Friday, August 8, 2008

PHENOMENA: Murderin' Monkeys, Argento-style



As the above image suggests, Dario Argento's 1987 film, PHENOMENA, includes an overt homage to Poe in the form of a razor-wielding ape--never mind that Argento uses a chimpanzee here, while Poe's simian culprit in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is an orangutan. With his stories of madmen and murderers, Poe has a natural place in the genealogy of the Italian giallo, and Dario Argento himself has expressed a particular affinity for his work, ultimately culminating in his collaboration with George Romero, TWO EVIL EYES. What Poe would make of PHENOMENA, however, is anyone's guess. It stands somewhat as a black sheep amongst Argento's other mid-late 1980s film, including OPERA and the masterful TENEBRE, garnering its share of negative reviews, including one from Alan Jones, whose original STARBURST review called it "the worst fantasy slasher Dario Argento has ever been involved in" (my source for this quote is Jones' PROFONDO ARGENTO).



It seems that the passage of time has improved PHENOMENA's reputation somewhat, despite the fact that Argento seems intent on going in several different directions at once. Jennifer Connelly plays Jennifer, the daughter of a media celebrity sent to boarding school in the "Swiss Transylvania," and in a twist taken right out of SUSPIRIA, she discovers that a murderer is on the loose. In the meantime, Donald Pleasance plays John MacGregor, a Scottish entomologist that the police have called upon to help them solve the murders--maggots and larvae can provide clues about the time of death, after all. Jennifer, we learn, has the ability to communicate with insects, and McGregor eventually encourages her to use this ability to find the killer's lair.



As nutty as PHENOMENA sounds, Argento has described this film as one of his most personal, and the plot allows him to play with a number of fruitful themes and ideas, including the archetypal "terrible mother" that has shown up in some of his other films. Burdened by the absence of parents, Jennifer ultimately finds that the truth behind the horrible murders relate to her need for nurturing in some horrible ways. Up to this point, the film portrays characters seeking some kind of surrogate parent: Jennifer's room-mate even gives her baby food when she asks for something to eat, and the opening sequence--one of Argento's best ever--shows a girl calling after the bus that left her behind after a school trip, leading to her eventual murder by decapitation. Significantly, Fiore Argento plays the abandoned school girl. As his later films with his other daughter, Asia, demonstrate, the director tends to play our personal issues on the screen in some disturbing ways.



And in all this we have a monkey! The ape belongs to John MacGregor, who in his own way, acts as its surrogate parent, until the ape gets a chance to repay the favor. If I didn't already love PHENOMENA for the way it fearlessly throws all its bizarre plot elements into one big gumbo, I'd probably love it just for putting a razor in that ape's hand.

5 comments:

Fred said...

I have always liked this film, although I have only seen the edited form when released as "Creepers." Hope to own the DVD soon, all I have is the old VHS and the low-quality version on a DVD set of "Drive-in Classics."

I plan on posting the video release poster soon on Sweet Skulls. Your post has made me move it up on my list!

-Fred

The Headless Werewolf said...

PHENOMENA/CREEPERS had some great promotional art, so I'm looking forward to seeing what you post. Thanks for chiming in!

Tenebrous Kate said...

>>I'd probably love it just for putting a razor in that ape's hand

I love this statement, really. That's what this kind of movie is all about--give me weirdness, give me creepy imagery, and damn the torpedoes of good taste! A very nice write-up, sir.

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Ray Crowe said...

This is a refreshingly offbeat and wacky giallo with supernatural overtones that I instantly loved. However, I think the 110-minute version is a bit overlong and could use some editing of superfluous scenes. The 82-minute American version Creepers cuts some good gore and a couple of important scenes, so I think the best cut would be somewhere between the two available versions.