Phenomena is one of the strangest and most spectacular films in Dario Argento’s body of work. In large part that’s because it’s the first of his works that feels like a genuinely syncretic effort to pair giallo with the sensibility of more mainstream American horror. Before this point, Argento had employed British and American actors, or featured British and American characters, relying on dubbing to make his stars accessible to both Italian and English speaking audiences. But Phenomena is the first film where the American dimension feels like it is in genuine dialogue with the giallo dimension, as Argento leans into a form of Gothic horror that was becoming increasingly popular for children and young adults throughout the 1980s. It makes sense, then, that the protagonist of Phenomena, Jennifer Corvino, is played by Jennifer Connelly, who two years later would burst into the popular consciousness for her lead role in The Labyrinth. Argento’s film features the same dark fairy tale atmosphere, at times, as The Labyrinth, as well as more classic tropes of 80s horror, but these all make the residuum of giallo alterity appear all the more alien, all the more unassimilable to mainstream demands.
As if to signal this new international sweep, Phenomena is also the first of Argento’s films, apart from Suspiria, to take place outside of Italy – in this case, in the “neutral” terrain of the Swiss Alps. The first images are sublime vistas of mountains, fields and conifers, and yet this rural landscape is no longer populated with the rustics of Argento’s 70s work. Typically, these last straggling remnants of Italian neorealism were juxtaposed with the futuristically abstracted gazes and voices that constituted his serial killers. By the time we arrive at Phenomena, however, that rusticity has entirely vanished, leaving us instead with a series of increasingly epic, scopic and mobile sightlines that are coterminous with the serial killer terrorising this particular part of the Swiss Alps. Indeed, so coterminous are the camera and the killer’s gaze that the killer himself doesn’t play as central a role as in Argento’s other films – he has been almost entirely absorbed into what Deleuze described as “pure optical and auditory situations,” images and sounds that seem to exceed human perception and agency.
As a result, many of the tropes of Argento’s earlier films are taken to a new extremity in the opening scenes of Phenomena. The most pervasive of those tropes was perhaps Argento’s taste for heads propelled through windows – or faces that fused with windows to create new interfaces, surfaces that were suddenly as legible and sentient as the human body. We see this trope in the first kill scene in Phenomena, a POV shot that follows the victim as she runs into a viewing chamber that is embedded deep in the side of a waterfall. Not only does the killer project her through the glass window that improbably looks out on the roaring tumult of water, but he goes one step further and decapitates her, before hurling her head into the torrent where it is eventually found by a local scientist. This lays the groundwork for a series of equally exotic trajectories throughout the film, whether a funicular railroad, a wheelchair lift that curves up an extravagant staircase, or the elliptical roads that weave their way through Argento’s incredible mise-en-scenes, mirroring the warp and weft of the mountains.
Yet alongside these familiar tropes, Phenomena also introduces a completely new strand in Argento’s body of work – a fascination with animal perception as the closest approximation to the dispersed and disembodied gaze of the serial killer. We caught a glimpse of this approach in the conceit of Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which ended with a scientist capturing the last images to be projected onto the retina of a victim – a series of flies. These turned out to be a single fly, embedded in a pendant worn by the killer as it swung in front of the victim’s face – in other words, “stills” that became a series of moving images when donned by the killer, who thereby arrogated both cinematic and animal perception as his own. It makes sense then, that Argento would eventually return to animal perception and that he would discover in it a harbinger of the more dispersed cinematic milieu that awaited him with the emergence of video casettes in the 1980s. Following Phenomena, animal perception and new media would become twin tools for inhabiting the disembodied gaze of serial killer, but the latter is largely absent here, as Argento focuses primarily on unfolding his “zoological thesis”.
Whereas his later films would focus on avian, mammalian and reptilian perception, Phenomena builds on Four Flies on Grey Velvet by devoting itself to the insect gaze, which is both supernatural and networked as he presents it here. Early in the narrative, while holidaying in the Alps, Jennifer crosses paths with Professor John McGregor, an entomologist played by Donald Pleasance (another concession to the American horror lineage) who informs her that “it’s perfectly normal for insects to have telepathic powers.” This touches a nerve with Jennifer, who also posseses these paranormal attributes and has been communicating telepathically with insects for some time. The moment she enters McGregor’s study all of the specimens in his tanks and cages release pheromones in recognition of her presence, the first of a number of paranormal insect swarms that she commands and weaponises over the film. Aside from this supernatural dimension, Argento also focuses on the more concrete biological fact of insects possessing compound eyes – in effect, clusters of eyes that allow them to encompass many points of view in a single glance. In an effort to evoke this compound gaze, he regularly splits the screen into six sections, in a kind of insect POV, especially during those critical moments of communion between Jennifer and the bugs that share her special power.
Since Argento both invests insects with supernatural power and draws upon their compound vision to evoke the paranormally networked gaze of his earlier films, it’s only a matter of time before insect perception becomes a critical forensic tool in tracking down the serial killer operating here. Both the flies of the Alps and the serial killer feast on corpses in different ways – the criminal by hoarding the bodies instead of disposing of them, and the insects by visiting these corpses in a very specific sequence, such that (so McGregor explains to Jennifer) it’s possible to date a murder simply by the particular species that happens to be feeding on the body. Of all these flies, the Great Sarcophagus is the most insatiable, since these are exclusive detrivores. Jennifer teams up with a particularly receptive Great Sarcophagus in an effort to find the killer, and so girl and fly become the next eccentric detective duo in Argento’s career, much as all the exotic spatial trajectories of the film, and the glassy interfaces they evoke, culminate with the central forensic escapade – the duo taking a glass-ceilinged bus around the perimeters of the nearest Swiss town, in search of the scent that will “agitate” the Sarcophagus to the proximity of a decaying human corpse. One of the great sequences of Argento’s career, this culminates with a POV from the fly as the camera lilts and twirls beyond mere human perception, circling and spiralling in a rapturously disembodied compound gaze.
Having crystallised the power of insect phenomenology at this moment, Argento shifts back towards its corollary – technology – in the final act and in doing so gestures towards the fusion of animality and new media in his work from Opera onwards. For upon finding herself trapped in the home of the killer, Jennifer follows what appears to be an endless phone cord into a basement, along a tunnel and from there to several of the most baroque horror tableaux in Argento’s career. From a pool full of gore, to a ring of fire burning on the surface of a lake, to a final beheading that takes place more suddenly than in any of Argento’s films to date, these closing moments offer up images that almost defy belief, sight and perception, entirely subsuming us into the abstracted gaze of the serial killer – or rather, subsuming the serial killer himself into an emergent yet dispersed image regime that exceeds even them. Every human in the film dies apart from Jennifer, who is left to cradle and kiss a chimpanzee, foreshadowing a new media world as close to us and as alien from us as the animal kingdom.