Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of an eternally-absent movie star, is packed off to the prestigious Richard Wagner School for Girls in Switzerland, under the care of the equally musically named Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi). The beheaded corpse of a Dutch tourist, Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento) has just been discovered, another victim in a spate of grisly murders. The school is abuzz with fear and intrigue. The girls are cliquey and snide. Jennifer is scorned for her perceived fame. The prissy headmistress (Dalila di Lazaro) takes against her from the start. She makes just two friends - room-mate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni) and, away from the school, entomologist Dr John MacGregor (Donald Pleasance).
She meets MacGregor after a sleepwalking incident. Lost and confused, miles from the school, she is rescued by MacGregor's assistant, Inga, who takes Jennifer to the wheelchair-bound scientist's home/laboratory. Oh, yeah, Inga's a chimpanzee, by the way. I am not making this up.
Jennifer and MacGregor hit it off immediately, bonding over their mutual love of insects. MacGregor studies them; his field is insect communication - he believes them to be telepaths. Jennifer proves his thesis and then some. Our girl actively empathises with them. A firefly leads her to an important discovery following Sophie's murder. A couple of million flies angrily descend upon the school when Jennifer is tormented by her classmates. The headmistress reveals herself as something of a religious fanatic. "Satan is sometimes referred to as Beelzebub," she muses; "the lord of the flies", and on this basis plans to have Jennifer bundled off to the nearest psychiatric hospital.
In the meantime, MacGregor has been helping Inspector Geiger (Patrick Bauchau) with his enquiries, studying the insects feeding off the recovered remains of Vera to pinpoint her time of death. This, and his burgeoning friendship with Jennifer, bring him to the killer's attention. The inevitable attack on him is witnessed by Inga who, unable to intercede, later finds the killer's discarded straight-razor and goes looking for revenge. Yes, that Inga. You know, the chimp.
Let me say it again: I am not making this up.
As you might have gathered, 'Phenomena' is ever so slightly bonkers. Although many of the director's fans rate it low in his filmography it is, in many ways, archetypally Argento. There's the wonky science from 'The Cat O'Nine Tails' and 'Four Flies on Grey Velvet'. There's the protagonist's visual impairment from 'TCONT': while Arno is blind and witness something only by overhearing it, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses a murder while not conscious. There's the telepathy subplot from 'Deep Red' that gets Helga killed in that film and Jennifer's life put at risk in 'Phenomena'. There's a pounding rock score that features compositions by former Goblin frontman Claudio Simonetti, as well as songs by Iron Maiden and Motorhead. There's plenty of prowling camerawork, editing that's as sharp as the aforementioned straight-razor, and a handful of scenes, particularly an extended finale, which are as tense and gloriously grand guignol as anything Argento has committed to film.
So why its reputation as second-rate Argento? The ludicrous plot probably has something to do with it ... but when has Argento ever been beholden to logic, narrative coherence or anything so conventional? Take 'Suspiria': it's an exercise in illogicality, but as a work of film art it's as gorgeous as it is demented.
No, I think 'Phenomena' suffers from the place it occupies in Argento's filmography. From 1975 to 1982, Argento was in his element: 'Deep Red', 'Suspiria', 'Inferno', 'Tenebrae', two deliriously over-the-top horror movies bookended by the two finest examples of the giallo in all of cinema. Compared to these, 'Phenomena' does, unfortunately, seem a little by-the-numbers. It doesn't even feature one of Argento's technical trademarks, like the two-and-a-half minute Louma crane sequence in 'Tenebrae' or the swooping ravens' POV shot in 'Opera', the film that followed 'Phenomena'.
It would be all to easy to make a case for Argento's career as a study in decline since 'Tenebrae'. But 'Phenomena' has its moments - along with a good performance, despite the often awful dialogue she's saddled with, by the young Jennifer Connelly (she was fifteen at the time and her star quality was already in evidence). Donald Pleasance gives sterling support in one of his better post-'Halloween' appearances. Argento's assistant director and protege Michele Soavi pops up in a supporting role as Inspector Geiger's assistant. And on the subject of the good detective, 'Phenomena' is that rarest of gialli: one that features a halfway competent copper, even though his complacency proves his undoing in the final reel.
Finally, 'Phenomena' has the most manic climax of any Argento movie. There's never been a deus ex machina like it!