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Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: Dario Argento’s ‘Phenomena’

Almost a kid’s movie, if kids love murder.

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest, most memorable, and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that will leave a lasting impression through the next century. 

Dario Argento is arguably one of the most creative directors and storytellers of the 20th century. He has a way of using bold bright colors and splashing them across the screen to emphasize violence and invoke a true fairy tale atmosphere to his films. This can be seen in 1977’s Suspiria where the magenta colors of the ballet school are ghastly fixed against thunderstorms and  the raspy fantastical sounding Goblin soundtrack. Here, horror meets fairytale as a young wide eyed girl arrives with the hopes of beginning her ballet career, but is thwarted by wicked witches.

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1985’s Phenomena casts the same contrast of darkness and light. Phenomena is the story of a serial killer who is preying on young girls. Again, the fairy tale theme appears amid brutal gore and violence. Phenomena, however, seems to cater to a younger audience despite its R rating. A girl who can talk to insects, a heroic monkey, and means schoolgirls seem like they should be part of a less violent film, but they are not.

Phenomena stars Jennifer Connelly as Jennifer, the daughter of a famous movie star. While her father is shooting a film in Japan, Jennifer transitions to an elite Swiss boarding school. However, Jennifer soon finds out that there have been a string of murders all targeting girls around the age of fourteen.

The start of the film shows a very green countryside. A young girl named Vera Brandt has gotten separated from her school field trip and has to search for help. She stumbles across an idyllic home where she enters seeking help. She announces she is lost and foreign, broadcasting her vulnerability. This is all very Goldilocks and the Three Bears as she makes her way through the home, but then the horror sets in. 

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: Dario Argento's 'Phenomena'

This opening scene and first kill are striking for a couple of reasons. It shows the viewer exactly the kind of youth and innocence that is being targeted. It is also a display of slow and deliberate violence. The killer has chased Vera onto a bridge where she is brutally stabbed until her head slowly leans back against a window pane. The pane shatters and rains shards of glass onto her face and neck, effectively decapitating the lost school girl. This also calls back to the first kill in Suspiria, where the target was an older woman. 

Fairy tales usually share the damsel in distress character and Argento plays with it. However, there is no prince to save the day. In fact, Phenomena has a number of elements all loosely connected that work to bring about a resolution.

A serial killer is attacking women, an entomology professor’s expertise is consulted to examine the maggots and insect infestation in cadavers, and Jennifer learns she can communicate with insects. How these things all come together is strange and fantastic in itself. 

One night Jennifer sleepwalks across a murder scene, then right off a ledge Looney Tunes style, only to be saved by her bath robe which snags and helps slow her descent to the ground. Disoriented, she becomes lost, but is saved by Inga, a scalpel wielding chimpanzee. Inga takes her back to her place where she lives with Professor John McGregor, a respected entomologist.

Jennifer and Professor McGregor become fast friends. He seems to be the only one who gets her relationship with insects and is the first one to creepily comment on it as a strange bug makes weird mating call sounds. “You’re getting him excited,” he tells her and then she just laughs because it’s cool she made a bug horny. Professor McGregor lost his last assistant, presumably to the killer, so he becomes protective of Jennifer and welcomes her friendship. 

Jennifer is glad she has someone to talk to. The girls at her school are incredibly mean, invade her privacy and harass her. One night they are particularly awful and she manages to summon a horde of flies. No one is happy with that, so she makes her escape to visit the professor and Inga. This is where the professor explores more of Jennifer’s special bond with insects. Jennifer lets maggots lead her to one of the murder scenes. She gets too close to answers which means everyone is now in danger. 

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: Dario Argento's 'Phenomena'

Jennifer’s gift leads her to her chaperone Frau Bruckner, played by Daria Nicolodi. Frau Bruckner was raped and this resulted in a scary demon baby. It’s very weird, but he’s the killer and now Frau Bruckner has had to kill to protect her son. The film is resolved as Jennifer calls a swarm of insects to do away with the demon baby and Inga stabs Frau Brucker to death. 

The rape of Frau Bruckner and the result of it is certainly a frightening turn of events. While it is easy to focus on the violence perpetrated against women in this film, it also highlights the violence against women in fairy tales, which is reflective of violence against women in society.

Phenomena might focus on Jennifer’s extraordinary gift, but it also focuses on her ability to save herself (with the help of Inga). This film is wonderfully gory, bizarre, and plain fun. I am all for a chimpanzee heroine. Why don’t we have more of them? Come for the Argento and stay for the monkey. Watch this film with a primate or a bug.

Fun homage or bad knockoff?

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