Phenomena (1985) — See the original, not the hacked-up Creepers

“Why don’t you call your insects? Go on! Call! Call!”

Kyle’s rating: All the two million maggots here have SAG cards

Kyle’s review: For years I would go along food-shopping with my mom, especially when she had to go to King Soopers. Why? Because I love my mom! Oh, and I also enjoyed reading the new magazines without buying them, but the most fun was wandering into the video section, looking at all the horror movies my mom wouldn’t let me rent (though dad could be bamboozled).

Invariably, I would be drawn to a horror video with one of the coolest covers I had ever seen: a halfway pretty girl holding out her hand, which was crawling with all sorts of creepy crawly insects. I say halfway, because half of her beautiful face had been eaten away to reveal the naked skull underneath! That’s what happens when you play with insects! Anyway, the movie stuck in my head, and I vowed that when I was all grown-up and my romance-film-loving girlfriend was away with her parents and I had my own house all to myself, I would rent this insect film, Creepers, and see just how a crazed murderer would fare against a girl who could control insect life.

Thankfully, I’ve never made good on that vow. What? Why is that good? Because as an older horror connoisseur I learned that Creepers was the butchered US version of Italian horror director (master!) Dario Argento’s original film Phenomena. How butchered? 28 hacked-out minutes is how so! I don’t know exactly what was cut so I can’t be totally sure if it ruined the film, but as a fan of the brilliant Argento’s other films, I know that an important aspect of his technique is the dreary and unique atmosphere his lengthy tracking shots and dream sequences create. If that stuff gets trimmed, the film isn’t as cool! Uncut and uncensored: accept no substitutes!

But I digress. After more than a decade of build-up, finally seeing Phenomena was just the thrill-fest I expected. I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the horror genre, though I have one little prerequisite. If possible, don’t let this be your first Argento film. That’s a lot of a lowly reviewer to ask of a busy viewer, and it’s still scary fun if you’ve seen nothing else. But it’s just that Argento’s films stress style and setting over everything else, including substance, structure, and coherence. If you’ve seen the stronger Suspiria, Tenebre, or Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) you’ll be more patient with the occasionally rambling Phenomena. So put Friday the 13th Part 2 back on the shelf and rent one of those other films instead, you’ll be very happy!

Or ignore me entirely. Either way, I’m pretty happy.

Onto the movie! A very young Jennifer Connelly (in her first screen appearance) is Jennifer Corvino, daughter of famed film actor Paul Corvino. While dad is filming in the Philippines, Jennifer is pawned off to an all-girls boarding school in the Swiss Alps, I believe. Sounds like fun, right? Wrong!

See, as we see in the opening scene, there are dangerous shenanigans going on around this school, including the students being butchered and decapitated with various sharp implements. Following Argento logic, no one really seems to mind, so it’s just a minor inconvenience that adds to the mood.

Now that Jennifer is on-campus, and has a pesky habit of sleepwalking through the woods, she’s sure to be killed too, right? Nope, because not only does Jennifer like insects, but insects like her. As the friendly local etymologist Donald Pleasance notices, bugs of all kinds are more than happy to help Jennifer out with things, including locating clues to the murder mystery, leading her to rotted body parts, and sending her a telepathic warning message or two. And as Jennifer is besieged not only with a crazed killer but also by taunting classmates, poor phone connections and a snooping headmistress, she’s going to need all the help she can get.

As big a fan as I am, I have to admit: Phenomena isn’t a great movie. But it is a great horror movie. How’s that? Dig this: horror movies, in my opinion, are allowed a little leeway in the aspects of visual quality and acting while thrilling and chilling us. If you don’t agree with that attitude, then avoid most horror movies, especially Argento’s stuff, because if bad acting really upsets you, you won’t last through Phenomena! Connelly is young and inexperienced, so you can kind of forgive her for being so amateurish and unemotional. The rest of the cast has no excuse! If insane and shoddy logic upsets you, you won’t last through Phenomena!

Would a school stay open if it was missing a bunch of students and foul play was suspected? Would a young girl just accept that she can communicate with insects? Would she blindly follow a fly to locate dead bodies? Would a sleepwalking girl watch a fellow students get butchered, then walk off the third story awning? Would an intelligent pet monkey find a discarded straight razor in a trash can and know how to use it? In the real world, no, in the reel world, sure!

So if you like a good thrill fest, you don’t mind checking your brain at the door, and you have the stomach to sit through multiple stabbings (including a knife thrust the back of a girl’s head to poke out of her mouth), a couple beheadings, lots of maggots, a man breaking his own thumb to get out of handcuffs, puking, and a girl taking a fall into a pool full of rotted body parts and even more maggots, then Phenomena is a film for you! Enjoy it, and let the insects know Kyle sent you! Maybe then they’ll stay away from my picnics.

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