Dario Argento’s manic magnum opus is a horror film like no other
When I was a kid, I got up early — as I always did, as I still do — to pour myself a bowl of whatever garbage cereal I was grooving on at the time, and settle in to watch whatever movie was playing on Canadian Pay-TV channel First Choice. It just so happened that the flick in question was something called CREEPERS. Now, when I was REALLY little, my dad told me he saw this movie about a parasite that looked like a cross between a penis and turd that crawled into people’s mouths and drove them insane. I became obsessed by the idea of this film and, when I saw the listing in the TV guide citing CREEPERS, my memory jolted and I thought this was the movie my pop had pimped on me. I was wrong. Naturally, the film he was referencing was David Cronenberg’s 1975 masterpiece SHIVERS. CREEPERS was something else entirely…
For 83 minutes I sat hypnotized on that couch by what was one of the most delirious things I’ve ever seen, ever. I knew the name of its director, Dario Argento, from casual glances at older FANGORIA magazines and in a film reference book I had that had a still from his 1977 landmark style opera SUSPIRIA. This would mark the first Argento film I’d see. And to this day, I can’t shake it. Later, I would find out that CREEPERS was an edited U.S. version of his 1985 film PHENOMENA but, this being more than a decade before the dawn of DVD and companies like Anchor Bay tracking uncut, affordable and pristine prints of European titles for home video, I pretty much gave up the hope of ever seeing the full version. Eventually it did show up domestically via Anchor Bay as the full, 110-minute cut and that, of course, became the go-to version for every hardcore and newly-minted Argento nut. Admittedly, I prefer this version as it concentrates the film’s mayhem into a leaner framework, excising superfluous dialogue and some narrative flab. But that’s a matter of taste…
For those of you not in the know, PHENOMENA stars a very young Jennifer Connelly (fresh off her appearance in Sergio Leone’s thundering ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) as Jennifer Corvino, the wealthy daughter of a hot American actor who arrives at an elite boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Things get complicated when Jennifer learns that a vicious killer is roaming the land, targeting and skewering women (and whose first victim is Argento’s daughter Fiore, who we see get tormented and decapitated in the unforgettable opening sequence). And then things get weird when Jennifer reveals that she has a telepathic ability to control insects, who she has an unnatural obsession with. She also has a problem with sleepwalking and, after a night sauntering through the woods (while Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” blasts over the soundtrack), she wakes up in time to see a fellow student massacred. She then becomes the target of the killer, while kindly Scottish entomologist Donald Pleasence and his pet chimp guide her towards using her connection to flies and maggots to track the murderer and save the day.
And that’s only scratching the surface of this deranged tale.
PHENOMENA is Argento’s best movie. There I said it. And I’m not just saying that because it’s the first one I saw or because I have a sentimental attachment to it. It’s just Argento at the peak of his powers, riffing off his own Three Mothers movies (the picture even has the same set up as SUSPIRIA), employing familiar stylistic tropes and majestically-orchestrated murder sequences and then piling on so much stuff that one is left reeling. This is a “Perils of Pauline” adventure from Hell, with elements of DON’T LOOK NOW, PSYCHO, CARRIE, POLTERGEIST, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and a half dozen other well-known properties but filtered through Argento’s mind at its most manic. He really went for it with this one and sadly, Italian critics hated it and it was cut by half an hour in America and barely released (Hello, CREEPERS!). Its commercial failure marked the beginning of a decline for the Maestro and I swear he never made another movie like this, so beautifully, unapologetically romantic and out of control. Argento’s ex-lover, writer and actress Daria Nicolodi, gives the performance of her career, Connelly is a revelation of young feminine purity, Luigi Cozzi’s optical effects are stunning, the gore is plentiful and nauseating (watch out for that body bath!) and the music and insane tapestry of sound – from Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, Simon Boswell and ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, the aforementioned Iron Maiden, Motorhead and more – is a revelation. It’s mental and marvelous and it. just. never. stops. moving.
As troublesome as this sentiment may sound, SUSPIRIA and DEEP RED might be Argento’s most important movies, but their formidable powers dim substantially when stacked up against to the berserk and rapturous mutant anomaly that is PHENOMENA. And nothing will shift my mind to the contrary.