I’ve often struggled with the films of Dario Argento; like Brian De Palma, Argento is a technically proficient director with a knack for Hitchcockian visuals and self-conscious camp often at the expense of character nuance and depth, downplaying story in favor of sheer and empty spectacle (not to mention that both directors have an unfortunate fondness for grotesque violence and misogyny too mean-spirited and sadistic to be registered simply as kitsch). Some of Argento’s work I admire for their liveliness (Suspiria and Tenebre are the two standouts), while others I find completely puerile and juvenile, simply B-movie slashers with bigger budgets (Opera being the prime example).
While Phenomena hasn’t reshaped my opinion on Dario Argento, I did find it a more enjoyable experience compared many of the Argento pictures I’ve seen. Centering on an American teen (played by Jennifer Connelly, in one of her earliest film roles) enrolled in a remote Swiss boarding school where a serial killer is running loose, Phenomena’s plot certainly borrows much from Suspiria in terms of setting and atmosphere. Connelly’s protagonist, a telepath with control over insects, is also reminiscent of the eponymous character from Carrie (one of the few De Palma films I do really quite like), and like that film Phenomena uses the supernatural as an extended metaphor for teenage adolescence and puberty.
Unfortunately, Phenomena more or less abandons this angle in its second half for traditional Argento double-takes, brutal murders, and shock and awes. Yet the violence, though pompous, is less lurid and crass than Opera, and Goblin’s buoyant synth score (which borrows several musical cues from their Dawn of the Dead soundtrack) as well as the accompaniment of songs by Iron Maiden and Motörhead allow Phenomena to be rather aesthetically pleasing if rather hollow.