If you know your horror you know about Dario Argento, the crazy Italian fuck responsible for SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED and Asia Argento. Even if you don’t dig his movies or daughter you have to give him credit for putting together Goblin, the band who made the distinctive scores for alot of his movies as well as DAWN OF THE DEAD and that movie where Art Carney refuses to leave before Mount St. Helens erupts. I also really like INFERNO, the movie I brought up the most when trying to convince people that SILENT HILL was a surreal nightmare world and not just a moronic video game adaptation with stiff dialogue that made no sense like they thought it was.
I thought I had seen most of the big ones by Argento and I had kind of avoided this one PHENOMENA that didn’t have as good of a reputation. Maybe part of the problem is that it’s better known in the U.S. as CREEPERS, the version where they cut out about a half an hour. But at least in its uncut form I really dug this strange fucking movie about an American girl (Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly) sent to a Swiss boarding school during a murder spree.
So far it sounds simple and normal, but let me explain the good parts. One of the people investigating the murders is the famous entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasance – Dr. Loomis in HALLOWEEN, the president in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK). When they find, say, a severed head in a river, he is able to tell by the life cycles of maggots how long it has been chopped off. He’s also quadriplegic so he has a chimpanzee for an assistant. And maybe it’s just me, but I think the chimp is a suspect. In the opening murder you never see the killer at all, you just see the point of the scissors he or she uses as a murder weapon. And you see the chains that hold the killer to a basement wall before it breaks loose, and these are some pretty small chains. A monkey might be able to break them. Then the first thing you see in the very next scene is the chimp running outside during a stormy night at the professor’s bug palace.
Bugs are actually more important to the movie than monkeys. See, that’s the thing that’s unusual about this girl is she loves insects. They land on her hand and she pets them. When she comes into the professor’s lab all his bugs (except the fake, inanimate ones behind her from one camera angle) freak out and react to her mood. A beetle tries to hit on her. Later, a firefly leads her to an important piece of evidence. When the other kids in the school make fun of her for being friends with bugs she says “I love you” and swarms of flies cover the windows. Later in the movie she takes a bus tour with a fly named “The Great Sarcophagi” who is going to help her find the killer. I’m not making this up. I dare you to remake this shit, Michael Bay. You don’t have the balls.
There’s another really crazy element besides bugs and monkeys that comes in later on, but I don’t want to give it away. I will however give away something that happens with the monkey, because it will probaly sell some of you on the movie. See, late in the movie the chimp has been locked out of the house and she’s freaking out, screaming and breaking the windows. The professor tries to come down to let her inside but his wheelchair platform gets stuck. Then he sees a shadowy figure in the house. Oh shit, it’s the killer. The chimp tries to stop it but this unseen killer stabs the professor to death. Now, perhaps because the professor shined his laser pointer on the killer’s face, but more likely because of a samurai type loyalty to her master, the monkey tries to chase after the killer, even jumps on the windshield like an action hero. The killer gets away but the monkey keeps tracking, and also happens to find a switchblade in a garbage can. So you can guess what happens when she catches up with her master’s killer. Hint: you didn’t see this shit in MVP (Most Valuable Primate).
It’s funny, there’s a joke about one of the students being obsessed with the Bee Gees, but it was actually made in 1985. There’s some cheesy heavy metal on the soundtrack, Iron Maiden and those types of bands. It might have been an inspiration for some of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels that also have perky misunderstood outsider girls running around surreal gothic houses while dealing with mean adults, supernatural threats and high pitched singing over electric guitars. I’m not into that stuff but I really like the bombastic progressive rock n roll meets opera score by Goblin. I thought they had lost it by the ’80s but I guess not. They’ve only done a couple scores since this one so my suspicion that they petered out is not really accurate.
It’s not just the music and the bizarre plot that make the whole thing feel surreal and off-kilter. There are lots of weird little touches in Argento movies that make you feel off balance. Like, 13 minutes into the movie, out of the blue, there is a narrator who explains that Jennifer has arrived at the boarding school. It’s not information that needed to be explained, and you never hear the narrator again. Also you get some strangeness because of the multi-lingual way movies were shot in Italy at the time. Obviously Connelly and Pleasance are speaking English, but some of the characters are dubbed. And maybe they lost some of the soundtrack for the uncut version because every once in a while everybody switches to Italian. And the dialogue gets real stiff, with girls casually going from friendly gossip to talking about a murderer being loose in the school without changing tone. And people react weird – they don’t freak out from the bug swarms, nobody seems to care that much after a student has been murdered, etc. These kinds of things probaly aren’t intentional and I’m sure are laughable to alot of people but to me the alien-ness of these movies adds to their creepiness.
Like all horror movies, this is based on real events. They don’t advertise it, but I figured it out on my own. See, Connelly’s character Jennifer Corvino is the daughter of a famous movie star named Paul Corvino. They describe him as a muscular sex symbol matinee idol, but they can’t hide the truth. This is clearly the story of Paul Sorvino’s daughter. This shit really happened. That’s right, you heard me, Mira Sorvino has bug powers. Why do you think she went and did MIMIC shortly after getting an Oscar? Because she likes working with bugs. Yes, she also wanted to work with up and coming genius Guillermo Del Toro in his first bastardized American studio work, but she only knew about CRONOS because the bugs told her about it. That is a fact, in my opinion. That’s why PHENOMENA is still relevant today, because Mira Sorvino does TV movies every once in a while. And the people deserve to know the truth.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.