No Sleep October: Phenomena

Yogesh Raut is an MBA student and freelance writer who lives in Vancouver, WA. He’s worked as a psychology instructor and film critic and holds a master’s degree from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He currently hosts the Recreational Thinking podcast and writes the blog The Wronger Box.

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DARIO ARGENTO AND THE THREE T’S OF PHENOMENA

Dario Argento broke through with his so-called “animal trilogy” of film gialli between 1970 and 1971 (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet), and I’m partial to later efforts like The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and Sleepless (2001). But Dario Argento’s reputation as a maestro of horror cinema rests largely on six masterpieces turned out between 1975 and 1987: Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebrae, Phenomena and Opera.

So why do I consider 1985’s Phenomena the best of those? The answer comes down to three T’s.

Talkback

My best memories from college are of viewing Argento’s oeuvre with my spectacularly witty friends, talking back to the screen and poking fun at the exaggerated acting, stilted dialogue, dodgy dubbing and leaps in plot logic. Sounds like typical MST3K condescension, right? Well, not quite. You see, no matter how smug we were at the start of the movie, scene by scene found us more wrapped up in Argento’s world, and by the end we were inevitably responding in exactly the way he wanted. In true postmodern fashion, Argento offers all the pleasures of deconstruction and all the pleasures of good old-fashioned fright-fests.

In no film is this more true than Phenomena. Argento brazenly invites us to participate in meta-cinema from the opening moments, showing us a lost and frightened girl played by his own daughter (!) screaming, “Dad? Dad?” before being viciously slaughtered by forces unknown. As we begin to digest the tale of young Jennifer Corvino (a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly) — who’s getting bullied at an all-girl private school in sylvan Switzerland and befriending a kindly entomologist (Donald Pleasence) while dodging a serial killer and discovering she has the power to control insects — we tell ourselves we’ve seen it all before: in Carrie, in Ben, in Pleasence’s performance in Halloween, in Argento’s own Suspiria. We knowingly roll our eyes and settle in for a cheesy gore-fest.

And that’s precisely how Argento wants you to feel, right up until the moment when his technique seeps under your skin and envelops you. For you see, if Phenomena is a remake of anything, it is that most primal of horror films about a doe-eyed, pale brunette trapped in a menacing forest: Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), itself based on one of the grimmest of the Grimms’ fairy tales. And just like those original, non-watered down fairy tales — the ones with no moral lessons, just pure nightmare-inducing storytelling — once Phenomena has you in its grip, it unfolds like a hallucination from which it is impossible to look away.

And here’s why:

Tactility

Rewatching Phenomena for this project, I was struck by something that sets Argento apart from nearly all contemporary popular filmmakers: He lets you see people doing stuff. The dominant mode in Hollywood editing over the past decade has been what scholar David Bordwell terms Intensified Continuity — an elliptical style where actions are implied, not shown directly. (Think Jason Bourne or the Christopher Nolan Batman films.)

Argento, by contrast, loves hands. Early in Phenomena, he methodically depicts the process of Jennifer testing out ways to reach something on a high shelf. When she later escapes from a hospital bed while straining to not wake a nearby nurse, he builds suspense through the pains she takes to manually extricate herself from medical equipment. The entire third act is built on Jennifer using her fingers and toes to claw and climb her way out of one trap after another.

These sequences might seem mundane under any other director, but Argento renders them with the concrete vividness of a dream in which even the tiniest actions loom with immensity. It reminds you, in the most immersive way possible, of what it’s like to be a child trapped in a scary world you can’t control.

And why is that important?

Trauma

Argento has never made a film with a sensible plot — or if he did, I have no interest in seeing it — but his best work is animated by an overarching dream logic that congeals around a single theme. In Phenomena (just as in his second-best film, the underrated The Stendhal Syndrome), that theme is trauma.

Though Connelly was at the time an acting novice, she is perfectly cast here because from her very first frame she is clearly — to borrow a phrase from Cake — haunted by something she cannot define. Isolated from her father and long ago abandoned by her mother, Jennifer reaches out for connection time and again only to discover that many of the adults ostensibly assigned to protect her are useless or actively harmful, and even the ones who genuinely care about her are too weak to stop encroaching evil.  Connelly’s tetchy line readings and blunted affect are easy to mock, but to me she perfectly captures the hypersensitive vulnerability of a creative yet damaged soul. Jennifer can see and feel things that others cannot; that makes her a target, and Argento’s underlying thesis is that society’s institutions fail to protect those who, like Jennifer, are most in need of protection.

Human institutions, that is. For in a spellbinding climax I wouldn’t dream of spoiling, Phenomena subversively argues that the solution to humanity’s faults is the ferocious, destructive and ultimately cleansing power of nature — as represented by fire, water and the animal kingdom. By the end of her narrative, Jennifer has been stripped of every meaningful relationship she’s ever had with other humans, but she has also gained something immeasurable.

What, though? None of us can verbalize it, for Argento works in the medium of the sublime, the realm of awe that transcends mere language. So I will leave the last words to a dorm-mate of yesteryear named Jay Chang who walked in on my collegiate screening, stayed to watch the whole thing, and at the end delivered an immortal two-sentence review: “Fuckin’ monkey. That fucking monkey!”

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For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.

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NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2019

Pop Skull – Richard Propes

The Ghost and the Darkness – John Tuttle

Graveyard Shift – Eric Harris

Captain Kronos – Bob Bloom

Alien – Nicole Brooks

The Night Stalker / The Night Strangler – Lou Harry

Pet Sematary (1989) – Heather Knight

Marianne – Alys Caviness-Gober

Orphan – Greg Lindberg

Gummo – Evan Dossey

Vamp – James Ledesma

Alien 3 – Sam Watermeier

NEKRomantik – Andrew Kimmel

The House on Sorority Row – Tim Brouk

Blade – Dave Gutierrez


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