Phenomena (1985)

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Phenomena is probably one of Dario Argento’s most polarizing work. The film has quite a lot of fans – even Dario Argento himself states this film is his favourite amongst his own work – but there are many people, critics included, who say that Phenomena is the film where Dario Argento changed from being a director of good films, to being a director of bad films, and I can understand why some people believe that to be. Phenomena is very different to any other Dario Argento Giallo film because of fantasy elements, focus on teenage drama, a heavy metal soundtrack, and some very outlandish sequences that would challenge any viewer’s suspension of disbelief, especially the ones that involve the film’s chimpanzee. That being said, the film did find it’s way to growing a very dedicated cult following, and it even inspired one of the best horror video games never played: Clock Tower.

However, despite all the criticism, I believe that Phenomena wasn’t supposed to be just another mature Dario Argento horror film, because the film’s pacing, the story, and the tone and scope of the film leads me to believe that Phenomena created to be a horror film that was intended for late teenagers, rather than mature adults, as Phenomena shares a lot of the common cliches of teenage horror films and child fantasy films: such as having a main character going through very teenage struggles – bullying, coming to terms with her adulthood, coping with new environments – and the film doesn’t have a very coherent story, but the main focus is on the picturesque set pieces and scenes of action scenes where the protagonist overcomes the odds. When viewed as a teenage horror film, Phenomena is more sophisticated than other teenage horror films that came out around the same time. It’s more understanding, more human, and more fantastical than other teenage film that came out around the same time, as well as having a lot more blood, gore and more visually disturbing elements than The Lost Boys, Fright Night or Teen Wolf. Phenomena is quite a ‘grown up’ teen film, but it’s a teen film nonetheless.

Regardless, I feel that Phenomena still manages to retain a lot of what makes Dario Argento’s Giallo films quite enjoyable: the beautiful cinematography, the graphic death scenes and a mystery with a lot of subtle elements (the film was inspired when Dario Argento learned that insects were sometime used to help murder cases). The only problem is that Phenomena mixes Giallo horror with fantasy styling, and these genres aren’t generally mixed in the way that Phenomena does. For example: Hatchet For The Honeymoon mixes fantasy elements with Giallo horror, but the fantasy styling is contained in artistic dream sequences. Thus, Phenomena stands out in the Giallo genre for it’s originality, and personally, I’ve never seen a film quite like Phenomena.

That’s not to say that the film’s entirely faultless. Firstly, the acting is quite dodgy: Donald Pleasance can’t do a convincing Scottish accent, Jennifer Connoly still needs acting lessons and Daria Nicoladi doesn’t suit the ‘psycho’ style character. This all pulls away from the more dramatic moments of the film, thus, where the film needs to be tense, the poor acting hurts the effect of those particular scenes and it’s evident all throughout the film. Also, the music is quite distracting as well. The theme music for Phenomena is probably Claudio Simonetti’s greatest composition, and it’s used sparingly, but in all honesty, the other songs by Iron Maiden and Motorhead are played at very inappropriate moments: chase scenes and emotional death scenes. In the end, the music is incredibly distracting and far too loud to be taken seriously. Honestly, for a film by the ‘Master Of Suspense’, Phenomena isn’t a film that’s very suspenseful.

I don’t dislike Phenomena, for what it is, I feel that it’s very competent. On the other hand, I don’t think Phenomena is a brilliant film either. As a film for teenagers, it’s very good, probably one of the best, but as a Giallo horror film, it’s lacking. In my opinion, Phenomena is a very middle-of-the-road horror film, even if it’s one of the most original horror films to have ever existed. I’d recommend watching Phenomena, but only those who know what the film is about before going in, otherwise Phenomena can be misconstrued as “a poor, silly film with very little redeeming values”, or “one of the most idiotic films by supposed ‘Italian Hitchcock’ Dario Argento”, descriptions which I feel are gross misunderstandings of what Phenomena tries to deliver.

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