August 19, 2015 Dario Argento’s Phenomena Turns 30
August 2nd marked the thirtieth anniversary of Dario Argento’s 1985 film Phenomena, or as it was known domestically, Creepers, starring Jennifer Connelly (Labyrinth 1986, Requiem For A Dream 2000) in her first starring role, Donald Pleasence (‘The Great Escape 1963, Halloween 1978), and Daria Nicolodi (Inferno 1980, Tenebre 1982). Known as one of the most iconic figures in Italian Horror cinema, Phenomena came after Argento’s highly successful 1977 film Suspiria, its follow-up Inferno in 1980, and 1982’s Tenebre. Written by Argento and Franco Ferrini, and directed by Argento, Phenomena also saw the return of Italian Progressive Rock band Goblin to create the soundtrack.
The film opens with a beautiful shot of the Swiss Alps as a bus of tourists is leaving. Unfortunately, a young girl, Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento: Demons 1985, Trauma 1993) gets left behind. Scared, she looks around and finds a house set back in the woods and walks towards it, yelling for help. As she walks into the house, something chained to a wall breaks free and attacks her with a pair of scissors. She runs away into a cave in the mountains above a waterfall, but the killer stabs and decapitates her. Nine months later, Inspector Geiger (Patrick Bauchau: Enigma 1983, A View to a Kill 1985) and his partner, Kurt (Michele Soavi: Demons, Stage Fright 1987) are at the home of the entomologist, Professor John McGregor (Pleasence) discussing theories about a recently found disembodied head. McGregor tells that based on the maggots eating at the skull, he can determine the time of death by the life-cycles of the insects. McGregor also has a pet chimpanzee named Inga (Tanga) that doubles as his friend and nurse. Jennifer Corvino (Connelly), the daughter of famous actor Paul Corvino, is sent to a boarding school in Switzerland while her father is on location shooting a film in the Philippines. While riding in the car and talking with Frau Bruckner (Nicolodi), a bee flies in, and while the driver and Frau Bruckner try to kill it, Jennifer saves it and says she loves all insects.
They arrive at the school and Jennifer catches the Headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro: Flesh For Frankenstein 1973, Frankenstein ’80 1972) staring at her through the top window. Jennifer meets her roommate, Sophie (Federica Mastroianni: Il grand Blek 1987, Ombre D’Amore 1990), and they bond over the story of how Jennifer’s mother left her when she was young. That night, Jennifer sleepwalks out of her room to an abandoned and structurally unsound part of the school and witnesses the murder of a young girl at the hands of an unknown assailant. She turns and walks away, but falls into the bushes. Next, she is wandering down the middle of a road as cars are swerving not to hit her, but one grazes her and knocks her down. The two men get out and put her in the car and drive away. They are trying to find out what is going on, but she is struggling trying to wake up and falls out of the car and down a hill. Lost and scared, Jennifer is suddenly found by Inga, who takes her to Dr. McGregor, who examines her. They get to know one another and she becomes excited when he tells her he studies insects. He gives her the coat from an old friend, Greta, who is feared dead. Dr. McGregor is studying a particular bug and is fascinated with how it acts once Jennifer holds it. She goes to leave and he tells her to come back any time.
The next day at school, Jennifer is given an EEG to determine why she walked out of the school at night, but Jennifer is looked upon like she is crazy. Later, she begs Sophie to wake her if she sleepwalks that night. Sophie agrees, but that night she is lured outside by her boyfriend. When he leaves, Sophie is stalked and killed. When Jennifer sees Sophie is not in their room, she walks outside and finds a glove with maggots hanging on a tree near Sophie’s body, takes it inside and screams. She takes the glove to Dr. McGregor’s, where he examines it. Jennifer reveals she screamed because she saw Sophie’s corpse through the eyes of one of the maggots from the glove. The insects in his lab appear to be going crazy. She then reveals that a firefly showed her the way to the glove, and the insects calm down instantly. He tells her that insects can be telepathic and that she can communicate with them. Back at school, Jennifer discovers the Headmistress and some students going through her things in her room. One of the girls reads a letter Jennifer wrote to her father out loud, that talks about her being able to communicate with insects.
Jennifer snatches the letter and is taunted by a large group of girls pretending to be insects. Suddenly, Jennifer goes into a trance and millions of flies engulf the outside of the school. She passes out and flies go away. She wakes up in bed with an IV drip and is in waiting for a mental hospital to come and take her. When the woman watching her falls asleep, Jennifer escapes to Dr. McGregor’s, where he tells her of the head that the police found and that the killer is the same one that killed the owner of the head. He also discloses that the maggots that were on the gloves were the larvae of the fly known as the Great Sarcophagus, which feeds exclusively on dead flesh. He deduces that the killer must need to be in close contact with the victims and gives Jennifer a grown Sarcophagus fly, sending her on the route the first victim disappeared. Once they get close to the area of her disappearance, the fly goes crazy and Jennifer follows it to the house where the first girl ran from. Soon, Jennifer finds out first hand that someone at that school is not what they seem, and she must fight for her life with her millions of insect allies.
There was a lot of tension from different directions on the set: First, Dario Argento’s marriage to Daria Nicolodi was in its death throes and she only did this film as a final favor to him. Aside from that, she hated her wardrobe as it made her look a lot older and frumpy, and her death at the end of the film was also a point of contention. It was constant warfare between the soon to be divorced couple. Fiore Argento is Dario’s daughter from his first marriage, and even though this was her first film, Dario was very hard on her, constantly dissatisfied and yelling at her. Also, Connelly was also very nervous about working alongside a chimpanzee because, even though Tanga was trained, a wild animal is a wild animal, and chimpanzees can be particularly vicious.
The gruesome special FX were done by Italian legend Sergio Stivaletti (Opera 1987, The Chruch 1989), which featured a decapitation by sheet metal, a girl getting stabbed through the mouth with a javelin, a deformed child, a pool of putrid body parts, and much more. There was also some pioneering macro photography done on Phenomena by Luigi Cozzi, director of 1980’s Contamination and 1983’s Hercules. The extreme closeups of the insects, especially the Great Sarcophagus fly, was something that had never been attempted before, but was beautifully accomplished. The scene involving the flies engulfing the school was accomplished by dumping a bunch of coffee grounds into a back-lit aquarium and superimposed over a shot of the school.
Complementing the film, the Synth masterpiece by Argento mainstay Goblin did wonders for the atmosphere and tension. Furthermore, the often overlooked soundtrack also featured works from Simon Boswell, Andy Sexgang, Bill Wyman, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead. Claudio Simonetti of Goblin stated the soundtrack was unusual because he was used to working the whole score from start to finish, but some parts of the score were by different people. The score is a perfect fit for the film, especially when showing the scenery of the Alps.
Upon its theatrical debut in the US, Phenomena was titled Creepers and was severely cut down, probably due to violence as well as pacing, from 116 minutes to just 88 minutes. It was not until 1999 that the US saw the fullest cut of the film via Anchor Bay DVD in the form of a 112 minute Director’s Cut in a double disc set with Argento’s Inferno, but still 4 minutes were missing. A remastered version of Phenomena was released by Anchor Bay in 2008 and it quickly went out of print. Diehard fans should know Arrow Video UK has the only known uncut 116 minute version for sale on their website in a Blu-ray/DVD combo. Some of the footage is from the Italian cut, and some of the audio cuts in and out of Italian in a few scenes. Currently, Synapse films is working on a Hi-Def release of the uncut version and, rumor has it, the Creepers cut will also be included, however, no release date has been given as of yet.
Overall, three decades later, Phenomena remains one of Dario Argento’s most underrated works, but it still survives in the hearts, minds, and Blu-ray players of his most devoted fans.