To say that Dario Argento is one of the more divisive filmmakers in the horror genre would be an understatement. To his detractors, his films are misogynist, mean-spirited, and unfocused. To his fans, he’s a master of style, tension, and brutality. Personally, I’m on the fence with Argento and I find that his films have the capacity for all of those qualities and more. Despite an aptitude for compelling build-up, his follow-through often leaves me cold. He creates interesting characters but sometimes fills their mouths with inane dialogue. My ambivalence is fitting, perhaps, given that 1985’s PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS) takes place at a boarding school for girls in the permanently neutral country of Switzerland.
A pre-LABYRINTH Jennifer Connelly stars as Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of an American film actor starting her first year at the ultra-exclusive Robert Wagner International School for Girls. Situated in the Swiss “Transylvania,” the school is home to an icy headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro), a bespectacled assistant (Daria Nicolodi), and teenage girls sneaking cigarettes and swapping lurid rumors of an unknown killer in the surrounding forest. John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a paraplegic Scottish professor who makes his home nearby, has been applying his expertise in forensic entomology (i.e. using bugs to assist in legal matters) to help local detectives solve the latest in a series of grisly murders. After a chance encounter with McGregor’s mischievous chimp, Inga, Jennifer begins an informal apprenticeship under the professor as an amateur sleuth. Her innate ability to communicate telepathically with insects might lead to a break in the case.
Unlike SUSPIRIA, where the color palette was rich and kaleidoscopic, PHENOMENA uses a stricter blend of monochrome, where the whites pop brightly and shadows are plentiful. The rustic Swiss exterior that appears so lush during daytime shots becomes dense and sinister as night falls. Visually, this is one of Argento’s more impressive films. It’s also one of his more surreal and campy. (Telekinesis and helper monkeys, anyone)? While it contains a lot of his standard visual tropes — pretty females being terrorized with edge weapons, and faces smashing through windows during death scenes — it’s most similar conceptually to SUSPIRIA in its use of a giallo framework with a supernatural undercurrent.
PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS) (1985) Dir. Dario Argento, 82 minutes
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