Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA — “What’ll we call this film? — it seems like a random conglomeration of stuff… I know — PHENOMENA!”
Watched this because of Paul Duane’s warm praise for the Donald Pleasence character, John MacGregor — a paralysed Scottish entomologist living in Switzerland with a pet chimp. One wants to say that this is exactly the kind of character one WOULD meet in a Dario Argento film, but in fact it’s the kind of character one doesn’t meet often enough in any film. Pleasence is a joy, and his unnecessary accent, a piece of pure virtuoso ham, is extreme but quite convincing. And quite different from the one he does in KIDNAPPED. I wonder if he based it on this guy –
But not quite. I always felt that the accent of the kiddie-fiddler Pleasence plays in Chabrol’s BLOOD RELATIVES was a Roman Polanski impersonation (Pleasence had worked with Polanski some years before), so it’s possible that this is another backhanded homage… to somebody.
Asides from this endearing character (and Inga, his chimp housemaid), we have discombobulating mishmash of elements culled from other movies — the creepy school from SUSPIRIA (complete with similar out-of-the-blue narration, disorientating and fun — you automatically look at the person next to you to check they’re hearing it too) the unseen serial killer, from every other Argento film (and you get the feeling Argento himself is getting tired of this shit), the teenage girl with psychic powers from CARRIE, only here she has the power to command bugs JUST BECAUSE, and the mother and son psycho team from FRIDAY THE 13TH. Throw in Poe’s razor-wielding ape for good measure –
Of all the murders in Argento’s films, only this one features a convincing emotional response of bereavement by anybody. And the person mourning is a chmpanzee. Meet Inga, the only convincing female character in an Argento movie.
Great, wildly inappropriate at all times and therefore GOOD score by Goblin, augmented — or should I say “befouled” — by some even more inappropriate (and not in a good way) heavy metal tracks. I want to say they come out of left field, but the whole movie comes out of left field. They come out of the bleachers.
Oh, and there’s Armani costumes. Just what this film needed.
For a former critic, Argento is about the least analytical director in the world, it seems to me. With an obsessive focus on violence to women, his films never deliver anything like a credible thought on the causes of such obsessions: you won’t learn anything about misogyny or sadism from Argento, except that they can take lurid forms. Obviously, the accusation that he isn’t much interested in his actors and writes impossible dialogue is true, but it’s also true that the women’s dialogue is worse than the men’s — and it tends to be the women who act in ways that are utterly absurd — perhaps because women are so incomprehensible to the director in reality? (Check the bickering schoolgirls in this film for an example.)
The shaggy D.A. defines his films as “non-Cartesian” and that seems to be enough for him. In this case, “non-Cartesian” is really a synonym for “nonsensical.” Well, to be fair, most of PHENOMENA makes its own demented kind of sense, it’s just that the disparate elements have no reason to cohabit in the same picture. The chimp with a straight razor, out of Poe, is pretty welcome though — by that time in the movie, we know the whole thing’s insane and we’re watching mainly to see just how berserk it can get.
Jennifer Connolly’s face, already sizable, becomes huge underwater.
“He stays in his room with his crazy thoughts,” says Daria Nicolodi, making me wonder: If he comes out of his room, do his crazy thoughts stay in his room?
I’d also be interested to know how readers interpret the film’s backstory — the killer’s origin. I have a feeling it’s pretty sick.