If Inferno (1980) is Dario Argento’s most abstract assault, the underrated Phenomena (1985) is by far his weirdest.
A maniac is decapitating the girls at the prestigious Richard Wagner Academy – a posh private school in “Swiss Transylvania” – and paraplegic entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) can establish the time of death only by studying the maggots infesting the victims’ decomposed heads.
Into this icky situation comes lovely young American student Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) who happens to “enjoy” an instant and loving rapport with insects of all kinds.
When her roommate turns up headless, Jen uses her insect-whispering skills to recruit her bug buddies to help McGregor solve the sickening case.
Phenomena is clearly set in a fantasy world that is only superficially like our own – a twisted dreamscape where cute teens in telepathic contact with the insect world is accepted as perfectly normal.
Soundtrack songs from Andi Sex Gang don’t help enliven proceedings and Argento lobs in razor-wielding chimps and dagger-toothed dwarves for good measure, juggling so many ideas that the film doesn’t know what to do with them all.
But it’s all held together by a rich, eerie atmosphere that smothers and glows like a cloud of fireflies.
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