Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Phenomena (aka Creepers) (1985, directed by Dario Argento)
With guest reviewer Orrin Grey
OG: The first time I saw Phenomena—years ago, now—not only had I never seen a Dario Argento movie before, I didn’t even know the word giallo yet. So, needless to say, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and didn’t really know what to make of the experience when I was done. I still kinda liked it, even then, but it was a lot better revisiting it now that I’m at least a little more familiar with both Argento and gialli.
I actually witnessed a debate online a few weeks ago about whether this or Suspiria or Inferno or etc. were, in fact, gialli at all. For the record, I’m not a big believer in splitting hairs when it comes to categories, and I think that most genres benefit from being wider rather than narrower, but if I had to weigh in I’d call Suspiria a giallo-tinged supernatural flick, while Phenomena is a supernatural-tinged giallo, for whatever that’s worth.
Back when I first watched this without having any idea what I was doing, I was drawn in by the plot summaries that I had read a few places. In short: A mysterious killer is murdering girls and hiding their bodies in a region that the movie tells us is known as the “Swiss Transylvania.” Meanwhile, a very young (pre-Labyrinth) Jennifer Connelly can psychically control bugs. This leads to her befriending a wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasance, who happens to be an entomologist helping the police with the case, aided by his friend and “nurse,” a helper chimp named Inga. Fortunately and unfortunately, the resulting film both is and isn’t as cartoonish as all that sounds.
JR: I think that’s the sticking point for me with this one. It works best (see the last 10-15 minutes) when it embraces its absurd premise, and throws gore, violence, and bizarre settings and circumstances at the viewer in equal measure.
Unfortunately, the film it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a giallo slasher or a bug-psychic-kid movie. These are a pair of concepts that are never fully integrated. It feels like these were two scripts smashed together.
Whereas Suspiria is a supernatural horror movie informed by giallo and is memorable in that regard, Phenomena is incomplete. There’s long stretches of the movie where Jennifer (her name in the film, as well) is walking, riding, or doing very little. Then we get a moment of violence or weird bug-related madness, before returning to the bland and uninteresting.
OG: I know that a lot of people watch gialli for the kill sequences, but for me they’re all about that atmosphere of weird menace; which is to say that I didn’t mind the slow bits so much. That said, having only seen about half of his filmography at this point, I’d definitely peg this as one of Argento’s middle works; nowhere near as good as, say, Suspiria or Deep Red, and also much better than his more recent stuff. You get some of the same elements that show up in some of his better flicks—like ominous and isolating high winds that “drive people crazy,” which also feature in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace—and of course the music by Goblin is good, even while some of the other songs by folks like Iron Maiden, Motorhead, etc. aren’t always deployed quite as effectively.
I do agree that the “psychic girl” storyline and the giallo storyline never really mesh quite as well as they might have, with the story instead seeming to sort of vacillate between the two. (The “we worship you” scene seemed particularly like a callback to other “psychic girl” movies such as Carrie et al.) And that the final moments are definitely where Phenomena shines the most. But before all is said and done you do get Jennifer Connelly controlling bugs, a really gross body pit, and a chimp with a straight razor. Really, what more could you ask for? (Besides a movie that came together a little better…)
JR: Goblin’s contributions were, of course, great. The metal tracks were totally inappropriate and undercut whatever tension there might have been in the scenes.
Yeah man, I’m all about atmosphere and weird menace (see any of other Argento’s films from this period or earlier), but the flat, boring stretches of the film didn’t bring those ideas home. Having just re-watched The Witch recently, I look at that film as a prime example of how to build dread and tension even when your plot is slow and nothing flashy happens. Maybe Phenomena could benefit from a re-edit, streamlining the film down to a tight, creepy, and metal-less exploration of setting and dream-like imagery. That would work for me.
As far as the weird wind goes, there was talk about how it drove people mad, but not much else. It was a classic case of “telling not showing.” That should have been a concept that was a driving force in the plot or atmosphere, not something I completely forgot about until it was clumsily mentioned at random intervals.
I’m a big fan of Argento and I can see the potential in this film, but besides the beginning and end (once Jennifer starts to make her escape the film is terrific), I can’t really recommend this one, except to Argento completionists with a steady supply of alcohol on hand.
Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters and the author of a number of spooky books. His stories have been published in dozens of anthologies and other venues, including Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. You can find him online at http://orringrey.com.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.