One great source of debate amongst horror film fans is questioning when, exactly, did Dario Argento go off the rails (and even the most dedicated fan must surely admit that it’s ‘when’, not ‘if’)? At what point did his films stop being great and become crashingly, continually awful? Some filmmakers have a gradual decline from their glory days, and many Argento fans would have it that their hero did likewise. I’d argue otherwise, and pinpoint the stage in his career where he shifted from being one of my favourite directors to something of a joke as being the release of Phenomena. Of course, at the time you don’t realise that this is the end – I recall hoping this was a one-off aberration, and was quick to blame the awfulness as much on the UK/US Creepers cut – which, in addition to having a cheesy title, chopped out lots of footage. But a subsequent viewing of the full-length version revealed it to be no better, and watching Phenomena again now, I can only think that this film could only be improved by judicious editing (I’m not sitting through Creepers, included on this disc, to find out). Not only is it awful – quite extraordinarily so – but at nearly two hours, it’s needlessly bloated.
The film actually starts out well, with a young girl left behind by a coach party in the Swiss countryside, who then stumbles upon a deserted house and meets a sticky end. This is stylishly done, with atmospheric music and a sense of drama – even if the final moments of death are needlessly slow-mo’d, something that hints at the idea that Argento had started believing his own publicity and excessively gushing praise about his innovative techniques (be fair: would that slow, pointless crane shot around the house in Tenebrae have seemed anything more than empty time wasting if you hadn’t been repeated told what a ground-breaking technical moment it was?). But from here, it’s not so much downhill as a plunge from the top of a tower block in terms of quality.
American student Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) arrives at an exclusive Swiss academy for girls, where she struggles to fit in due to her sleepwalking habit – and possibly her clumsily explained love of insects. Given that Connelly is pretty much sleepwalking through her role, her somnambulistic activities seem appropriate characterisation. Anyway, She meets wheelchair-bound entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), who has a helper chimp, Inga, and…
No, let’s pause there. The film has a helper chimp. And yet it’s still awful.
Anyway… As her fellow students are offed by an unseen murderer, Jennifer gets involved in the investigation with McGregor after a firefly leads her to a maggoty glove. When a swarm of flies surround the school while she is being taunted by fellow students, the headmistress declares her to be ‘diabolic’ and starts making arrangements to have her sent to an asylum for the criminally insane – head teachers in Switzerland apparently having more leeway with the punishment of students than they have here. She escapes to McGregor’s home, and he gives her a Great Sarcophagus fly, telling her to use it to help find the murderer. But that night, he himself is offed, and Jennifer finds herself in the care of her chaperone Frau Buckner (Daria Nicolodi), who immediately is revealed to be as mad as a bag of cats being poked with a stick. But is she the murderer? And will you care?
There is little to admire in this film. It has a story that goes all over the place, mixing the ludicrous with the mind-numbingly stretched out, resulting in a narrative that manages to be both demented and tedious at the same time. Argento can’t seem to decide what exactly he wants his film to be – a supernatural psychic thriller, a standard giallo, a mutant monster effort or an American-inspired slasher, and so he throws everything into the pot, hoping that something tasty will somehow result. But everything is so clumsily done, you have to wonder just what had happened to the director in the years between this and Tenebrae. The film doesn’t even have a strong visual style, the very hallmark of Argento’s work previously. Instead, it’s flat and empty.
The performances are universally embarrassing – when your best actor is a monkey, you know things have gone terribly wrong. It might not be the cast’s fault, as many of them have displayed decent acting chops elsewhere – but the dialogue and characterisation here is laughably bad. Daria Nicolodi is forced to overact hysterically, almost as if Argento is punishing her for their marital collapse, while Connelly – the emotional opposite to Nicolodi, delivering every line with the flatness of someone paying for dry cleaning – must thank God that she’d got to make One Upon A Time in America before this film had the chance to scupper her career forever.
There has been much sneering at the use of Iron Maiden and Motorhead on the soundtrack of the film, but truth be told, it’s not the songs that are bad, just the way they are used. You’d expect fast paced heavy metal to accompany fast paced scenes, but instead we get Motorhead’s Locomotive thundering out over a scene of medics carrying out Pleasence’s body. Later, an action scene plays out without music, and is then followed by Connolly wandering around a house while Maiden’s Flash of the Blade belts away on the soundtrack. It’s as if, having secured the rights to the songs, Argento had no idea what to do with them and so just randomly inserted them without actually looking at the scene in question.
The film ends with Argento copying both Don’t Look Now and Friday the 13th (with a Jason-alike mutant child) as well as his own work, lifting a classic moment from Inferno and bastardising it. Not that he hasn’t been attempting to create a ‘Best of Argento’ story throughout, with giallo aspects, a girl’s school lifted from Suspiria, demented mothers and so on. It’s a bit like watching a ham-fisted fan film at times.
The annoying thing is, that underneath the ludicrous plot, the shoddy acting, the awful dialogue and the visual flatness of the film, there are moments. Not many, but there’s some great music that rarely gets a chance to shine (the soundtrack CD included here is the only thing worth owning in the collection) and the opening scene writes cheques that the rest of the movie is woefully incapable of cashing. But flickers of consciousness from an otherwise brain dead affair somehow make it all seem worse, as if you are being teased with the idea that there is something good buried away here. Well, there isn’t. This is genuinely appalling, and the extravagance of this new Arrow edition is simply putting lipstick on a pig.