Unfamiliar Waters: Exploring the Uncanny in Dario Argento’s ‘Phenomena’

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Sigmund Freud (I know, but bear with me) defines the uncanny as the strange, sinking feeling of the familiar suddenly becoming unfamiliar. It’s the feeling we get looking at dolls, masks, and mannequins—things that are almost familiar to us, but not quite. And that’s exactly the feeling invoked by Dario Argento’s criminally underrated Phenomena (1985). 

As in Suspiria (1977) and Deep Red (1975) before it, Argento seamlessly blends supernatural elements into this 80s Giallo. The film stars Jennifer Connelly as Jennifer Corvino, a young woman with the ability to communicate with insects who arrives at an all-girls boarding school in Switzerland only to discover there’s a killer on the loose. With the help of entomology professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), his elderly chimpanzee assistant Inga, and a swarm of insects, Jennifer sets out to discover the killer’s identity—before it’s too late. 

By the 1980s, the popularity of the Giallo—a stylistic, often colorful Italian slasher— was beginning to wane. But with the genre’s waning popularity came the waxing of its absurdity. Giallos from this era exploded outward then imploded in on themselves like dying stars, each one crescendoing in wilder and more unbridled chaos than the one before. Phenomena is no exception. This movie truly has it all: a mysterious killer, supernatural powers, murderous apes, and freaky mutant children. 

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So what exactly makes this movie so uncanny? For starters, the dubbing. In nearly all of Argento’s movies, the dialogue has all been dubbed over. This is primarily because the cast and crew usually consisted of a mix of American and European actors, and having no common language between them, spoke whatever language they were most comfortable with during filming and had their lines dubbed over in English later. 

This gives all of Argento’s movies an unintentional added layer of the uncanny. We see the characters’ mouths moving, and we hear the sound coming from them, yet they never quite seem to match. The result is a strange, eerie disconnect, an unnameable coldness between speaker and what is spoken, and tangentially between actor and audience. We feel alienated, distant from what’s being said on screen because we’re that much more removed from it. 

But Phenomena is unique among Argento’s films in that two of its stars are native English speakers: Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence. As a result, the scenes between them feel much more natural than scenes with other actors. Their brief interactions exist in a kind of oasis of realism, making the scenes surrounding this oasis all the more unreal. 

And it’s Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), our other beacon of the real in this strange, uncanny world, who introduces us to our next example of the uncanny: a badly decomposed severed head. When Pleasence tears away the sheet covering the glass box containing the head, it’s one of the big reveal moments of the movie, as the audience realises that it belonged to the young girl we saw brutally murdered and decapitated in the opening scene. So the familiar becomes unfamiliar once again: we saw the girl just moments ago, with her head on, and now here she is with it off. How strange and unfamiliar an ordinary head or any ordinary body part becomes out of the context of its body. Making it even more so is the head’s advanced state of decomposition. It is practically a skull, so deeply decayed is its flesh, writhing with maggots, dead and yet teeming with life.

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Maggots and other insects continually form our understanding of the uncanny, like when Jennifer picks up an item of her roommate’s covered in them, but doesn’t react. Any sane person’s response to an item crawling with maggots would be to scream or drop it, but Jennifer does neither of these because—of course—the maggots are her friends. But we remember this only after we’ve seen the maggots, a second after we’ve already recoiled. So while the audience winces in disgust, Jennifer leans in for a closer look. What’s familiar and even comforting to Jennifer—the bee in the taxi cab, the maggots on the sock, and the swarm of flies outside the school—are all frightening and unfamiliar to us in these contexts. 

So although Jennifer is one of only two characters spared from the uncanny valley effect of the film’s dubbing, she still provides plenty of uncanny moments. Aside from her love of insects, Jennifer Corvino is a sleepwalker. If sleep is a mimicry of death, then sleepwalking must be a mimicry of life after death. This is the feeling one gets watching Jennifer walk through the school grounds in her flowing white nightie with unseeing eyes. We are reminded of death, and of the dead returning. Once again the familiar—life, bodies, Jennifer Connelly herself—become unfamiliar. 

Even Jennifer’s name has a sort of uncanny feel to it. When characters and the actors who portray them share the same name, the fourth wall is not so much broken as it is playfully tapped on. So when we hear the characters of the movie call Jennifer Connelly’s character Jennifer, it feels almost like they’re speaking directly to her rather than to her character; like what’s happening to her is real instead of just a movie. 

Giallo movies of the 70s and 80s are known for their explosive ending sequences in which their killers are revealed, and Phenomena is no exception. In the last 20 minutes of the film, the killer is shown to be Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi), the woman who had only just given Jennifer a ride. The film has us guessing which of the male characters the killer could be until this point, then drops this bombshell on us at the very end. Argento had already set a precedent for female killers in Suspiria, Inferno (1980), Deep Red, and The Bird with the Crystal Plummage (1970). The woman killer forms a subversion of everything women are supposed to be—submissive, gentle, and nurturing figures become dominant, cruel, and destructive. 

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Frau Brückner doesn’t last long after being unmasked, however. After a run-in with Brückner’s creepy, unexplained monster child (Davide Marotta) in a boat on the lake, Jennifer escapes only to be attacked once more by Frau Brückner. But not to worry, Dr. McGregor’s chimpanzee assistant Inga comes to Jennifer’s rescue and finishes Frau Brückner off with a razor. 

Although it worked to our heroine’s advantage, the scene is deeply unsettling in a way that embodies the uncanny. Chimpanzees themselves appear so human but aren’t quite—familiar yet unfamiliar. Not quite human, but just human enough to kill like one. In the film’s ending, after all the chaos, Jennifer embraces Inga. While a sweet moment, it conceals what really happened between them: the chimp bit part of Jennifer Connelly’s finger clean off. Connelly was rushed to the hospital immediately, where the finger was thankfully reattached. So while the chimpanzee may be cute, you can’t look at her without thinking of what she’s capable of. 

Although Dario Argento’s Phenomena is perhaps his uncanniest film, it received an underwhelming critical and commercial reception at the time of its release. But if Freud taught us anything, what’s repressed will always return. With the increased accessibility of films lost to time the internet offers, Phenomena has enjoyed recent critical reappraisal and has even enjoyed cult status among genre and Argento fans. Phenomena has the streaming service Shudder to thank in part for that, since it currently sits at an average of five out of five skulls as of being added to the platform last summer. If Phenomena died in 1985, today it’s the dead risen, the sleepwalker walking, the familiar becoming unfamiliar—in short, the uncanny.

by Kat McCollum

Kat is a graduate of St. Edward’s University with a degree in English Literature. She loves curling up with a good horror movie, and her favorites are Rosemary’s Baby, The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She writes fiction, poetry, and reviews, and you can find her at https://katmccollum.medium.com. She lives in Austin, Texas with her chunky but lovable pet rat, Kirby. 

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