Welcome back to All the Colors of Giallo, your monthly look at the seedy world of beautiful women, vibrant colors, and unseen black-gloved killers. Last month we covered director Federico Zampaglione’s kinky modern Giallo Tulpa. While Tulpa might not be the gold standard for how to make a modern Gialli, I hope everyone had the chance to check it out, or at the very least, headed over to Shudder to watch Knife+Heart which was also recommended.
As June closes out, so does the expanded Proms and Sea Monsters month here at Nightmare on Film Street. While few Gialli fit snuggly into that category, the theme allowed me the opportunity to dive back into a childhood favorite of mine and discuss the burning questions surrounding the film. “Is this movie really a Giallo?” and “Why are there three versions of the film?” That is right folks—we are going back to the master with Dario Argento’s 1985 telekinetic bug epic, Phenomena.
“Is Phenomena a Giallo?”
Much like many of Argento’s films, Phenomena is difficult to summarize. But, for those unfamiliar with the film, this synopsis should get us started. In Switzerland, the young teenage daughter of a famous film star has been shipped off to boarding school. Jennifer’s (Jennifer Connelly, Labyrinth, 1986) arrival at the school comes at a time when several girls have been mysteriously murdered. To make the situation even worse, Jennifer has begun to sleepwalk and, along with that, comes the ability to communicate with insects. These powers and her blossoming friendship (depending on the version you watched) with Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence, Halloween, 1978) and his chimpanzee companion Inga will all help in Jennifer’s investigation of the murders. Phenomena is every bit as crazy as the description sounds and to say any more about the film’s plot would ruin much of its fun because the absolute bonkers premise is one hundred percent why I love it so much.
Like many viewers my age who fell in love with this film, my first experience with Phenomena was on VHS under the title Creepers (I still believe this title best suits the film). This wonderfully weird film captured my imagination, making it a frequent video rental; and, while a lot of that childhood love might have come from the film’s star, Jennifer Connelly, for the sake of this article we’ll pretend it was for the film itself (I really do love it). Like many of Argento’s films, the fan-base for Phenomena has grown over the years but never reaching the massive following of films like Suspiria or Deep Red. This underappreciation could stem from the many different cuts of the film, or the constantly changing status of the film’s DVD and Blu-ray availability.
So, which version of Phenomena have you watched, and why do these differing versions exist? As previously mentioned, I first watched Phenomena under the title of Creepers, and for this article (and thanks to the gorgeous Synapse Blu-ray) I was able to revisit that version as well as the two other longer cuts of the film. First up was the 110-minute cut of the film. This cut of the film will be the one most familiar to fans who have discovered the movie since the rise of the streaming services. It also the version currently found on Shudder. The 110-minute cut is now my preferred cut of the film. Here, you get the most of what Argento is going for with the film. The scenes featuring Donald Pleasence are longer and help the viewer better understand the friendship between him and Connelly. This cut also increases the gore missing from the 83-minute cut and allows for more tension to build during the film’s chase scenes. These extensions also help to flesh out the out of left field ending of the 83-minute cut. Dario Nicolodi (Deep Red, 1975) fans will also be pleased as this cut gives the actress more screen time.
Next up was my childhood favorite 83-minute Creepers cut. After viewing the 110-minute cut, re-watching this version now felt like watching the film on fast-forward. The Creepers cut trims all the fat from the film and moves at a lightning speed pace. As previously mentioned, Donald Pleasence’s role is also significantly cut along with much of the films backstory which makes the film’s ending feel rushed and unearned. I know this version has fans, and I can see why with its MTV music video style and breakneck pacing, but I found this version disappointing on this revisit. Lastly, I will quickly mention the 116-minute cut. While the previous two versions differ greatly, this cut adds a few extended scenes that are only important for super-fans of the film and completists.
So, that brings us to the burning question that is heavily debated by Gialli fans everywhere. “Is Phenomena a Giallo?” That question is a little more difficult than it appears on the surface. Yes, Phenomena does feature the Gialli staple of a black-gloved trench coat wearing killer who is featured in some spectacular scenes like the opening kill where a young girl is murdered with a pair of scissors and then beheaded by a shard of broken glass. In the film’s second murder, the black-gloved killer murders a young girl using a knife attached to a pole while the film blasts Iron Maiden’s Flash of the Blade (missing from the 83-minute cut). These kills and the film’s many others would stand-out as a top-notch death in any Giallo film.
The killers reveal (don’t worry I won’t be spoiling the ending) is also a perfectly Giallo type of reveal with the film’s dots all coming together (if you watch the longer-cuts) to make for a satisfying but head-scratching conclusion. Other Gialli staples are the gorgeous cinematography by Romano Albani (Inferno, 1980), and the incredible score by Claudio Simonetti and Goblin (Suspiria, 1977). Everything here screams that Phenomena is a Giallo. However, where the argument comes into play is the film’s use of the supernatural. While supernatural elements are not necessarily a deal-breaker in a Giallo (see Deep Red), and yes, many Giallo elements are mixed into the film, Phenomena has always felt more Stephen King than Giallo.
“While supernatural elements are not necessarily a deal-breaker in a Giallo […] Phenomena has always felt more Stephen King than Giallo.”
With that said, the beauty of this film transcends any genre or sub-genre and manages to offer something for every horror fan. Phenomena manages to cram a massive number of different genres into its runtime. The film offers viewers everything from Giallo, psychic horror, insect horror, trippy nightmares, an intelligent chimp, a scorned revenge story, and a deformed mutant all into one film. For all those reasons, I am declaring Dario Argento’s Phenomena an underappreciated horror masterpiece that should please anyone looking for a bonkers 110-minutes of filmmaking.
Ask any fan of the movie and they will tell you that Phenomena has a premise that just begs for a sequel, and in preparing to write this article I discovered that us fans of the film almost got our wish in 2001. But just as Argento was finally beginning the planning stage, the film was scrapped due to a contract dispute. Based on the quality of many post Phenomena films, it is unsure how this planned sequel might have turned out. But as a fan of the director and this movie, I would have been the first in whatever line was necessary to a continuation of this incredibly fascinating world.