Review of Phenomena (1985)
Seen in 2019.
As one respected entomologist puts it: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic.”
Supernatural giallo. There is lot to like here: A tiny Jennifer Connelly before she even recorded her terrible Japanese pop songs or learned how to act. Friendly insects and Grand Guignol at an idyllic Swiss boarding school. Prominent music makes a trendy addition that goes well with Argento’s rhythm and romanticism. Here the music includes Iron Maiden’s then-new “Flash of the Blade” (twice!), but the best scene is when Connelly follows a firefly and gingerly extracts a glove from a thorny bush, to Goblin, on a stormy night: It’s a music-video fantasy integrated in a feature film, and it works.
There is nothing wrong with the creative vision, but the craftsmanship is poor. The acting is bad. Connelly’s character is a Mary Sue, bullied to build sympathy. The murders are gratuitous, uniformly unconvincing and frequently cartoonish, even aside from the poor special effects, so the sense of living nightmare never materializes. The description of forensic entomology is on the level of the worst detective fiction. The overarching plot, if there is one, doesn’t work.
It could have been so much better. Jennifer, Sophie and McGregor could have teamed up against a pesticide demon and an immortal medieval anchoress whose divine protection from decay is antithetical to insects, with a few bullying, biophobic henchmen at the school. Nonetheless, Phenomena is worth seeing for its influence. Supposedly, an illicit 1995 adaptation as Clock Tower on the Super Famicom was foundational to the survival horror genre in video games.
References here: Hated in the Nation (2016).