Friday, August 15, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Phenomena (aka Creepers)

Phenomena (aka Creepers, 1985)
I have a soft spot for Italian horror movies. It's an acquired taste, like my enjoyment of Moxie, and not something for everyone. I can usually find something to enjoy in even the worst Giallo or low-budget zombie flick, however, and filmmakers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and, most especially, Dario Argento, have directed some of my favorite horror movies of all time.

My first experience of Italian horror films was not an auspicious one. The film was Cannibal Holocaust, and I hated it. Having watched it again recently I realize that the very reasons I hated it - it was too realistic and full of hateful, awful people - are some of the reasons why it works so well. I mean, this is a movie where the director had to bring the actors into court to prove that they hadn't been brutally murdered during the making of the film!

This is literally the only non-horrifying screencap from the movie.

Regardless, having seen Cannibal Holocaust and really, REALLY not enjoyed it, I was in no hurry to view any other films directed by anyone with an Italian surname. I passed by films like Demons, Suspiria and City of the Living Dead, and things may have continued on that path, leaving me with that huge gap in my horror watching, if it hadn't been for my brother Scott.

Scott is and has always been a massive heavy metal fan (as well as a lover of horror movies) and his favorite band in the 80's (and probably today) was Iron Maiden. I was not so much into metal, but I could appreciate his enthusiasm (and endless parade of Iron Maiden t-shirts). One day at the video store he came up to me with a copy of Creepers and began waxing poetically about how cool the movie was supposed to be and how we should definitely see it. I looked at it. It did look cool, and that guy from Halloween was in it, but... Argento sounded Italian. How about The Mutilator instead?

Scott was insistent, though, and I soon found out why - there were heavy metal songs on the soundtrack. There was an IRON MAIDEN song on the soundtrack! I sighed - there was no other recourse, we'd have to watch it. Maybe we could watch The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 after. 

Creepers got me right from the start, though, with that whole opening sequence involving a teenage girl lost in the Alps. The opening music - by Argento stalwarts Goblin - also hooked me. In fact, I love the whole thing, except for the heavy metal bits (they just seemed incongruous and often ruined the mood). I was hooked and went out to rent whatever I could find with an Italian name attached.

The Medium
Creepers was the original US release title and had a bit over 20 minutes cut from the original film. For this viewing I had the Anchor Bay Special Edition of Phenomena, the original title and original edit. The DVD also includes a commentary track, a short documentary, some music videos and other miscellany. 

The picture quality is... okay on my HDTV. There are some significant moments of 'swimming,' where parts of the image seem to move and shift erratically. It's also not without some heavy grain and inconsistent softness. As there's no current blu-ray release, however, this is probably the best option if you're looking to buy. (It's available to stream on Amazon Prime under the Creepers name, but I can't vouch for the edit or quality.)

The Movie
Phenemona is about the American daughter of a famous movie star going to school in Switzerland who teams up with a Scottish entomologist and his helper chimp to track a serial killer. Oh, and the girl can communicate telepathically with insects.

Wait... I thought I was auditioning for Heathers?

Listen, if you’re looking for a logical narrative or understandable dialogue, you’re in the wrong place. This is an Argento film and you have to sort of check your brain at the door and go along for the ride. Yes, “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic” is one of the crazier lines Donald Pleasance has ever had to say, but it’s no worse than his egregious “Scottish” accent and come on – SHE TALKS TO INSECTS. It’s a madhouse, just nod and go along.

Jennifer Connelly’s character (and yeah, total teenage crush when I first saw this movie) also sleepwalks, and that sense of unreality, that dream-like quality pervades the whole film. It’s more a dark fantasy than a horror film (although there are plenty of horrific moments) and its logic is dream logic. What’s the school’s response to Jennifer’s sleepwalking? To give her an EKG – she could be schizophrenic. Never mind that she been examined by specialists already. And when she threatens to go all Carrie on the bullying schoolgirls with a swarm of insects? Sedate her and call the mental hospital. Apparently the proper reaction to potential demonic influence (the headmistress refers to her as ‘diabolic’ and mentions Beelzebub) is straightjackets and potential lobotomy. And of course it’s perfectly logical to send a 15 year old girl and a corpse-chomping fly on their own to find a serial killer who likes to kill teenage girls.

Having me hunt a murderer with a fly in a box - he really is the worst scientist ever.

And that’s all tangential. For another director the story of a girl with awakening psychic powers in the pubescent pressure-cooker of an all-girls school would be a movie all by itself. For Argento it’s mere window dressing, one of half a dozen different stories that don’t really relate but somehow combine to form this gestalt of weirdness. I mean, in addition to kooky entomologist and psychic bug girl you’ve got this sort of Giallo story with a serial killer stalking adolescent girls and keeping their bodies somewhere. You’ve got the ‘original sin’ bullshit of a woman raped by a madman giving birth to a monster. There’s a Friday the 13th double (or triple) ending as well and more subtext (abandonment, awakening sexuality, father issues, loss of control) than you can shake a stick at.

And it’s got a chimp with a straight razor. 

And weirdly, for an Argento film, some genuine emotion. After one of the scariest bits (when the killer stalks McGregor while Inga, the helper chimp, tries to tear her way back in to help) the reaction of the chimp to McGregor’s death is truly touching.

The Bottom Line
I know some reviewers (Kim Newman, for instance) dislike Phenomena, but it was my first Argento film AND my first Jennifer Connelly movie, and I still love it. From the opening sequences in the windy Alps (set to Goblin’s moody electronic score) to the frenzied multiple-endings (including a pit of rotting corpses and a razor-wielding chimpanzee) it never fails to entertain – even when it’s not making much sense.

I know it’s not epic in the way that Suspiria is or as tight and suspenseful as Deep Red (my two favorite Argento films), but it’s full up on dark wonder and well worth a look. Even if the occasional heavy-metal feature sequence starts to drive you a little nuts.

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