Comments Off on Phenomena

Phenomena (1985) is one of those rare “R-rated” kids movies. I say this not just because of Jennifer Connelly’s involvement, which brings Labyrinth (1986) to mind, but because of a series of genre tropes present in Dario Argento’s film. For instance the sleep-walking/dream sequences, the aid of the animal kingdom (insects to be precise), and the last minute rescue by a chimpanzee in the third act. Argento really brings a sense of whimsy to the film that contrasts the disgusting gore in a way that never feels out of place or shoehorned in. 

Horror films with children as their protagonist almost always take on different aspects of the family film. Phantasm (1979) unravels its mysteries with a child’s logic just as Parents (1989) constantly grounds the audiences’ perspective in that of the film’s child protagonist. Phenomena doesn’t address any significant childhood trauma explicitly in the way these other films do which is why I would consider it more of a fairytale. There’s a line where the headmistress of the school refers to Connelly’s character as “our lady of the flies”, and I feel that is accurate; she is a fairy princess with this magical power to communicate with insects. Other parts of the Connelly character reaffirm this assumption as well. She comes from Hollywood, the “dream factory”, where her father is a matinee idol or shall we say a “king”.

Then, of course, is Donald Pleasence’s character Professor McGregor. McGregor fits nicely into the paternal mentor figure category, complete with a highly emotive sidekick who happens to also be a rather noble chimpanzee. On paper, this all sounds more like Don Bluth than it does Dario Argento, and maybe that is the point.

Argento is trying a lot of new things in this picture. The signature approach to music in the film is modified to incorporate songs of the day and the lighting scheme has shifted towards the cold and sterile. What remains of Argento’s classic period (the late 1960s through the late 1970s) is the gore, and the highly stylized set pieces (though these set pieces are limited to dream sequences).

It is these shifts in Argento’s style that polarized the audience’s reception of the film. Even today, with all three versions of the film available from Synapse Films and Arrow Video, Phenomena is Dario Argento’s most “cult” effort.