Review : Phenomena (1985)

Phenomena, released in 1985, was directed by Dario Argento. I must start this review by stating that I am not very familiar with Dario Argento and his body of work. In fact, Phenomena is the first Argento film I have ever watched. Unfortunately, Phenomena doesn’t entice me to watch more of his films, or at least, not in the very near future.

Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) is the daughter of a famous actor. Her father sends her to a boarding school in Switzerland to offer her the best education possible while he is away working. Jennifer is not an ordinary girl : she has a telepathic connection with insects. Furthermore, there is a killer on the loose targeting the boarding school students. Did I mention we also get to meet an entomologist with a monkey nurse ? Feeling confused ? You should because the plot of this film is a mess.

From what I have read, Argento’s films are often praised for their score. At times, the music becomes an essential component of the unsettling atmosphere in Phenomena, especially when the music suddenly stops thus increasing the tension greatly. Unfortunately, the use of music in the film is extremely odd and the songs never seem right with the scenes they are paired with. Jennifer Connelly is slowly walking in the woods…with heavy metal blasting at full volume. The songs are always inappropriate and it becomes distracting and quite annoying.

I found most of the dialogs poorly written and poorly delivered. Jennifer Connelly gives a stiff and wooden performance and the rest of the cast doesn’t shine either. Donald Pleasance unfortunately isn’t in the film much and his character isn’t given much to do anyway. My favourite character (and the one who gives the best performance) is the monkey. I am not comparing him to the human actors of course, but given how difficult it must be to work with animals on set, his performance is incredible.

For a film featuring a killer targeting students of a boarding school, I never felt a sense of menace. It is almost as if the killings are a tertiary subplot. Phenomena lingers too much and made me lose interest in the plot rapidly to the point where I wasn’t what the film’s main focus was supposed to be. Phenomena doesn’t know what kind of film it’s trying to be : a thriller, a slasher or a supernatural mystery. The result is a bit of a mess.

The final act feels like a completely different movie. The killer is a character we have met earlier in the film but the reveal is a cheat as there were no clues pointing to the killer’s identity. And the killer’s motivation ? A huge WTF moment that comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. But I guess it doesn’t matter because I lost interest long before the third act began. The ending was also weird and is quite a disappointment. I will not spoil which character saves the day but it was definitely the final blow and got a final “WTF” out of me.

I clearly did not enjoy my first entry into Dario Argento’s filmography. The film is a mess, most of it makes little sense, the use of music is atrocious and the performances are not very good. I cannot say it’s a horrible movie, because it’s not and there is indeed good cinematography and a good atmosphere. Ultimately, and though I will wait to watch a few more of his films to have a definite opinion, I think Argento’s work isn’t for me.

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