At the time of its release, Phenomena was greeted with a rousing chorus of disapproval, even from Argento’s most die hard supporters. In retrospect, this disapproval seems unjust for although Phenomena is a damn silly film, it’s also entirely consistent with Argento’s then current preoccupations and was, in many ways, a logical if rather hard to swallow extension of the work he’d begun with Tenebre. Like that film it features a maniacal serial killer, but instead of the “hyper realism” (Argento’s words) of Tenebre, Phenomenon marks a return of sorts to the paranormal milieu of Suspiria and Inferno.
Like Suzy Banyon before her, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is a young American immersed in a hostile world of European academia, enrolled by her actor father (“the great Paul Corvino”) in the prestigious Richard Wagner academy in a region ominously known as “the Swiss Transylvania”. Before her arrival, a young student (Argento’s elder daughter, Fiore) has been murdered in spectacular style by a subhuman creature that escapes its chains in a remote villa, stabs her in the hand with a pair of scissors, tries to strangle her and eventually pushes her backwards (in slow motion yet) through a plate glass window. And she wasn’t the first victim as Jennifer soon discovers – other girls have gone missing from the school in the past, their decapitated bodies littering the countryside.
But Jennifer has other problems to contend with – the other girls (like the students of the Tanzakademie in Suspiria) are a bitchy lot and our heroine is the butt of their taunts and cruel jokes. Her unexplained sleepwalking doesn’t help much and the revelation that she enjoys telepathic communion with insects (Argento maintains that his research in this field has revealed that the phenomena is more common than we might expect…) more or less seals her fate. During one of her nocturnal wanderings, she witnesses the murder of another young girl but is unable to convince her sinister tutors of what she’s seen. Her only ally is paraplegic entymologist Dr John Macgregor (Donald Pleasence) whose expertise in insect behaviour is assisting the otherwise clueless police in their search for the killer. Together, Jennifer and MacGregor hatch, aided by his faithful “housemaid”, Inga the chimp (played with scene stealing intensity by the talented Tanga), a wild plan to use the great sarcophagus fly and its affinity with rotting human flesh to track down the killer’s lair.
By any standards, this is a half baked narrative indeed but, as has already been established elsewhere, Argento has never made any bones about his feelings for the strictures of formal plotting. The narrative is absurd, yet the sheer overkill of generic elements (deformed maniac killers, a hellish asylum, a psychic teenager, sinister, almost Nazi like tutors) creates a swirling, kaleidoscopic film that frequently resembles someone else’s bad trip. Weirdness is everywhere – Jennifer’s doomed roommate who eats baby food; the surreal corridor that Jennifer sees as she’s sleepwalking; the jolting use of heavy metal during the murder set pieces; the razor toting killer chimp. Phenomena is very clearly set in a fantasy world that is only superficially like our own, a twisted dreamscape where cute teens in telepathic contact with the insect world is accepted as perfectly normal, the same perverted fairy tale world as that inhabited by the characters in Suspiria, perhaps.
In this literally strange new world. so strange that it may or not even be part of the real world we all life in (an illusion partly defeated by Argento’s insistence on filming the Swiss countryside perfectly straight, with none of the flourishes we might expect from him) the weird goings on seem entirely consistent. In a scene initially missing from English language prints, Jennifer is taken to a spartan examination room to be checked out by a team of doctors, worried that she might be schizophrenic. Although Jennifer denies that she is ill, it’s tempting to see Argento’s of the narrative as a visual representation of some of the symptoms of that debilitating illness. The reconstruction of the world as an icy, detached fantasia echoes the way many schizophrenics themselves are dislocated from reality.
Should the clearly unhinged Phenomena seek psychological treatment, it would of course need a Freudian approach as, once again, Argento gives lie to his own claim that his is a Jungian approach. The killer, revealed as a pubescent boy, stalks his pretty female victims with an explicitly phallic weapon which at one point is rammed into a hapless victim’s mouth. Clearly then sexuality was going to play a key role again in Phenomena, even if we are to accept the notion that its milieu is an entirely artificial one detached from any notion of consensus reality. Connelly was cast as Jennifer because her “almost sexless beauty” appealed to Argento and Jennifer seems curiously uninterested in boys for a relatively healthy young teenager. Her denial of sexuality (she is mauled by a pair of teens who find her wandering the road after a sleepwalking session but she easily fights them off) is the key to her vanquishing of the sexually awakening libido monster, spawned from an act of appalling sexual violence.
Of all of Argento’s films – many of which have moments of head-scratching strangeness – Phenomena is the mos peculiar. Nothing about it makes any sense, it defies any attempt to take it seriously and the plot is so far out there it’s almost unreachable. And yet it’s a hard film not to like. It’s so strange, so wilfully eccentric that you just have to accept that Argento was having us on with this one and go with its beautifully photographed and almost hallucinogenic madness.