Of all Argento’s pre-1990 films, Phenomena is the one that his fans seem to either really love or hate, with no middle ground to speak of. It’s easy to see why an Argentophile might hate the maestro’s follow-up to the reality bending Tenebrae; Phenomena is Argento at his most unrestrained, with plot elements that don’t work together and more than a few instances of pitiful dialogue. However, to the rest of us, the film is a beautiful disaster that melds his giallo and supernatural sensibilities into a fun and wild ride.
After learning about forensic entomology, a method that uses insects to determine the time of death on human corpses, Argento penned the script (and story) for Phenomena with Franco Ferrini, who would go on to help him out on Dèmoni, Opera and The Black Cat, in addition to a few others. What’s most interesting about the film’s plot, which centers around a young schoolgirl’s (Jennifer Connelly) ability to telepathically communicate with insects and how she uses that to solve a series of unexplained murders, is that Argento has hinted at the psychic abilities of insects in the past. In Profondo Rosso, Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) gives a speech about parapsychology, in which he mentions that bugs, among other creatures, telepathically relay information. Since Mario Bava is possibly Argento’s biggest influence, perhaps the entomologist’s wife speech from Bay Of Blood, in which she mentions that her husband thinks insects have souls, was also an inspiration for this crazy and bizarre film.
That isn’t the only plot element of Phenomena that had been previously explored, no matter how minutely, by Argento. The Swiss Richard Wagner Academy, the primary setting for the film, is eerily similar to the German Tanzakademie in Suspiria in that they are full of cruel schoolgirls and truly off-the-wall staff members. Inferno’s underwater ballroom also influenced the appearance of the school and the underground dungeon, a setting which Argento would return to again in The Phantom Of The Opera and Mother Of Tears, where it looks like he even uses the same set. A mixture of Tenebrae’s multiple personality plot and Suspiria’s fairy-tale-like visuals are used to reveal the discovery of Jennifer’s psychic abilities , which she refers to as a second personality in a letter to her movie-star father, through hallucinatory sleepwalking scenes where she strolls down brightly lit tunnel-esque hallways. Reaching even further back to his “Animal Trilogy,” Frau Brückner’s (Dario Nicolodi) monstrous child in Phenomena is the victim of a genetic anomaly, much like the XYY killer in The Cat O’Nine Tails.
Putting all of these ideas together into one film, though, is what makes Phenomena a totally unique experience. Argento doesn’t just recycle previously used elements here; on the contrary, his inclination to use new and unique techniques is on display in the film, as well as an instance or two where he breaks away from his usual methods and sets the tone for his later works. Some of these methods include the use of a steadicam, which prowls around the school grounds, and creating the effect of a cloud of flies by superimposing footage of coffee grounds in a water tank over the images of the Jennifer’s school. It’s this kind of ingenuity that would propel him to use CGI effects in The Stendhal Syndrome, which would mark the first time they were used in an Italian production. Sadly, this same approach would also have him experiment with using hard rock songs – Iron Maiden and Motorhead were included on Phenomena’s soundtrack – during pivotal moments in his films, which could never quite juxtapose properly alongside Claudio Simonetti’s score. This concept would be heavily used in Opera, his next feature, as well as Mother of Tears, which would end his Three Mothers trilogy.
It’s because of this implementation, where two ideas that shouldn’t work together are forced to, that Phenomena is the fun, but self-indulgent, film that it is. If mutant children, chimpanzees wielding straight razors and psychic communication with insects isn’t your cup of tea, I guarantee that watching this terrific mess will change your mind and make you wish its sequel wouldn’t have been cancelled.