(Greg Orme returns to the website to discuss Phenomena, a movie that’s been on my Amazon watchlist for months and I should get around to watching it -Ed.)
“Why don’t you call your INSECTS? GO ON! CALL! CALL!”
A teenage girl misses her tour bus and winds up in a mysterious house, where she is chased and eventually beheaded by a scissors-wielding maniac. Eight months later, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly, in her second movie), the daughter of a famous actress, enrolls in a Swiss academy nearby. She finds herself sleepwalking and able to communicate with insects. What could be causing all these murders, and will her newfound skill help her to survive?
Originally released in Italy as Phenomena, the film was brought to the United States by New Line Cinema in 1985 as Creepers, with roughly 30 minutes missing and some scenes re-arranged. It’s unclear why, as the Creepers cut doesn’t make more sense and also slows the pace a bit. This cut also removes a fun Motorhead song, so it’s a big misstep on New Line’s part. That being said, the full movie tentatively makes sense at best, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s a thrill ride that’s a ton of fun.
The acting is definitely not what you’re watching this movie for, as Jennifer Connelly doesn’t seem to know what to do with the stiff dialogue (a product of this movie being made by Italians for Americans), and Donald Pleasence seems to be just making up any old accent for his role as a wheelchair bound Scottish (?) entomologist. Most of the rest of the actors are Italian actors doing their best with a language not their own, but it’s all pretty stiff. Honestly, the monkey probably gives the best performance (and what a performance it gives! I’d say more but I don’t want to spoil this movie that you should definitely watch.) (It’s also why I didn’t include a picture of the UK movie poster -Ed.)
Donald Pleasence’s character John McGregor is a real mystery. He’s an entomologist who came to Switzerland to teach a few lessons, then got paralyzed in a car accident, and hasn’t left since. It’s implied that the car accident is why he hasn’t left the country, but it’s unclear what that reason might be. He’s also got a monkey named Inga, who I would argue is the real hero in this movie. He’s also one of the only entomologists in the world, very possibly even the only one, who wouldn’t bat an eye at a teenage girl is able to communicate with insects because she sleepwalks. In fact, he’s immediately on board with it. Maybe he saw the Smallville episode where the girl can control bees and figured this was less far-fetched. I don’t know.
This movie has all kinds of bizarre and charming scenes, like Jennifer’s roommate Sophia rattling off a surprising amount of personal information about Jennifer’s famous dad and his marriage troubles, or all the scenes where the other girls and adults at the school are very judgmental about her sleepwalking (“I heard she sleepwalks. She’s got problems.” “Sleepwalking is usually a sign that schizophrenia is soon to come.”) McGregor also gives her a list of useless tips to break out of sleepwalking, essentially the equivalent to telling a depressed person to “just cheer up,” that she rightly ignores. There is also a scene in a classroom where a student we only see here is wearing a Bee Gees shirt that looks homemade with giant letters and a giant picture of Barry Gibb in the center decides to answer a question about a famous poet with “I think they took the lyrics out of a Bee Gees song,” because she likes The Bee Gees. That is the entirety of her character and it is great. A teacher steals Jennifer’s diary and reads pages about her sleepwalking aloud to other adults and teens to mock her, and then the teens form a circle and yell “We worship you!” at her to mock her. And not even once does any character think that maybe they should leave the area to escape the murders, nor does anyone think “Hey, there’s a serial killer loose. Maybe I shouldn’t go inside this strange house or even leave my bunk alone at night.” Logic is not this movie’s strong suit, and I kind of love it for that.
Should I Show This Movie To My Five Year Old?
I would answer with an emphatic yes, definitely! Your child will learn a lot about sleepwalking and its ties to schizophrenia! They’ll learn in graphic detail about why you shouldn’t leave a boarding school at night or enter strange houses. It might help them develop a sense of empathy for little boys with weird deformities. You can even teach them a bunch about maggots and insects. It would probably be good to talk with your child about why it’s not okay to impale people with scissors or other sharp objects because that happens quite a bit and it’s graphic, in true Argento style.
I find this movie to be a lot of fun, despite and maybe even because of its flaws. I’m a Dario Argento fan in general, and while this doesn’t quite hit the highs of, say, a Suspiria or a Deep Red, the use of color and repeated music give the movie a cool, dreamlike feel that he does better than maybe anyone. This is also the first movie he used heavy metal music incidentally, and the Iron Maiden and Motorhead songs fit the movie and give it a very specific 80s feel that I really dig. I would recommend this movie to every man, woman, and child that can stomach close-up shots of maggots.
Greg Orme is a comedian/writer based out of Salt Lake City, where he lives with his five plants. You should follow him on Twitter if you aren’t already.