As with Stanley Kubrick, I have a love/hate relationship with Dario Argento. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is one of my all time favorite movies. Also like Kubrick, Argento can be every bit as sadistic with sound design. In fact, I’m not willing to argue who learned it from whom. I suspect the influence may have been mutual.
I had a sneaking suspicion that Phenomena might have at least slightly, uh, “borrowed” from Kiss Of The Tarantula. An adolescent girl who can control insects is mercilessly bullied by her peers and discovers a murder plot involving an authority figure. I assumed Phenomena’s Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) would follow in the footsteps of Kiss Of The Tarantula’s Susan.
Despite what I thought was a damn good prediction, I was wrong. In fact, take away the bugs, and these two movies have zero to do with each other. In fact, they don’t even both use insects.
But Argento is by no means off the hook. Not far into Phenmonena, I kept being reminded, over and over again, of Suspiria.
Which brings me back to my love/hate relationship. I like Suspiria a lot. If nothing else, it’s stunningly beautiful just to look at. And there’s that sadistic sound design I mentioned. Tough to say if Argento (well, Goblin) cadged this from A Clockwork Orange or helped reinforce those ideas as Kubrick steered his demented ship straight into the sun that became The Shining.
The similarities between Phenomena and Suspiria are striking, so much so that it’s tempting to ask, “Is it plagiarism if you rip off one of your own films?” Jennifer in Phenomena and Suzy (Jessica Harper) in Suspiria both attend exclusive schools.
Both schools have domineering headmistresses and teachers (whenever I see the name Frau Brückner, I expect to hear horses whinny). Both schools have areas the students are forbidden to enter. Both girls have nightmare visions of what’s going on unbeknownst to the other students, and these visions lead them right into said forbidden areas (yep, shocking).
There’s more, like the shattering window scene in the first six minutes. It’s not nearly as visually arresting as the stained glass of Suspiria, but the similarity is all there. There’s also a third person narration at 13:45 in Phenomena describing Jennifer’s arrival at the school, echoing that from Suspiria. Both are also unwillingly subjected to psychological examinations/treatments after their quasi-psychic experiences.
That said, there is much about Phenomena I just don’t follow. On one hand, that’s a pretty standard giallo feature. On the other hand, Jennifer can summon insects, but the most this amounts to is the swarming of the school and, later, only one actual physical attack. If I could get insects to do my bidding, well, let’s just say things would get really messy for an alarming number of people.
Nor do I fully understand the killer. The first murder is committed with a pair of scissors and occurs near a house that never gets associated with the school. The other murders are at least indirectly associated with the school, but now involve a much different weapon which is also never explained.
Also, how does a chimpanzee manage to find a shiny, brand new looking straight razor in a public garbage can, and why do I care more about her than anyone else in the movie?
Such are the things that keep me up at night.
This is not to suggest that Phenomena is without appeal. Certainly it paves the way for movies like Castle Freak which has more in common with Argento than it does with Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” (on which it is nominally based). There are some good kill-offs and gross outs, including a pit of corpses that’s more than reminiscent of Poltergeist.
It’s also nice to see Donald Pleasance in a far less Michael Myers-y capacity.
Phenomena doesn’t stray far from Argento’s giallo roots either. Supernatural elements aside, the plot is deliciously convoluted, not at a Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Four Flies On Grey Velvet level but still. It also comes complete with not one but two, count ’em, two climactic near-death moments and one (spoiler spoiler spoiler! ) razor-wielding, vengeful chimpanzee.
Overall, Phenomena is certainly worth seeing. If you’ve never seen Suspiria, I recommend watching Phenomena first. It gives you an advantage I didn’t have after which you can watch Suspiria and see how Argento played these ideas out more successfully the first time around.