Saturday, March 6, 2010

Film Review: Phenomena

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

It might puzzle some readers but ever since I saw my first Dario Argento film, I've been an admirer of his work. The reason it may puzzle some readers is because I'm normally the guy who praises the work of filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Eric Rohmer, Istvan Szabo, Charlie Chaplin, Claude Chabrol and Ernst Lubitsch. Argento, I admit, doesn't really belong in their league. I consider him more of a cult director whereas I would say Bergman, for example, made art house films. But as a film lover I take pleasure in many different genres. I respond to interesting storytelling first and foremost and Argento is a good storyteller.

A lot of readers may not know who Argento is or may have misconceptions about his work. I have repeatedly reviewed his films on this blog, to the point he is one of the most discussed filmmakers on here. And I've tried to set the record straight. First of all, Argento is widely considered the master of the horror sub-genre "giallo". It is Italian for yellow (see, my college class in Italian was good for something after all). Yellow was the color of cheap detective paperbacks which also dealt with the supernatural. Secondly, Argento has earned the reputation for making gory, ulta-violent films. To be honest, I don't find his films that disturbing. Perhaps that says more about me than Argento, but, I'm going to stand by that statement. I will admit however, he does seem to have an almost fetish with blood. Many of his murder scenes are quite elaborate. But the reason I don't find them disgusting is because Argento works on a modest budget. The "blood" in his films looks so fake. Because it doesn't look realistic it creates some distance for me.

Argento is also probably best known for his "Three Mother" trilogy. A series of films which deal with three witches known as the three mothers. Each film is devoted to one of the witches. "Phenomena" (1985) could make a nice companion piece. Here is a movie which may sound a little goofy, but, Argento tells the story so well we don't ask questions. Better to go along for the ride then to resist.

The film stars a young girl, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly, in one of her first roles) who enters a Swiss boarding school. The town however is currently dealing with a serial killer who attacks young girls. All of the students at the female boarding school are at potential risk. Though the looming question is, how to capture the killer. The police think they have found an answer in an unexpected place, an entomologist, Professor McGregor (Donald Pleasence, who knows a thing or two about serial killers). It is through the study of insects police can tell how long a body has been in decay. And, we learn, certain insects have a "radar" for pinpointing a corpse. Sound slightly odd? Well, wait I have more to tell you. Jennifer has a special bond with insects. They never harm her but seem to protect her. Will this be enough to save her from the killer?

As was the case with Argento's masterpiece "Suspiria" (1977) here we have a story about a young girl in boarding school with violence all around her. Argento, like most horror films, seems to find the idea of the innocent "pure" girl facing evil an interesting concept. The only problem I have with it here is, Argento seems to be adding a sex appeal to these young girls. They are far too young to be depicted that way. Argento should have at least made them college age then.

But I liked the film over all. There are moments when I was on the edge of my seat awaiting to see what will happen. An opening sequence builds the tension beautifully constantly adding a certain level of danger as the camera acts like piercing, peeping eyes hunting its prey; a young girl.

Connelly, even at such a young age, displays a good amount of screen presence. She has moments where she makes the character appear believable, which is hard to do with this kind of story.

There is also an interesting performance, though under-developed, given by Argento's former lover, Daria Nicolodi as Frau Bruckner. I still think her best performance in an Argento film was in "Deep Red" (1975), another one of Argento's masterpieces. Here I felt we don't learn enough about her. She is one of the teachers at the boarding school. Argento also makes us suspect the headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro). And if you remember in "Suspiria" the teachers at the school were up to no good.

"Phenomena" is one of Argento's best. I'd put it in his top five. I'm not sure I'd start off with this as an introduction however. The plot might be a little too goofy for some. I think you need to understand Argento's films a little better. His movies aren't so much about plot as they are a viewing experience. If you keep that in mind, I think you'll come away enjoying this film as much as I do.