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Dario Argento double feature: part 1 – Phenomena (1985)
Finally! The horrific, absurdist, female-centered, heavy metal superhero movie I've been waiting for all my life!
Jennifer Corvino (a perfectly charming Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous film director (wink #1), has a telepathic connection with insects. She travels to a foreign country for school, and in spite of her general social alienation she makes fast friends with her roommate (Argento's real life daughter; wink #2). Jennifer also has a habit of sleepwalking, and one night her dreams and a firefly lead her to discover her new friend murdered. She decides to take the matter into her own hands, and along with the reclusive Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) she uses her strange powers to find the killer and exact her own unique brand of entomological justice.
Phenomena is my third Dario Argento film, and it features most of the same strengths I'm used to seeing by now. The camera work is fantastic, and succeeds especially well when it's doing the "monster vision" thing, chasing victims through the eyes of the villain and thereby implicating the audience in the violence it portrays. The Goblin soundtrack dominates the film, lending it an intensely ominous and threatening atmosphere. The film carries a lot of the same weaknesses as well—the script still sounds like it was written in Italian and translated roughly into English, and some of the dubbing is a little painful—but these are the sort of things that don't bother me when I'm dealing with such visually and symbolically rich material.
It's no secret that I love women in film, and Phenomena's paranormal coming-of-age narrative reminded me distinctly of another film I love, Hanna—except, you know, telepathic insect control instead of genetic modification. Jennifer's struggle to come to terms with her abilities and to get along in her new surroundings represent a symbolically elevated version of what we all experience growing up: discovering ourselves, finding our friends, and deciding what's important to us (in this case, the tried and true ethic of "kill bad people with bugs"). In Lacanian terms, this is Jennifer's struggle to integrate herself into the existing symbolic network, something we all must go through on our path to adulthood.
Connelly might be young, but she kicks some serious butt and leaves quite an impression. And then, of course, Dario Argento dresses this traditional story up with all his beautiful visual style and almost-surrealism. It's not the strongest of his work from a technical standpoint, but its similarities with Suspiria play strongly to my personal taste.
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