Luckily, Phenomena is back in English in its full form thanks to Anchor Bay. Well... Mostly! Like a lot of Anchor Bay's great releases, this version of Phenomena is the best compilation they could put together from the original prints... and one or two scenes out there still weren't able to be recovered in English. Still, this is a very complete version, much better than Creepers and very worth watching.
It's especially worth watching for its young star Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role. In fact it was one of her first roles of any kind, filmed when she was still fourteen years old (released when she was fifteen). The good news is that she's great in the film... yeah, even then. The better news is that in spite of the starring role of a child actress (just a year away from Labyrinth), this is by no means a toned-down or bloodless film. This is a true, violent Giallo worthy of the name Dario Argento.
On the other hand, this isn't exactly what I would expect from a movie primarily set in an all-girl Boarding School. Sigh. Anyway, Connelly is Jennifer Corvino the daughter of a famous American heart-throb actor (whom we never see on-screen). His wealth and fame affords her the opportunity to go to an exclusive Swiss Boarding school for girls, named for Richard Wagner (here pronounced like "Wagoner"). She soon discovers that some of her fellow Valkyries have been offed by a local serial killer who stalks the country side in familiar Giallo/ Slasher ways! It's soon discovered by school marm Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi) that Jennifer has a unique relationship with insects. Not even an angry Bee in a car will sting her. What they don't realize is how deep this insect friendship goes.
What her roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni) does soon realize is that Jennifer's "Bug Thing" isn't her only oddity. In fact, Jennifer also has prophetic dreams and tends to sleepwalk through them! This is lucky for Jennifer in some ways, because it leads her (unconsciously) to meet up with a trained Chimp named Inga (played by trained chimp Tanga) who introduces her to a local entomologist named John McGregor (Donald Pleasance... there's still something about that guy). See, McGregor is wheelchair-bound and he has Inga around to take care of him (guess he never saw Monkey Shines)!
This works well for the our heroine, as McGregor helps Jennifer to understand that all her peculiarities are linked to a single ability, a sort of clairvoyant telepathy that links her to a lot more than just swarms of Swiss cicadas! Not only that, but "Doctor John" happens to be helping the local police with their investigations into the slasher murders, starting with the early-offed Vera Grandt (Fiore Argento)!
As things get more and more tense at the school (due in no small part to her special abilities), things get bloodier and bloodier along the Swiss Countryside. Though cops like Geiger (Patrick Bauchau) and Kurt (Michele Soavi) are hot on the case, the slasher seems to be much more elusive than the carrion eating buggers he leaves behind. This makes Jennifer the perfect candidate to become an American Sherlock Holmes in Switzerland! Naturally there is only one Watson for Jennifer that can possibly help her solve this case... her new best buddy, the Great Sarcophagus fly!
Yes, folks, this is Phenomena! Nurse-Maid Primates, arthropod detectives, clairvoyant sleepwalkers and bitchy school girls! Amazingly, this doesn't even touch on the truly weird and scary things in this bizarre film. Trust me, when the mystery finally reveals itself, you're going to see some seriously frightening stuff, not to mention a whole lot of nastiness on multiple levels. Luckily Jennifer (and the Jennifer who plays her) is just up for the challenge, no matter what the killer (or killers) and the biosphere can throw at her.
And that's part of the coolness of Phenomena! The story is far fetched, the mystery is somewhat standard for giallo, but the script by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini manages to produce a very well-rounded and interesting female lead (at the age of fourteen, no less). Of course, it doesn't hurt that she's played by future Oscar Winner Jennifer Connelly! The supporting cast, though still marred by some of the same issues that even the best Italian Horror imports (meaning filmed in English by Italians, dubbed in English for the US and dubbed into Italian for Italy) all manage to do a fine job of creating a solid story to go with the core of Phenomena! And, of course, this is still a Dario Argento flick, so you can count on his making a canny and suspenseful drama over the bloody slasher flick with the unreal bend.
To be fair and honest, part of what makes Phenomena a success is the very fact that this is so far-fetched. There is a bravery to the making of this movie in which Dario seemed to trust himself to pack in some decidedly unbelievable things and simply let them work. Why they work is that Argento (and his cast) never treats any part of the film as far-fetched, fantastical or unbelievable. Each layer is treated as if it simply is and cast and crew are simply presenting the facts in an entertaining way.
Speaking of entertainment, the music in Phenomena is interesting to say the least. Sure, you've got the usual names you find in the music credits for most Argento flicks (like Goblin, Simon Boswell and Claudio Simonetti), but this time out you'll also hear the music of Fabio Pignatelli, Andi Sex Gang, Franky Goes To Hollywood, Bill Wyman, Terry Taylor, Motorhead and Iron Maiden. Sometimes the musical changes can be a bit jarring and repetitive, as if Dario was pushing "Play" on a tape deck when the right scene pops up. Other times scenes feel somewhat MTV in their execution (albeit a late-night, very bloody variant music video). Regardless, the talent here is noteworthy and the songs and the score are all cool, if dated.
The same might be said about Phenomena, which does have its fair share of pitfalls, but still manages to deliver a surprising and multi-faceted thriller that ranges from the supernatural to the super-powered, to the bizarre, to the shocking to the mysterious. Jennifer Connelly is a treat to see as this young "Lady of the Flies" and helps take a far-out story and make it hard to question. Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Phenomena! You may never look at bugs the same way again... and it might feel just a tad weirder when you see A Beautiful Mind... and... really any of the films in which Jennifer doffs her clothes (which are all great, I might add). If you haven't seen Phenomena (or Creepers), give it a shot. It's a strange entry into the giallo genre, and a must for fans of Italian Horror. For all its oddity, the film is also treated in such a serious and realistic way that it's easier to buy into this strangeness. Now, if you'll excuse me, one of my wife's Evil Bengal Kittens is playing with an insect. True, there's nothing on Earth scarier or more evil than a Bengal Kitten, but after viewing (and reviewing) Phenomena, I think I'm going to put the kibosh on pissing off bugs of any kind for a while. Now if Dario and Jennifer reunite for a sequel about how horrible Bengal Cats are and she has to team up, once again, with a Chimpanzee Nurse Maid and Flying Detective, I'll be first in line! Damn Cats! Until then, I'll see you in the next reel!
I've seen a House Fly,
I've seen a Dragon Fly
I've even seen an Elephant Fly!
But I've been, done seen about everything,
When I see a Sarcophagus Fly!
Be, Do and See what I've been done and Seen
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