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John’s Horror Corner: Phenomena (1984), Argento’s bizarre, haphazard, slow-paced and clumsy storytelling crescendos into a bonkers and satisfying finale!

October 21, 2013

MY CALL:  Bizarre and haphazard, Argento’s clumsy storytelling advances at a painfully slow pace until the brief, bonkers and satisfying finale.  Largely not worth a watch.  MOVIES LIKE Phenomena:  Look into Dario Argento’s other work.  His stylistic approach is consistent throughout his body of work.  ALTERNATE TITLE: This film was also released as Creepers.

Director Dario Argento (Mother of Tears, Suspiria) is considered a master of horror.  I’ve read reviews suggesting that this is “Argento’s neglected masterpiece” and “one of Argento’s best.”  Sorry to be a naysayer, but a masterpiece this is not.

Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly; Labyrinth, Dark Water), not your typical protagonist, is a sleepwalking psychic with an affinity for insects.  Argento’s (at best) clumsy storytelling follows his typical trends.  Young women are being murdered and a heroine is guided by erratic, choppy, trance-like dream sequences to solve the mystery.  When Jennifer befriends an entomology professor with a pet chimp, that seemed to push it all over the edge of absurdity for me.

Yup. This is totally normal. Forensic consulting work with the police…with the additional expert opinion of a chimp.

Our 14-year old heroine teams up with the professor to solve a string of murders taking place at a private school in Switzerland.  Making him perhaps one of the worst academics ever, the professor seems to have no difficulty finding instant credibility in Jennifer’s telepathic connection to insects.

Now I called Argento’s storytelling “clumsy” at best, and I realize this may upset some people. But watch this movie and I challenge you to find any plot significance in any of the scenes…any of them.  The film wears on, murders accumulate, and we find ourselves no closer to knowing who or what the killer is or the motive behind the killing.  Not only does this story fail to lead us anywhere, but there are no attempts at clues, linking events or red herrings to keep us guessing.  The only thing I found myself guessing was why the Hell was this movie even made if Argento had nothing to say?  Aimless story or not, Argento sees fit to lead his actors into a strong fog of melodrama to make viewers believe that these vapid scenes actually yield some significance.

That said, whereas Argento is no storyteller, he has a strong grasp of instilling urgency as he makes almost every scene intense (even if unnecessarily so), using wildly inappropriate rock music to score up tension in otherwise mundane scenes.  It was as if someone calmly walking down a corridor merited a hair metal guitar solo.  The dream sequences feel drug-induced and keep our eyes locked on the screen so as not to miss a thing and the actors’ melodrama certainly keeps our attention as we wonder how they may be linked to the murders.

Argento’s strong suit is gore, which is most highlighted by the scenes with the deformed child and when Jennifer falls into a pit of festering human offal reminiscent of the pool scene in Poltergeist (1982) and the grave-digging scene in Drag Me to Hell (2009).

I think this is the cousin of The Goonies’ Sloth.

And despite the story’s outcome which couldn’t possibly have been deduced, the final act was full of bonkers murderous action which left me very entertained.  The closing scene answers the questions why did the professor have a pet chimp?  and is Jennifer’s insect telepathy actually important in this movie?  However, the answers are far from intelligent or reasonable, doing little more than offering weirdly shocking moments in the finale.

I’d recommend that less seasoned horror fans skip this film until they find the insatiable desire to see everything (much as I do).

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2013 7:36 am

    Great analysis. I like Argento, as he has broken the mold with his own, as you say, “clumsy” horror sub-genre. He is a little overrated, but always worth a watch for me.

    • johnleavengood permalink
      October 21, 2013 9:25 am

      Yeah. People like us have fun watching these. But I think my friends would be baffled to the point of impatient irritation.

      • October 21, 2013 6:07 pm

        Yes, I agree. Not to beat a dead horse, but your term of “clumsy horror” or however you put it, sums him up perfectly. It’s almost like he attempts to be a Kubrick of horror so-to-speak, but the result is more amateurish than anything else.

Trackbacks

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