2012 Film Challenge #20 - Phenomena

Not to be confused with the John Travolta film of a similar name, this is a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly/Dario Argento joint about a troubled young woman who can communicate with insects.

However, Dr. Doolittle this isn't. The plot of Dr. Doolittle seems to stop at “he can talk to animals”. Jennifer, though (the character and actress share first names), uses her abilities to solve murder mysteries.

The scene in which her connection with insects is revealed is brilliant. She's sat in the back of a car with a teacher en route to her new and exclusive boarding school. A bee flies in, and the teacher absolutely freaks out. “IT'S A BEE,” she screams, as she furiously attempts to swat it with a book. The driver is equally perturbed. “IT MIGHT STING YOU!” - all screamed as though a headcrab, not a bumblebee, had just entered the car.

Jennifer, though, is more frightened that the bee might get hurt than she is that there's a bee. Calmly, she allows for the bee to land on her hand, at which point sanity is restored.

Honestly, though, it's perhaps the biggest overreaction ever committed to celluloid. Or, perhaps its simply an actor giving her one-dimensional character unnecessary backstory – since watching her parents die of bees, she's developed an extreme aversion. Also, she's allergic. And so is the driver.

This was the first Dario Argento film I've ever seen. He's quite a big name in the world of horror, isn't he? And yet, here we are – less than twenty four hours ago I hadn't seen any of his films.

Besides the brutality and the apparent fascination with deformity and decay, two things struck me about his style. Now, I'll admit that said “style” may be unique to this film, but still, when style rears its (dismembered) head, it's hard to ignore.

First, the music. His involvement with Goblin is legendary, and the stabby doomy synths which punctuated several chase scenes were really quite something. It was one of those “so this is Italian horror” moments through which every young boy goes at some point. I wasn't expecting, though, was for the mysterious and surreal sleepwalking sequence to underlined with Iron Maiden at their most bombastic. Sigh. 1980s.

What also struck me, though was the acting. With J-CO and Donald Pleasence involved (the latter I mistook for Sean Connelly at first, oh no!) - the dialogue was reportedly recorded in English and later dubbed into Italian.

However, it looks and sounds like it happened the other way round. I have never seen people behave like this on-screen before. Even those actors who are obviously speaking their mother tongue sound like they're partaking in a class reading of a play in English GCSE. They're not so much acting as – as – as – speaking? There's very little emphasis, and where it does exist it does so in all the wrong places. And turn-taking! Those characters who aren't speaking just sort of stand around, impassively waiting for their turn to speak. Sometimes, lines are accompanied by bizarre gestures and inexplicable embellishments.

Whilst watching, brow furrowed, I was wondering – where else have I seen “acting” like this? Then it hit me.

No, not porn. I was reminded of cutscenes from Japanese video games. Specifically, those that might be found on a Sega Dreamcast.

Argento, then, apart from anything else, revolutionised the acting tropes that would go on to punctuate many an early-3D survival horror. In more ways than one, you can trace a direct line from this to Resident Evil.

I wasn't put off, though. I mean, in terms of budding Argento fanboyism, the first-impressions were very, very good. This was the sort of film which followed its own highly skewed logic – like a very bad dream from which you don't quite feel like waking.

It featured a naughty trained grudge-bearing monkey, a swimming pool full of decaying corpses writhing in maggots, a deformed child rather perversely named after the deformity from which he suffers and, from nowhere, a deeply personal autobiographical moment from Mr. Argento concerning his mother's abandonment.

Are his films so revered because they're not like other films? Because this was not like other films. And I want more.

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