April 20, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Phenomena (1985)

by Nick Schager


[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the female boarding-school chiller The Moth Diaries.]

Dario Argento's fascination with sight takes sexually anxious form in Phenomena, the Italian giallo maestro's surreal 1985 saga of boarding school maturation. That carnal awakening isn't overt in Argento's film, which is nominally about a serial killer stalking young females in a remote Swiss village, a spree that coincides with the arrival of Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous hunky movie star, at the imposing Richard Wagner Academy for Girls. On her maiden drive from the airport, Jennifer protects a bee from being swatted by hysterical Frau Brückner (Argento regular Daria Nicolodi), an act that's soon explained by the fact that Jennifer shares a telepathic bond with insects, thus making her a prime candidate to befriend local entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). McGregor is fascinated by Jennifer's relationship with bugs, which—as when she causes one to emit its mating call out of season—boasts a quasi-sexual nature that's further heightened by Jennifer's use of this human-insect connection to help find the area's psycho. Jennifer comes into direct contact with that lunatic during a bout of sleepwalking (a habit attributed by school staffers to "schizophrenia") that leads her to a ledge where, in a moment of shocking brutality, she witnesses a young girl stabbed through the mouth with a blade.


That weapon's phallic nature speaks to Phenomena's underlying portrait of youthful sex as potentially dangerous, a notion first suggested in the sterling opening sequence, in which a young Danish tourist (Argento's real-life daughter Fiore) is abandoned by her classmates and adult chaperones and, venturing into the woods, stumbles upon a house where a faceless maniac breaks free from chained captivity, strangles her, stabs her with a protruding knife (more phallic imagery), and then decapitates her and tosses her head into a raging waterfall. Sexualized violence against young women who've been deserted by men is a constant in Argento's film, be it Jennifer's roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni), who's been given baby food to eat by her absentee parents and is felled by the fiend after her paramour ditches her post-make-out, or Jennifer herself, incapable of reaching her father or his agent by phone and hunted by a killer while she attempts to understand her sensual rapport with buzzing flies and slithering maggots. Argento subtly enhances these undercurrents through camerawork that plunges into darkness and pans through spaces with sinister voluptuousness, creating a mood of dreamy menace that's rooted in the notion that female puberty is a process that one must experience alone, and that's fraught with lethal peril.


Argento's fondness for heavy metal, here highlighted by cuts from Iron Maiden, Motörhead, and The Goblins, further pushes the material into sex-and-death-fantasy territory, as well as gives it a persistent groove of electric malevolence. Argento regularly toys with expectations, beginning with the scene immediately following his intro murder that finds Professor McGregor admonishing his pet chimpanzee Inga—who's initially spied trying to get back inside their house—for playing with a knife, thereby suggesting that the chimp is the villain in question. It's one of Phenomena's many red herrings, as Argento's tale doggedly posits non-human creatures as forces of good and, more mysteriously, as in tune with pubescent children's development into adults. That association isn't clearly spelled out by the film but, rather, suggested in beguilingly oblique ways, and is given a bizarre semi-spiritual element by a haunting sequence in which Jennifer, mocked by her ice-queen headmistress and then taunted by bitchy classmates for her alleged link with insects, tells her tormentors "I love you all" with turn-the-other-cheek benevolence as swarms of flies amass outside nearby windows.


Last act revelations about the serial killer's identity layer the action with pseudo-Freudian shadings that further complicate the overarching stew of parent-child sexual tensions. However, it's via a hideously deformed little boy who covers mirrors in order to not see his hideous reflection that Phenomena fully taps into Argento's fascination with the vital act of seeing (and not seeing). That familiar preoccupation is also conveyed through the director's trademark employment of POV shots, not just for his murderer but for both Jennifer and her insect pals, whose perspective is visualized through split-screen imagery. While the director isn't able to meld his story's various elements into a completely lucid whole, that disarray contributes to the ominous sense of a world slightly unmoored from reason and sanity. It's an atmosphere that carries the film over its rougher spots, and culminates in a magnificently deranged climactic battle between Jennifer and a mommy dearest (with adult men relegated to powerless witnesses) involving a vat of human sludge and skeletons, a boat skirmish between a mutated tyke-monster and angry flies, a fiery lake baptism that finds Jennifer emerging from the water in a white gown, and a final showdown which argues that, even more than ladybugs or larvae, a preyed-upon girl's best friend is, ultimately, a chimpanzee with a straight razor.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by ahillis at April 20, 2012 8:56 AM