating. Adjectives such as dream-like, hallucinatory, trance-like etc are often used to explain away (in my opinion - and I've used them myself) narrative deficiencies.

No Personality said...

Pehaps there is something fascinating going on with this film on a psychological, sub-conscious level?

Hey, Erich- do you really think Mother of Tears is worse than Phantom of the Opera? I've got a theory (and if I come up with something like this, it means I can't be the only one who's thought it) that Argento was trying to make Mother "his" Fulci film.

Ray Crowe said...

This is a refreshingly offbeat and wacky giallo with supernatural overtones that I instantly loved. However, I think the 110-minute version is a bit overlong and could use some editing of superfluous scenes. The 82-minute American version Creepers cuts some good gore and a couple of important scenes, so I think the best cut would be somewhere between the two available versions.