Even in the often bizarre work of prolific Italian writer and director Dario Argento his 1985 horror Phenomena is an oddity, made without his father Salvatore and brother Claudio acting as producers as they had on many of his previous films but continuing his trend of keeping an eye on the international market as he had with Suspiria and Inferno by casting English speaking leads, here Donald Pleasence and thirteen year old Jennifer Connelly in only her second film, even before she entered the Labyrinth.
Set largely within the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls where Jennifer Corvino (Connelly) has newly enrolled, the story begins eight months earlier in the Alps where Vera (Fiore Argento, daughter of the director) became separated from her classmates and missed her tour bus, seeking help as she wandered the hills.
Drawn to an isolated and apparently deserted chalet she was attacked and pursued in an extended opening scene typical of Argento: a vulnerable girl, an unseen assailant, a violent death in slow motion as Vera was defenestrated above a waterfall, the soundtrack by Goblin, Simon Boswell and Iron Maiden among others killing any doubt as to which characters will be playing victim.
A frequent visitor to his sets, it was Fiore Argento’s first film role for her father and her recollections are amusing. “It was impossible to recover the heads so they kept cruising down the river. The following day the local newspapers reported the discovery of the remains of a dead girl. The production had to get in touch with the authorities to let them know they were only plaster casts.”
Appropriately it is the discovery of Vera’s decapitated head which takes Inspector Rudolf Geiger (Carnivàle‘s Patrick Bauchau, sadly underused) to the home of forensic entomologist Professor John McGregor (Pleasence), a wheelchair-bound expert in “cadaveric fauna,” insects which subsist on decaying remains, specifically the maggots and flies of the family Sarcophagidae.
At the academy, Jennifer finds herself isolated from the other girls who mock her for her sleepwalking and are scared of her apparent control of insects. The headmistress believing her sleepwalking could indicate the early stages of schizophrenia, the early stages of a new personality trying to emerge, she demands medical tests be carried out.
Fortunately McGregor sees Jennifer differently, encouraging her to use her power over insects to locate the killer by the use of the Great Sarcophagus fly whose senses can track the scent of rotting flesh, a trip into the Alps in search of death…
Filmed under the title Phenomena and running to 116 minutes in the original Italian release and 110 minutes elsewhere in Europe while the American version called Creepers runs to only 83 minutes, all three versions have been gathered together in newly restored versions for Arrow’s box set which also includes a video essay by Michael Mackenzie detailing the differences between the versions.
In contrast to the 110 minute European version which suffers no major excisions, the missing six minutes a cumulative tightening of scenes in the form of mere frames removed from ponderous glances and extended walking shots, in many ways this is no bad thing, making the film more reactive and instinctual by marginally accelerating the pace, while the American version is substantially re-edited into a significantly altered creative vision.
With shots reordered within scenes, inserts to cover cuts in the long single takes preferred by Argento and an entire scene shifted in the narrative, Creepers was created at the behest of American distributors New Line Cinema by Jack Sholder, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and The Hidden who would later also make uncredited contributions to Supernova.
Technically detailed, Mackenzie’s investigation and analysis also offers insight into the invisible work undertaken to create this definitive version of the film which remains fascinating despite his unmodulated delivery, and it is clear he finds value in all three versions, though the desire of New Line to market the film as a more straightforward slasher film than Argento was normally associated with is understandable.
In addition to a slew of minor cuts, two scenes were removed completely, the first of which undeniably serves no purpose other than to demonstrate how leaden the performances of Connelly and her roommate are even had they not been speaking dialogue originally written in another language, an exchange relating how Jennifer’s mother left her and her father on Christmas Day inspired by Argento’s own childhood but having no relevance to the plot.
Superficially similar to Suspiria in that it is set in an all-girls’ school, the supposed hard forensic science of Doctor McGregor sets Phenomena in contrast to the Argento’s work which is typically more ethereal and dreamlike but the two sides of the story do not sit easily together in a clumsy story which is disjointed and contrived, lacking the colourful visual style of his other films though there are moments of flair such as the opening steadicam crane shot rising over the trees which recalls Tenebrae’s languidly voyeuristic window scene.
Devoid of atmosphere, tension or even sense, despite multiple deaths the characters walk around campus with indifference and rather than establishing a police presence, instigating a curfew or actually investigating, Inspector Geiger almost vanishes from the film after his introductory scene, and like the recently released Raw the teachers at the Richard Wagner Academy seem to have little authority and less control over the students.
With Pleasence providing the only genuine performance in the film despite the bizarre choice for the role to be played with a Scottish accent, most of the girls, Connelly included, are appalling in their inability to deliver lines with anything approaching presence or conviction, the exception being Tenebrae‘s Daria Nicolodi as Jennifer’s chaperone Frau Brückner who becomes hysterical at disobedience, the sight of bees, flies, other people’s children, her own child, the police…
Including contributions from Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi, screenwriter Franco Ferrini, producer Angelo Jacono, cinematographer Romano Albani and many others, visual effects artist Luigi Cozzi and special makeup artist Sergio Stivaletti in particular justifiably proud of their gory creations, accompanying documentary Of Flies and Maggots is exhaustive in detail and insight into fly wrangling and the high mortality rates of insects under studio lights, tales of everyday madness in the world of Dario Argento which illuminate his enduring love of strange phenomena.
Phenomena is available now from Arrow Films and Video