Two Cents “Girl Stories” Series — PHENOMENA

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

Horror has always had a…multi-faceted, let us say, relationship with the female half of the population. On the one hand, we all know the cliche of bubble-headed, buxom young ladies taking off their tops just in time to catch a machete off the skull, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Jason Voorhees.

But there’s another school of thought, which counters that horror is a genre that often empowers women, that sees women regularly slash the slashers and survive, that has turned the likes of Ellen Ripley and Laurie Strode into beloved icons. These women faced the devil, spat in his face, and lived to do it again another day.

Dario Argento’s entries in the genre were always so singularly bizarre as to belie any easy attempt at categorization. Argento’s films often eschewed basic logic of human behavior or, you know, life on earth, in favor of hyper-stylized dreamscapes in which shrouded killers (always represented by black-gloved hands, worn by Argento himself) turned human beings into gore-soaked art exhibitions.

1985’s Phenomena finds Jennifer Connelly (in only her second theatrical appearance and first starring role; Labyrinth came out the following year) in the killer’s crosshairs, but this particular murderer couldn’t have counted on the strange bevy of supernatural powers that Connelly can call upon to defend herself.

Phenomena has been difficult to find, and often only available in a heavily truncated cut (“Creepers”). But the full film has recently been released on Blu-ray, making it the perfect candidate for our ongoing series focusing on female-led films.

How does Phenomena rate against Argento’s other work? Read on and find out!

Next Week’s Pick

The struggle for women’s rights is a global one, and for the next entry of our “Girl Stories” we trade the phantasmagorical nightmares of Dario Argento for the real-world nightmare of Hirut, a 14-year old rural Ethiopian girl who was abducted for a forced marriage, but killed her would-be husband in self-defense. On trial is not only an adolescent girl standing up for herself, but ancient customs of bridal abduction and child marriage, in a clash of patriarchal ritual and modern sensibilities. We’re proud to feature Difret as our next Two Cents pick, not only to highlight the film but to draw attention to its subject. Difret is streaming now on Netflix!

Our Guests

Trey Lawson

Watching the best of Dario Argento’s films is like experiencing a dream. Phenomena isn’t Argento’s best work, but it definitely embodies that surreal, nightmarish quality. In its most basic premise there are similarities to Suspiria — an American girl (Jennifer Connelly) arrives at a European school amid a series of killings and other mysterious goings-on. In addition, she meets an aging wheelchair-bound entomologist (Donald Pleasence) and his chimpanzee attendant. I’m going to repeat that, with emphasis: DONALD PLEASENCE AND HIS CHIMPANZEE ATTENDANT. If that alone doesn’t sell you on this movie then I just don’t know what else to tell you.
Beyond that, the film also features a great score (combining cool Goblin tunes with metal tracks by the likes of Iron Maiden and Motörhead), psychic abilities, and a whole lot of bugs. There are moments throughout that evoke other classic horror films of the 70s and 80s such as The Exorcist, Carrie, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street, but without borrowing so heavily that it feels derivative. It wouldn’t be hard to point out any number of holes in the plot or raise questions about character motivations, but that’s not really what Phenomena is interested in. Rather it’s like experiencing a waking dream, just as Connelly’s character sleepwalks throughout the film. It’s not as good as Suspiria (what is, really?), but if you dig that style of horror then Phenomena is definitely worth a look. (Trey Lawson)


Brendan Foley

I generally prefer my Argento with a touch more psychedelia than is in the offing for Phenomena, but this is still a blast of the energetic nuttiness that only Argento in his prime could author.

I love Suspiria and Inferno, movies that don’t even try for narrative coherency and instead place all emphasis on conjuring deep moods of dread, operating on dream-logic to propel you through Technicolor haunted houses.

As Trey pointed out above, Phenomena feels closer to a ‘normal’ movie, mashing together many trends and traits of the then-popular supernatural sub-genre that was booming in the wake of hits like Poltergeist and Elm Street.

But Argento infuses his riff with so much deep-tissue oddness (Trey’s already mentioned the monkey, but Jesus Christ that monkey) that I spent much of the movie cackling at the sheer audacity of Argento to be treating such ridiculous subject matter with such a straight face. And when it comes time for the film to start hammering at the audience with scares, Argento’s genius for composition and practical effects are used to devastating ends.

So, while I don’t think Phenomena is going to displace the “Three Mothers” films from my pantheon, it’s a gleeful reminder of how much creativity and skill this mad Italian master had in his prime. (Brendan Foley)

Justin Harlan

Let’s get this out of the way… I don’t like Suspiria. I’ve been called all types of names by the horror community for this opinion. However, I’ve not watched it again since developing interest in directors like Jodorowsky that have given me a bit more appreciation of emotive films with very little narrative. So, perhaps this statement holds little weight.

On the other hand, I’ve become a fan of gialli and may consider Deep Red my favorite slasher film period. I think one of the things I struggle with about Suspiria is people labeling it a giallo film, which it really isn’t.

Phenomena may or may not be a giallo film, but I couldn’t care much less. It’s weird, quirky, creative, and entertaining as hell. What it is saying, I’m not fully sure, but I dig it.

Also, boarding schools feel like the worst places ever. Bunch of phonies, man… Holden was right. (Justin Harlan)

Austin Vashaw:

Phenomena is film I’m really fond of. I have to admit to having seen only a handful of Argento’s films, but of those I’ve seen, this one’s my favorite. (I even bought a variant of the obscenely expensive Steelbook Blu-ray). It’s relentlessly weird, gruesome, and terrifying, yet works within its own bizarre internal logic (in which a telepathic girl can commune with insects to solve a murder mystery). The onscreen wonders are accentuated with the synths and massive guitar riffs of heavy metal anthems and fan favorite prog-rock scorers Goblin.

Tragically, we’ll just have to live with the hole in our hearts that was meant to be filled by a TV prequel series about a wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasence and his chimpanzee sidekick going on entomological adventures and solving crimes. (Austin Vashaw)

Available on Limited Edition Steelbook Blu-ray from Synapse Films.

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