Phenomena May 31, 2016
Dario Argento’s most evident weakness are his storytelling abilities. One of horror’s greatest talents, his best movies have been able to make up for their stilted dialogue, stiff performances, and sometimes misguided soundtracks through indelible style. His artistic peak, lasting from the late 1960s to the mid ‘80s, was characterized by masterworks in terror that found beguiling relationships between beauty and blood — mostly resembling nonsensical nightmares, his preeminent pieces, including 1977’s Suspiria, 1980's Inferno, and 1982’s Tenebre, burned into the psyche of viewers instantaneously. With their breedings of Technicolor cinematography, graphic violence, and harsh musical backings, they were unlike anything ever committed to the celluloid. Argento was always more interested in grand gestures and cinematic slaps across the face; the Less Is More ideal so many horror directors of the time strived for was unthinkable. He was, and probably still is, the underdog of his peer group.
But there comes a point within a filmmaker’s lifetime in which handicaps become inexcusable. Never having much of a way with staging something as simple as a conversation, Argento mostly could get away with favoring style over substance. But without the backbones of directors who have nothing in common with him, like Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, self-parody has proven to become a reality Argento has faced in recent years. As his reliance on style has increased and his ignorance of his own storytelling deficiencies have gained steadier, his latest release, 2013’s Dracula 3D, was met with such critical disdain that it currently holds a despicable 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a strange fate for horror’s most under-appreciated talent.
We can see flashes of his inadequacies in 1985’s Phenomena, which bears his classically sumptuous style but is otherwise brutally marred by his fledging capabilities to set a scene that doesn’t circle around violence. Not that he’s a sadist (though no one draws out a stalk-and-slash better than he can); it’s that the film’s premise is asthenic enough to begin with, and the lack of screenplay-based confidence is detrimental to the movie’s prosperity.
Suspiria and Inferno were able to run on empty because their design was erroneously artificial in the first place. With their candy colored pigmentation and their bizarre sets, never considered was a sense of reality. They felt like nightmares, and so we didn’t much care if things were believable or not. Tenebre had a strong premise that connected with Argento personally; it worked because it didn’t aim to concoct a fantastical sheen, and because, like the best of whodunits, the plot was smartly complex, and informed our concern regarding the main foe’s true identity.
Phenomena borrows attributes from all these films, taking Suspiria and Inferno’s flirtations with the supernatural and latching onto Tenebre’s slight devotion to actuality. The result is not of inspiration but of artistic autopilot. The story is thin and eccentric, the photographic approach eye-popping but safe by Argento’s groundbreaking standards. It borderlines on being laughable. The dialogue is atrocious, and the actions of the characters are head-scratching in their motivation. And yet it has moments of affluence that prevent me from considering it to be a failure. Its saving graces are the villain, who is among the most frightening of Argento’s filmography, the leading performance of the then fifteen-year-old Jennifer Connelly, and, despite my regarding it as safe, Argento’s style. The rest, though, is pretty bad.
In Phenomena, Connelly portrays Jennifer Corvino, the beautiful teenage daughter of a world-famous movie star. As the film opens, she’s being sent to the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls, a remote Swiss boarding school. We can assume that education away from home is nothing new for the girl — fame and money can often change a parent’s perspective — and so she tries her damnedest to fit in, befriending her roommate (Federica Mastroianni) almost immediately.
What Jennifer doesn’t know, however, is that the school resides near a mental institution. Only a few months before her arrival, a young tourist was mysteriously beheaded by someone we suspect to be affiliated with the facility. If she were average, maybe she’d be just fine keeping to herself. But, days into her stay, she begins sleepwalking, a characteristic the school’s heads (Daria Nicolodi, Dalilia Di Lazzaro) believe to be a precursor to developing another personality. A magnificent red herring, to be sure.
Things continue to grow in their seriousness when Jennifer accidentally stumbles upon a murder scene during one of her sleepwalking episodes. In a daze while seeing a young woman murdered, images of the death linger in her memory. The killer is nothing but a blur, and she’s worried that he (or she) might have seen her. So in response to her anxieties, she develops abilities one wouldn’t much expect a typical teenage girl to possess in wake of a traumatic event — oddly enough, she starts to show signs of being able to communicate with insects, a skill that may come in handy later on as carnage grows in its breadth. For now, it’s up to her to try to reveal the identity of the murderer before things get too out of hand.
Phenomena’s plot is a contrived one, I know — it’s as awkward to write about as it is to watch — and Argento is his own worst enemy in execution. Because he’s more interested in allowing us to get to know his leading character than he has been in the past — most mains have existed purely to scream, to solve the focal mystery, or both — several moments are dedicated to Jennifer’s inner turmoil, which are misinformed and clunky.
The worst scene of the movie is the one in which she’s faced with a heavy dose of schoolyard bullying. Only Argento doesn’t seem to know how teenagers interact; instead of realistic, mean-spirited one liners being thrown about, he chooses to have Jennifer’s classmates crowd around her and stick their tongues out, inappropriate gestures and passionate, overdramatic chanting filling the scenery. It’s grossly unperceptive commentary until Jennifer uses her powers to call for all the flies in what we might assume to be the universe swarm around the house as a warning. It’s awkwardly staged and represents both the best and worst things about Argento. It’s nicely melodramatic, but it’s also wildly thin. It seems to have connection to nothing.
Which is why Phenomena never comes together: it tries to make use of a comprehensible, engaging plot, but Argento doesn’t know how to write it. The extreme style is the very thing that lifts it from imitating a misguided grindhouse flick. Moments shine, but cohesiveness escapes it. At least we get the opportunity to see Connelly prove why she rose to be a major star of her generation — she keeps the film from collapsing on top of itself. C