“8 ½ Doors of Death” Presents:
Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS) (1985)
Film Review by Jerome Reuter
Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is a student from America, who has just enrolled at a boarding school for girls in Switzerland. Plagued by fits of sleepwalking, she has trouble adapting to her new surroundings. While wandering the school late at night, she accidentally witnesses the murder of a fellow classmate. When she comes to, she meets local entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). The professor believes Jennifer shares a telepathic link with the insects in his lab, and thinks she can use this gift to solve a string of murders occurring in the surrounding area.
Dario Argento’s filmography can be thought of as a cohesive timeline. It’s had an interesting share of peaks, valleys, and, to be completely objective—a few disappointments. While he’s unquestionably one of the most celebrated names in Italian horror, there’s no denying his output is not what it once was. With so many new trends and styles developing throughout the 1980s, it’s only natural that many directors would attempt to adjust to adapt to the time period. While his early works have inspired countless filmmakers, much of his later output can best be described as “imitating the imitators.” Still, the fan base remains loyal, and many look back with both admiration and reverence.
PHENOMENA (1985, also known as CREEPERS) holds a very unique place in the timeline. It sits in-between TENEBRAE (1982), and what some consider his last great film, OPERA (1987). The first of his entries to incorporate popular heavy metal acts such as Iron Maiden and Motorhead, it also featured music from long-time collaborators, Goblin. (OPERA would feature Steel Grave & Norden Light.) While holding true to some of the characteristics from his earlier giallo films, Argento made a return to the world of the supernatural. Utilizing a similar set-up found in SUSPIRIA (1977) (an American student attending a school overseas, a tyrannical headmaster, and a murder involving a window in the first act), it walks a fine line between familiarity and being an original concept.
PHEOMENA feels like a product aimed at American film audiences. Much like some of his giallo entries, it relies on an unsuspecting person taking part in a criminal investigation. However, Argento plunges us into a world of telepathy that feels surreal at certain moments. Three years before George Romero explored the relationship between the human being and the primate in MONKEY SHINES (1988), Argento integrated this idea. The chimp, which serves as McGregor’s aide in PHENOMENA, is a red herring. In some obscure giallo film, it might have taken the place of a character meant to cast suspicion away from the real antagonist.
In all fairness, while PHENOMENA is certainly unique, it feels strangely devoid of passion. Up until this point, Argento had been on a roll, and his output came very close to art imitating life. While Jennifer proves to be an interesting character, and one that rekindles thoughts of Suzie Bannon from SUSPIRIA, Connelly’s acting is still underdeveloped. Needless to say, at this point in her career, she was no Jessica Harper. She’s still a sympathetic character, though, and one we can get behind, but her performance in the movie only comes across as a training ground for her role in LABYRYNTH (1986). While Donald Pleasance’s role as entomologist John McGregor is well executed, it’s a role he was tailor made for at this point. Already familiar to audiences as Dr. Loomis (from the HALLOWEEN series), and, to a lesser extent, Dr. Bain from ALONE IN THE DARK (1982), he more or less retreads character traits from previous films. Still, he brings his trademark class and sophistication to the screen.
A key element to Dario Argento’s work, as well as himself, is the lucid world of dreams. It’s this world that lies at the center of PHENOMENA. Because of Jennifer’s constant sleepwalking, it raises an interesting theory: are the events of the film just one long dream? Perhaps the murder at the beginning is simply a red herring, meant to make us believe that there is a killer on the loose, but one that only exists in Jennifer’s subconscious.
After revisiting PHENOMENA again, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the beginning of Argento’s downward slope as a director. While OPERA is truly his last masterpiece, it wouldn’t be until STENDYAHL SYNDROME (1998), that we had a return of a film that felt like a proper Argento release.
I passionately feel that PHENOMENA was one step away from being a contender, and could have been something truly remarkable. It places style over substance, and lacks the vision that gave birth to many baroque nightmares. I still find myself drawn to it, and so do many others.
© Copyright 2017 by Jerome Reuter