There is one great moment in Phenomena, Dario Argento’s frustratingly Schizophrenic fright flick. In this sequence, which stands head and shoulders above the rest in an otherwise incomprehensible movie, a pet chimpanzee named Inga rushes to warn her human daddy John (Donald Pleasence) that a killer has broke into his house. Alas, John is paraplegic, and as he slides down the stairs on his device built for wheelchairs to let the poor simian in, the killer, cloaked in shadow, pushes the button on the control panel to trap him on the staircase.
It’s a tense moment, punctuated by the screams of the frightened ape. But the rest of the movie is a shoddy mess, with jarring metal music and terrible acting. This is my first Dario Argento horror film. Maybe I should have started with something else? There are times that Phenomena is so bizarrely put together, like a pastiche of hellish themes and images, that is almost becomes so bad it’s good. Almost. Argento had an amazing idea, but it’s ultimately all for naught. Could this be a classic horror movie actually in need for a remake? Purists would shudder to think of this film being refurbished, but I think it is actually a distinct possibility.
Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly, in a very poor performance) is a teenaged schoolgirl neglected by her wealthy actor father. She is sent to boarding school at the beginning, and while she might seem like your everyday debutante with too much money on her hands and not enough to do with it, she is anything but ordinary. Firstly, she is much more down-to-earth than the other girls in the academy, but that is not what sets her apart. Jennifer can communicate telepathically with insects, and this might come in handy with a serial killer on the loose. With girls dropping like flies (no pun intended), Jennifer befriends John (Pleasence,) an entomologist studying the part bugs play in the decomposition of corpses. Not creepy at all, right? He also has a pet monkey, who’s kind of important, as she turns out to be much more deserving of the title ‘hero’ than Connelly is.
Phenomena has an abundance of imaginative images and ideas, but ultimately it comes off as an unintentional comedy. Part of this is the acting; while Pleasence is competent at his craft as always Connelly can barely deliver her lines in a convincing manner and the rest of the cast is just terrible. Heavy metal songs by artists such as Iron Maiden and Motorhead cut into the action at the most unsuitable times, and the film has a definite MTV vibe to it. You practically expect Beavis and Butthead to be commentating in the background. Yeah, Jennifer Connelly is… hot. Motorhead is… cool. Uh-huh-huh. In fact, America’s two favorite idiots would be easier to take seriously than this movie. Forget how powerful Connelly was in Requiem for a Dream. Watching her here is positively painful. It’s like seeing the ass-to-ass scene from Requiem a billion times back-to back. You just want to cry for her. And not because of her aptitude for the craft, either.
The last twenty minutes are almost worth watching just for the crazy turns the plot takes, but they’re not enough to sit through a hole-filled, badly acted, and yes, boring story. Why is this school open when girls are constantly dropping dead? Why does John send Jennifer to find the killer all by herself? Why does the killer kill? No seriously, did someone just happen to overlook the villain’s motivation? Why can Jennifer talk to insects but not larvae? Why does the little boy look like that? The reason for all of these, of course, is because. Because that’s the loony-ass direction the plot takes. Terrible actors, dated music video-style sequences, characters we don’t give a damn about; Phenomena is a muddled mess. It’s high point is that it should provide some unintentional comedy for undiscerning viewers. No wonder the ape was the only one I liked.