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The Curator of Schlock #12 by Jeffrey Shuster

Phenomena

Many will cite Suspiria or Deep Red (Profundo Russo) and Italian director Dario Argento’s cinematic masterpieces. To be sure, those are fantastic films, journeys into the macabre shot in glorious Technicolor, the last of their kind before the process came to an end in the late 1970s. Many think that Dario Argento never achieved such perfection again. They are wrong.

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In 1985, Dario Argento’s Phenomena was released, a horror movie about a young girl who had a telepathic powers over insects. The movie was released in North America heavily censored and re-edited under the title of Creepers. The resulting changes destroyed Argento’s vision and many of his fans regard Phenomena as one of his lesser efforts. I would argue that these fans never saw the original cut or were so jaded by their first impression of the film from Creepers that they were unable to give Phenomena a chance.

I was more fortunate. I had never watched Creepers and was able to benefit from the DVD boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, a boom that had several Italian classics being released uncensored for the first time in North America. My view of Phenomena is untarnished by that hack job and Phenomena remains to this day my favorite horror movie of all time.

Jennifer Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino, a young American girl who’s been sent Switzerland by her movie star dad to attend The Richard Wagner school for girls. This would be swell if not for the fact that there’s a psychopath on the loose with a penchant for killing young girls around the same age as Jennifer. In fact, he’s murdered some students at the very school Jennifer has been attending.

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It’s also around this time that Jennifer starts having sleepwalking episodes. This is problematic because she keeps sleepwalking on the decaying rooftops of Richard Wagner’s estate while the killer is on the prowl for his latest victim. Eventually, Jennifer winds up at the house of a kindly old etymologist named John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). He’s wheelchair bound, but he has a live-at-home chimpanzee “nurse maid” named Inga to help out. Professor McGregor’s insects are rather fond of Jennifer and he tells her she can stop by anytime.

The following night at school, Jennifer’s roommate Sophie (she’s French!) is murdered by the psychopath. A firefly leads Jennifer to a maggot-infested glove. Jennifer determines that the glove belongs to the killer since one of the maggots psychically shows her the dead body of Sophie. When the maggot matures into a fly known as the Great Sarcophagus, Professor McGregor has the bright idea of sending Jennifer out with the fly to catch the killer. Jennifer travels on the bus a young Danish tourist travelled on before getting her head chopped off by the killer. The idea is the fly will lead her to where the dead bodies are hidden. This sounds like an excellent plan except for the fact that Jennifer may actually run into the “vicious killer.”  Funny how neither of them thought that through. I won’t spoil the end for you, but let’s just say there’s a chimp involved.

Ten Things I Learned From Phenomena

  1. Chimps like to play around with straight razors.
  2. Italians throw out razor blades in trash receptacles where wandering chimps can find them.
  3. Headmistresses don’t like American schoolgirls who sleepwalk and can talk to insects.
  4. Maggots can be a girl’s best friend.
  5. If you find maggots under the soap in the bathroom of someone’s house, get out of there.
  6. If your host tries to feed you poison pills, get out the house.
  7. If every mirror in a house is covered with bed sheets so your host’s son doesn’t have to see his reflection, get out of the house.
  8. If your host flips a switch sealing you into their home by barring the doors and windows with ten-inch steel, now would be a good time to panic.
  9. If you discover the police detective who’s trying to find the killer, bloody and chained to wall in an underground dungeon, now would be a good time to panic.
  10. If you find yourself in an pit of water surrounded by floating body parts while a psychopath laughs maniacally in front of you, now would be a good time to panic.

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Jeffrey Shuster

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47) is an MFA candidate and instructor at the University of Central Florida.

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