Phenomena (a.k.a. Creepers) displays what is both Dario Argento’s battiest and most spiritual landscape. (Argento calls Phenomena his favorite film.) The whole of Phenomena is less than the sum of its parts, but the parts are often terrifying and exhilarating. The film’s “Swiss Transylvania” is virtually indistinguishable from any other Argento wonderland. Devoid of cultural markers, the town is the sleepy backdrop for a series of run-ins between insect-loving Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) and a cast of Argento usual suspects. The film’s opening set piece is legendary: a young schoolgirl misses her countryside bus, seeks refuge inside a mysterious home and butts heads with the film’s faceless, chained-up killer. She flees through a stairwell that leads through a waterfall and is ultimately stabbed and decapitated by the killer. For added effect, her head is ceremoniously thrown into the river below. It’s a vicious moment in an unusually tranquil film that contemplates the existential connection between humans and insects and the rifts between nature and the material world.
As Jennifer is driven to the Richard Wagner School, Mrs. Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi) hysterically overreacts to a bumblebee the young girl manages to capture with her hands. Everything and anything here is a potential clue to understanding Argento’s characters. A chimpanzee approaches the home of its master, John McGregor (Donald Pleasence). Is the animal the film’s killer? Is there an obvious logic to Mrs. Bruckner’s fear of bees and Jennifer’s love for insects? Jennifer is a somnambulist. The scenes where Argento shows her walking in her sleep are curiously inter-cut with shots of an imagined white corridor (for retro effect, the shot is scored to cheesy ‘80s synthesizer breakbeats). Before Jennifer’s condition is diagnosed you may confuse Phenomena for a gothic rendition of Flashdance. While sleepwalking, Jennifer witnesses a murder and thus becomes a target of the film’s faceless psycho. While lost in the woods, she meets John and his monkey and connects with insects near and far. She’s like a wayward Gretal led into Argento’s fairy-tale forest by a glowing bug. Jennifer’s love for all insects makes her a particularly spiritual and complex Argento heroine.
Phenomena‘s paranormal obsessions are unlike anything you’ve ever seen—a retro-mystical tableaux of pulsating synthesizers and flying insects ready to do the bidding of their human master. When Jennifer is taunted by her fellow classmates, Biblical hordes of black bugs gather outside her school’s window. The girls cringe in fear as Jennifer whispers, “I love you all.” This is the extent of Jennifer’s love for all of God’s creatures. Argento frequently cuts to an insect’s point of view, splitting his frame into six or eight segments. However obvious these flourishes may seem, Argento once again showcases his obsession with the eye and elements of sight and sightlessness. In the end, Phenomena‘s greatest weakness may be that it doesn’t demand active spectatorship as much as it seemingly muddles our expectations.
If there’s no logical connection between the film’s killings and Jennifer’s relationship to the world, Phenomena is still uniquely and fabulously scatterbrained. Argento’s insect fantasia is otherworldly. (Is it a coincidence that Connelly followed her role here with the lead in Jim Henson’s classic Labyrinth?) Phenomena‘s finale is outrageous, a combination of grotesque Freudian pathologies unleashed, evocations of chimp love, a gruesome finger loss and a wicked decapitation. More important, though, Phenomena feels like a reply to Deep Red‘s curious insect subtext. (Deep Red‘s Professor Giordani said, “...butterflies, termites…all of these animals and many, many others use telepathy to transmit orders and relay information.”) Jennifer’s mystical gifts are undervalued by Argento. In the end, it’s less an existential accoutrement than a handy talent.