Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

What makes a really good horror story? Often the things that scare us most are familiar, and the most familiar tales, because they engender a sense of inescapable doom, are the most compelling. But we also respond well to the occasional nasty surprise. This rarely seen Argento gem has it all. We're on ground he's covered before, but it's constantly shifting beneath us.

It's the early Eighties. An American girl (Jennifer Connelly, who seems thrilled to have found her first properly meaty role) is arriving at a boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Within minutes of the film opening, we learn that there's a psychotic killer on the loose looking for girls like her. But there are no girls quite like Jennifer, because she has a secret of her own - a strange ability to communicate with insects and understand the world from their perspective. Unfortunately, she's also a sleepwalker, which leads her straight into trouble.

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There are quite a few unusual phenomena in this film and one does get the feeling that Argento has rather over-egged his pudding. As a result some of the dialogue is particularly crude and expository. But partly thanks to Connelly's resolutely straight-faced performance and the actorly weight of Donald Pleasance as the disabled entomologist who takes an interest in her, it manages to get away with more than you'd expect. Though she was yet to enter David Bowie's Labyrinth, Connelly was already demonstrating a special combination of forcefulness and the otherwordliness perfect for a fairytale character. As the audience gets used to its oddities, Phenomena seduces them into a world where logic doesn't work the same way as usual - a world not too distant from the mind of the psychopath whose presence we can sense close by throughout.

Connelly and Pleasance are not the only notable actors here - a special mention deserves to go to Tanga, the chimpanzee who plays the part of the entomologist's assistant, a pivotal role in the film. Those familiar with chimp behaviour will find her performance splendidly authentic and always very focused - she never seems distracted by what the crew are up to. Also, though she famously despised Connelly, even going so far as to bite her on one occasion, she effortlessly conveys affection for her onscreen. This is testament to a skill in Argento that goes beyond anything ordinarily expected of a director of actors.

Insects, the film's other stars, make a strong impression, though the insect effects are a bit haphazard and clearly reveal the film's budget constraints. Effects relating to gore are as impressive as you'd expect, being more of an Argento speciality, and the film has its share of gruesome moments, especially towards the end. Once we come into direct contact with the madness at the story's core it is blunt and unsubtle but no less effective for that.

Doubtless many viewers will look at this film and see only a cheap, clumsily scripted slasher. To those who enjoy the genre, though, it offers ample delights, from the stunning visuals you'd expect to a pulsing electronic score (plus contributions from Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Andy Sex Gang). The fact that its constituent parts don't quite fit together is ultimately one of its strengths, and Argento fans should make sure they don't miss it.

Reviewed on: 09 Dec 2009
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A girl who has a strange relationship with insects attends boarding school in a small town where a killer is at large.
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Director: Dario Argento

Writer: Dario Argento

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Patrick Bauchau, Tanga

Year: 1985

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy


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