Phenomena (Creepers) first published by Little White Lies
They have been allowed to rampage destructively through New York (King Kong, Planet of the Apes) and Los Angeles (Mighty Joe Young). One has buddied up with a truck-driving Clint Eastwood (Every Which Way But Loose), another has romanced Charlotte Rampling (Max Mon Amour), yet another has got to slap Ben Stiller (Night at the Museum).
And still more have been the carriers of ‘nature’s revenge’ pandemic viruses (Outbreak, Braindead, Twelve Monkeys), or traveled through wormholes to distant planets (Space Chimps) – and in horror movies (Link, Monkey Shines, Shakma, 28 Days Later…), they tend to be atavistic avatars of our own most deep-seated, animalistic impulses. Yep, cinema’s simians seem to have all the fun.
So what of Inga, the chimp in Dario Argento’s personal favourite of his own films, Phenomena (aka Creepers)? We first spot her immediately after the film’s vicious opening, in which an unseen figure has slashed and decapitated a hapless young tourist (played by Argento’s own daughter Fiore) – and the fact that the chimp is loose outdoors and brandishing a razorsharp scalpel might suggest that we are dealing with a killer ape not dissimilar to the one from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story The Murders In The Rue Morgue.
Yet the ape, like the film in which she features, is not so easy to pin down. Certainly Inga will play a pivotal, even a murderous, role in what follows, and will furnish Phenomena with its memorably surreal final image – but everything here is so baroquely overdetermined that viewers will soon be more concerned with the place of others on the evolutionary chain, as one genetic mutant is set against another. You might think you know where this story is headed, but Argento’s many red herrings and narrative curveballs make monkeys of us all.
Take the film’s heroine, Jennifer Corvino (played by a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly). Her status as an American teen attending a boarding school in Europe makes her a stranger in a strange land, and she will soon become both sleepy eyewitness and potential victim to the serial killer plaguing the region. So far, so giallo – but Jennifer is also a chronic sleepwalker, and has a telepathic bond with insects, and will soon become one of “the two greatest detectives the world has ever known, or should I say, unknown”, after teaming up with a flesh-eating fly! This is giallo, but also – like Argento’s own Suspiria and Inferno – evolves that genre into new paranormal terrains.
The International School for Girls that Jennifer attends is said – à propos of nothing beyond this film’s operatically shrill tone – to have once been the home of Richard Wagner, and is located in the region of the Alps known locally as ‘the Swiss Transylvania’, where an ill wind (the Föhn) blows – and, almost inevitably, there is a sanitarium for the criminally insane located nearby. At the core of Phenomena lies a hardboiled mystery, but so over-egged is the story with police procedural, insect science and paranormal events that squaring the circle of all these clashing frames becomes a disorienting thrill with heady pleasures of its own.
Amidst (often misleading) nods to The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Don’t Look Now, Friday the 13th and his own Suspiria, Argento weaves a multi-stranded dream narrative that no amount of exposition from the avuncular, wheelchair-bound entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) – who is also Inga’s master – can quite unravel or rationalise. For Phenomena unfolds with a fairytale logic, turning its viewers into somnambulists traveling a long and winding path without being quite able to retrace how on earth they got from beginning to end.
Add to this a series of bloodily stylised murder set-pieces, charming ’80s special effects and a thundering metal soundtrack (that includes Andi Sex Gang, Iron Maiden and Motorhead alongside Argento’s usual collaborators Goblin), and you have a phantasmagorical horror headtrip that is truly worth going ape about.
© Anton Bitel