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Phenomena

Year: 1985
Production Co: DACFILM Rome
Director: Dario Argento
Writer: Dario Argento/Franco Ferrini
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasance

I've never been the biggest fan of Dario Argento. I find his movies too stylised, almost pantomime in their approach to horror with the lurid colour schemes and close-ups of barbecue sauce standing in for blood.

I've also never liked his slightly icky propensity not just for violence against women (like Michael Winner, I suspect he was rejected by girls a lot as a teenager), but to fetishise and almost sexualise it.

But I watched this movie for three reasons. I'm the same age as Jennifer Connelly, and when we were both in our mid-teens I was so in love with her I couldn't think straight when she was on screen.

Second, I remembered a couple of the stills from the back of the VHS cover I'd looked at a hundred times in the video store (the female figure falling backwards through the window, shattering the glass, Connelly hunched over a phone while ghostly hands reach for her shoulders from behind, her emerging, screaming, from a pool full of human remains and what looked like Rice Bubbles).

But third, I couldn't imagine how a hot (in both senses of the word) American model who was a huge hit in Japan and a veteran Italian horror thriller director working entirely in Switzerland could possibly come to work together.

Unfortunately, nothing on screen made me any more a fan of Argento's work. It's frankly a mess in every possible department, from the creative to the technical. The script is awful. The acting (including Connelly's, owing perhaps to her lack of experience) is dreadful with the possible exception of Donald Pleasance as the Scottish entomologist.

Some of the performers seem to nail the turned-up-to-eleven delivery style Argento probably wanted to match his giallo sensibility, while others are just stiff and inexpressive.

The continuity is all over the place, and I'm sure it wasn't easy shooting on film depicting a windy night-time environment, but there are so many cuts between night and late afternoon and between howling gales and light breezes (and the rest of the editing is so shoddy anyway) you're not sure if you're looking at a new scene or the same one that's been cut poorly.

Not only is the story badly executed, the premise itself is nonsensical. Jennifer (Connelly) has the ability to communicate with insects, and there's a murderer on the loose killing the young students of the exclusive country boarding school she's sent to.

So what's the story about? Is it a supernatural tale about a woman with an otherworldly power or a serial killer thriller? Neither the script or the direction can make up its mind, and you'll be none the wiser either. I've read other critical reactions that cast that as a virtue, but I found it a very tone-deaf clash of ideas.

Then, on top of everything else and for seemingly no reason other than because he has a musical sensibility and couldn't think of anywhere else to put them, Argento randomly plonks a brutal heavy metal track over the soundtrack, letting the character do something innocuous and time-consuming (searching a room, for instance) just so he can include as much of the song as possible.

Not only does it bring the whole flow down, the energy and pace of the tracks he selects seldom match the action on screen, making you wonder why they're even there. It's just one example of how poorly edited it is.

To the extent it's worth describing, the plot is about Jennifer, the daughter of a rich Hollywood actor who's shipped off to a countryside boarding school with overly disciplinarian teachers and whom most of the other girls tease over all manner of things.

But as we've already seen, a killer is stalking the school, the bodies of the students piling up, and Jennifer feels increasingly trapped. Her only friend is Professor McGregor (Pleasance), a wheelchair-bound insect researcher with a pet monkey for company. They decide to team up to try and use her gift to identify and stop the murderer (like it's an 80s detective agency TV show), but not before Jennifer finds herself trapped in the killer's inner sanctum after a successful bait and switch.

Everything about it is risible, there's absolutely no talent on display, and I remain thoroughly confused about why Argento has so many diehard fans.

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