This is one of only two of Dario Argento's horror films that I've never managed to see in a cinema (the other is Trauma; I'm not counting his latest, Dracula, which hasn't come out in the UK yet anyway). It originally hit British cinemas in 1985 in a heavily truncated version, retitled Creepers with a few BBFC snips; by the time it reached VHS it was trimmed again and didn't even make it to 80 minutes in length. It then took a whopping fourteen years to be restored to something approaching its original glory, and the latest shiny DVD release runs a full 31 minutes longer than the Palace videotape. But in either version it's certainly one of Argento's lesser films; maybe that's because it comes between what are, for me at least, his two finest films (Tenebrae and Terror At The Opera), or maybe it's just notably crazier than his films usually are.
Indeed, Phenomena is probably the maddest Argento's ever been within the confines of a movie that isn't supposed to be supernatural, and in his whole filmography is probably only second to Mother Of Tears in the whacko stakes: it's a who's-the-mad-killer giallo with paranormal overtones The X-Files would have blanched at. Someone's killing young women in the environs of an exclusive Swiss finishing school for girls, and in the absence of the police (Patrick Bauchau hovers around briefly) it's down to Jennifer Connelly as a sleepwalking schoolgirl with a telepathic connection to insects and Donald Pleasence as a wheelchair-bound Scottish entomologist to solve the mystery. In this quest they're aided Pleasence's pet chimpanzee (she's also his nurse) and The Great Sarcophagus fly, which can detect the smell of rotting corpses across great distances (handily, the maniac lives on a popular bus route).
While the insect-based plot devices may have some connection with recognisable science (I remember an episode of CSI in which the development of fly larvae was used as a tool for accurately measuring how long a murder victim had been dead), the telepathy is harder to swallow - that a firefly could lead Connelly to a vital clue or that she she could summon a swarm of blowflies dense enough to eclipse the moon is not so much a scientific phenomenon as plain old-fashioned witchcraft. That renders it too far-fetched and fanciful, and thus the tension of the straight giallo Phenomena would otherwise be (and could have been) is lost.
As a straight horror film it's better: once you get the insect nonsense out of the way it picks up quite nicely with some shocking moments of gore and violence (Argento again uses one of his daughters in a graphic death scene, which is a little unsettling, though not as much as his later use of Asia in nude sex scenes), and the grisly climax in a cold concrete basement with a pool full of rotting corpses is truly repulsive. It's also very cruel: the use of a deformed child as a plot motivator and the sadistic relish with which the villain is despatched at the end both feel unnecessarily cold. (It's this last sequence, that saw the villain's face being slashed with a straight razor, that the BBFC cut back in the 1980s.)
It's certainly better than some of Argento's more recent films (I still have a soft spot for Do You Like Hitchcock?), and it still works in places, but the 80s fashions and the Various Artists heavy metal soundtrack date it badly. But it's not a patch on his best gialli like Deep Red or Tenebrae, and it's certainly no Suspiria, the most obvious comparison point with its similar setting of a spooky girls' school in the deep woods. In fact it's strange that it's apparently one of Argento's favourites of his own films, because it's frankly a mixed bag: for every thrilling setpiece there's a terrible line of dialogue, for every shocking gore highlight there's a "Huh, what?" moment of almost surreal strangeness, such as Pleasence's bereaved chimp wandering the park and finding a cut-throat razor while searching in a bin for food. It's a mess, really. But there are great moments in there; just not enough of them to make this more than a moderate, middle-ranking Argento. (Which is still better than many directors working at full pitch.)