Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Census Flashback: Girls School Screamers

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

This week, we are anticipating Annabelle: Creation, a spinoff prequel about a group of young orphan girls being menaced by a haunted doll. In honor of that film, we’re reviewing an 80’s slasher that pits another group of hapless schoolgirls against a deadly menace: Dario Argento’s Phenomena.

Year: 1985
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi 
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Dario Argento is the Robert De Niro of Italian horror directors. Although he made some masterpieces in the 70’s, his career began to wobble a bit after a decade and a half, before flying completely off the rails into a creative decline that turned his name into a punch line despite still producing the occasional success. Whether it’s Dirty Grandpa or Dracula 3D, you wonder what could have possibly happened to the cinematic giant. Then you take a look at their late 80’s work, where the first whiffs of rot began to set in, and you’re on the road to understanding.

1985’s Phenomena, which was released in the States as Creepers, came out in the five years between Argento’s more respected works Tenebrae and Opera. It is one of those whiffs.

Clothespin your nose, we’re about to dive in.

Even the plot of Phenomena is a little ragged and patched, sampling Suspiria so thoroughly that it might actually count as a cover. Instead of a ballet school in Germany, it’s a boarding school in Switzerland. Instead of awkwardly shoehorning in Udo Kier for an exposition dump, we get a wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasence as an entomologist with a chimpanzee best friend. And instead of a doe-eyed Jessica Harper, we get a very young Jennifer Connelly, packed to the gills with guileless earnest.

The plot is altogether too simple, despite its unusually elaborate window dressing. Connelly is Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous beefcake actor. She arrives at the Swiss girls’ school smack dab in the middle of the reign of terror of a serial killer who targets young girls using a knife fixed to a metal pole. She has nightmares about these killings and attempts to use her telekinetic power to control bugs to find out who’s behind them.

Yeah, that sounds pretty normal for… wait, what?

Yup, the protagonist has a bug-controlling superpower, and it just barely factors into the plot. It’s about as tossed-off a character detail as her famous father, who figures into the story not one whit despite the massive amount of lip service the dialogue grants him in the first act. As far as I can tell, the bug thing was just intended as an excuse to torture Jennifer Connelly, because from the evidence of this film it seems like Argento hated her guts. 

She’s the Bruce Campbell to his Sam Raimi, forced through a gauntlet of onscreen misery, including being dunked in water filled with rotting corpses, smacked in the face by a jet of sewage, at one point actually sent to the ER because the chimp tried to bite her finger off, and at any given moment being covered in beetles, flies, or maggots.

Phenomena is the director’s vocal tirade against little girls (the victim in the opening sequence is played by his own young daughter) to the point that everything else – including his typical phantasmagoric approach to filmmaking – seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Parenthood, am I right?

Even without the weird kid angle, Phenomena is a spectacularly spotty entry in the Argento canon. He’s never really been great at crafting murder mysteries that make a lick of sense (“style over substance” is the mantra of the Italian giallo movement), but this one is especially muddled, so completely failing to introduce anything resembling a suspect that I just figured the monkey did it (yes, I know apes and monkeys are different – do I look like I care?).

And fankly, the monkey gives the best performance of the whole lot. Pleasence just sits there and sputters a bunch of dotty insect mythology, bringing neither the inspired manic energy of his Halloween role nor the gravity he was certainly capable of, and Connelly is flatly uninteresting in a role that asks nothing of her other than plaintive suffering.

Certain critics have called Phenomena “dreamlike,” and they’re not wrong. Dreams are pretty incoherent. I watched the cut of the film that fans of this sort of thing tend to agree is more legible, and even it was a jumbled mess. Scenes crash into each other (sometimes quite literally) with no rhyme or reason, dropped lines and major characters either amount to nothing or randomly teleport into the film midway through, the plot has no thrust, and even the dizzy effects spectacle of the third act fails to entirely redeem its anemically meandering quality.

This plot is more of a labyrinth than that OTHER Jennifer Connelly movie.

That’s not to say that Phenomena is a total failure. It’s mildly amusing enough that it’s never boring, and that finale really is incredibly gross, if that’s something you value as I do. But you can’t help but feel like some projectionist mixed up the reels, even if you’re watching it on DVD. The film just never manages to come together.

The kills have some Argento flourishes (particularly his favorite image of heads crashing through glass windows), but for the most party they’re pretty workmanlike, created without an iota of the feeling or glamour that typically accompany Argento’s murder sequences.

It’s a pale imitation of the far superior work displayed as recently as Tenebrae, the film immediately prior to this one. It’s 80’s Argento, so it’s still heaps more interesting than your average Italian slasher knockoff, but it’s a mélange of genre clichés that fails to flesh out any of the idiosyncratic details that threaten to make it interesting. It didn’t feel like a slog to get through, but I certainly wouldn’t dream of recommending it. Just watch Suspiria again instead.

Killer: [Mrs. Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi)]
Final Girl: Jenifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly)
Best Kill: A man is decapitated with a hug sheet of metal in a hilariously overreaching bit of excess.
Sign of the Times: A major tension sequence involves someone trying to lift a phone by its cord.
Scariest Moment: Jennifer Connelly has maggots under her fingernails. Icky!
Weirdest Moment: A group of boys hit Jennifer with their car, offer her a ride, and then end up dumping her out on a hill.
Champion Dialogue: “He’s got more hands than the entire basketball team!”
Body Count: 7
  1. Vera is stabbed in the gut with scissors.
  2. Gisela is knifed through the back of the head.
  3. Sophie is stabbed.
  4. Professor McGregor is stabbed in the gut.
  5. Mutant Son is killed by bugs.
  6. Morris is decapitated with a metal plate.
  7. Ms. Bruckner is slashed to death.
TL;DR: Phenomena is a tremendously wonky motion picture with a muddled, unsatisfying mystery at the center of it.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1186

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