The lesbian boarding school classic Mädchen in Uniform generally seems to be somewhere in the mix in Dario Argento films, and so it is with 1985’s Phenomena, another instance of a naive teenager, Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) in this case, arriving at a girls school, this time in Switzerland, where she will be monstered by staff, pupils and other forces. Jennifer gets a frosty reception from the stiff-faced headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro), a woman with a gravedigger’s haircut, and by the other girls in the school, apart from her nice roomie, Sofia (Federica Mastroianni, niece of Marcello).
Out in the big wide world there’s a killer on the loose, one who dispatches young women with a well aimed pair of scissors (Argento loves his scissors). But Jennifer is safe in the school, or would be if it weren’t for her tendency to sleepwalk. In fact she noctambulates straight into danger on her very first night, but is rescued by a chimpanzee who takes her to safety at the house of a professor (Donald Pleasence) who studies the insects who feed on dead bodies.
By a chimpanzee who takes her to… professor… insects… dead bodies. Right.
“Cadaveric fauna,” the professor calls them. The best two words in the film. “I love insects,” Jennifer tells the professor. It turns out that as well as the sleepwalking, Jennifer’s other quirks include an advanced interest in insects and the ability to exert some control over them. Lady of the Flies, kind of thing.
Is anyone still reading?
A year after she’d played “Young Deborah” in Once Upon a Time in America, a year before Labyrinth, here’s Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role. Apparently there is quite the constituency for a 15-year-old Connelly.
Whether Argento is one of the damp-palmed contingent isn’t entirely clear. He’s largely respectful to his young star, dressing her in virginal white and keeping her clothed throughout, but even so there’s something of the perv about Argento’s camera, which lingers over Connelly more than seems entirely necessary. The silk nightwear she is often wearing doesn’t help.
Argento is one of that special breed of director who can drag a bad performance out of a good actor and he gets a terrible one out of Connelly, who tries to fight back here and there with actual acting but is undermined by Argento’s terrible dialogue. She’s not the worst thing in this by a long stretch. Everyone who utters a word comes off badly, with Pleasence the only actor managing to be faintly plausible – in that beady, boggle-eyed, strained manner Pleasence deployed when dealing with schlock.
Terrible writing, terrible acting, an overstuffed plot – the chimp! – and yet like most Argento films, once the talking stops, and it often does, and he can get to work with his paranoid camera, angular edits, that jangly soundtrack (by usual collaborators Goblin, but with heavy metal from the likes of Iron Maiden and Motorhead thrown in), and lurid lighting, the atmosphere thickens and good stuff starts to happen. Suspense builds, tension mounts. Whatever this film is, it’s not boring, even when it’s bad.
Argento has stated that the whole thing is set in a world where the Nazis won the Second World War and remade everything in their image. Maybe he was joking when he said that, because you’ll be hard pressed to find any evidence to support the claim in the film as it exists – and I watched the director’s original edit, 1 hour and 56 minutes, rather than the US edit, which is 20 minutes shorter and sometimes goes by the name of Creepers.
Simultaneously fascinating and woeful, it’s perhaps best summed up by the chimp. It bit off the end of Connelly’s finger while they were shooting a scene – the finger was re-attached at a hospital. It’s the very last scene, where Jennifer and the chimp appear to be locked in what looks like a staring competition, it happened then. Presumably Argento shouted “cut!” and the chimp took him at his word. Chomp.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023