Dario Argento’s most personal film is also his most insane.
According to Susan Sontag (as paraphrased by 80s All Over co-host Scott Weinberg), camp is defined is failed seriousness. That insight not only speaks volumes to what the Junkfood Cinema podcast admires about certain cult and b-movies, but also brings into sharp focus the bizarre paradox of Dario Argento’s 1985 psychic giallo thriller Phenomena; a movie so bizarre that most people don’t recognize how personal a film it was for its director…and how legitimately good it is.
Alias Creepers, Phenomena is the story of a young girl named Jennifer (played by Jennifer Connelly in one of her first on screen appearances) who comes to a boarding school in Switzerland just as a serial killer is butchering women in the area. Jennifer, it turns out, has the ability to communicate with insects which, in any other movie, would be the most unusual element. In Phenomena, her talking to bugs barely registers in the list of top 10 weirdest plot points.
In many ways, that’s what great about the flick. If you’re the sort of indecisive film consumer who can’t decide what type of movie you want to experience, Phenomena has you covered. In the mood for a classic style giallo? That’s Phenomena. Got a hankering for a psychic child thriller? Phenomena. Craving a Donald-Pleasence-wheelchair-detective mystery? Still somehow Phenomena! Want to watch a deformed dwarf get eaten by insects and then burned alive? Actually probably more apt to use the Creepers designation at that point, but yes, you’re covered. It’s so confused in its own identity that it spends the majority of the runtime resembling a viscerally-upsetting Lucio Fulci outing than a dreamy, ethereal Argento film.
At a certain point in the third act, legendary horror director Dario Argento presses a magic button that releases the endings of several different films at once. And it is true that if one were to be regaled with all of the various events that unfold at the end, they would likely (understandably) be under the impression that Phenomena is a bad movie.
Jeepers, Creepers, is that far from the truth.
Phenomena is a beautiful ratatouille of insanity. It’s ingredients have no business occupying the same recipe, but the resulting dish is like biting into the featured entree of a bold, prestigious fusion restaurant and realizing that, despite all odds, the schizophrenic combination of flavors blend in decadent perfection. Every new movie introduced is executed with artful mastery. It is a gorgeously shot, electrically scored, undeniably engaging gory fairy tale. It’s campy, sure, but only because it is playing so seriously and with so much care each of its progressively more oddball story devices. More fascinating however, is Phenomena’s personal significance to Argento himself.
In the film, which Argento has many times referred to as his favorite of his canon, Jennifer is sent to boarding school because her movie star father is too busy to raise her. This estrangement is solidified when it is her father’s agent, not her father, who comes to Jennifer’s rescue just before the end of the movie. At the time Phenomena was produced, Argento was working so much that he wasn’t always there to raise his daughter Asia; the film industry similarly driving a wedge between the two of them. Also, the story Jennifer tells in Phenomena’s first act about her mother abandoning their family one Christmas was taken directly from Argento’s own childhood.
For some reason, Phenomena was the film in which Argento chose to reveal the most intimate details about himself. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism. To offset the intense vulnerability of the autobiographical revelations, distract the audience with a deluge of madness? Perhaps they won’t hear you bearing your soul over the sound of a chimpanzee car chase.
To celebrate the third anniversary of the Junkfood Cinema podcast, we welcome director Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2, Everly) as a special guest, the first time a JFC subject has later turned up as a guest! Joe helps us sift through the wildly, wonderfully weird Creep-nomena and even participates in the first ever (and horribly ill-advised) live tasting of the junk food pairing! Check out Joe’s podcast The Movie Crypt (cohosted by director Adam Green) and see his new film Mayhem when it hits your local theater!
As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!
On This Week’s Show:
- Appetizers [0:00–3:56]
- The Main Course[3:57–1:08:26]
- The Junkfood Pairing[1:08:27–1:17:58]