Tag Archives: Jennifer Connelly

CAPSULE: PHENOMENA (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , , Daria Nicolidi

PLOT: A teenage girl with a psychic bond to insects teams up with a forensic entomologist to hunt down a serial killer.

Still from Phenomena (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Phenomena certainly has a wacky premise, and a chimp, to boot. That’s enough to get it onto our radar. Set those features aside, however, and it becomes a standard slasher/horror that borrows too much from the same director’s superior Suspiria to stand on its own.

COMMENTS: So an American brunette ingenue travels to a dramatically lit European all-girls boarding school where she becomes involved in a series of murders… no, it’s not Suspiria, and that’s not , it’s Jennifer Connely. But there are so stylistic many similarities to Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece in Phenomena that, if it wasn’t made by the same director, you’d probably accuse it of being a poorly-conceived ripoff.

As it is, Argento gets so wild here that he nearly descends into self-parody, although there’s little reason to suspect that Phenomena was intended to be watched with tongue in cheek. The movie is a mixture of good stuff culled from Argento’s toolbox—fantastical lighting (though more restrained than some of his early works), bold camera angles , suspenseful gore, a fairy tale atmosphere—mixed with some clumsy new variations on the formula. The overall mish-mash of good and bad, nice ideas and crazy ones, results in a horror film that’s not really successful on any level (except possibly camp), but is seldom boring. On the good side of the ledger, Argento still has an decadent way with atmosphere. Also, the all-the-stops-pulled finale, with multiple false endings and a genuine surprise finish, is legitimately thrilling. On the bad side, the effects used to create insect swarms (and individual insects) are terribly dated and cartoonish (the locusts of the previous decade’s Exorcist II are a huge success by comparison). The score is another mix of good and bad, with the effective part supplied by Argento’s usual collaborators, Goblin (billed here as “the Goblin”). Unfortunately, Argento also had the bright idea to try to appeal to 1980s youths by inserting rocking tunes from Motorhead, Iron Maiden and something called “Andy Sex Gang” into the movie; at least one shock scene is destroyed by the incongruous pounding metal track that makes it play like a music video excerpt instead of a suspenseful stalking. The crazy insectoid premise also falls into an ambiguous category: maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad, depending on your point of view and how seriously you’re trying to take Phenomena. But it definitely leads to some eyebrow-raising dialogue: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic,” deadpans Donald Pleasance’s wheelchair-bound entomologist.

Young Connely is not fantastic in the unconventional role—her line deliveries are so “blah” you may wonder if she was dubbed alongside the Italian cast—but her star potential is evident. If she’s not completely convincing, she is rosy-cheeked and stunning (in a chaste, high-school-crush kind of way). It’s no surprise she found stardom a year later in Labyrinth. Pleasance is, for reasons unknown, Scottish here; his performance is scaled back from his usual hamminess, and not the worse for the restraint. The real scene-stealer, however, is the chimpanzee Tanga, whose presence in the story is so inexplicably unnecessary that it becomes a sort of genius.

New Line cut 28 minutes from the film and released it in the U.S. as Creepers. The complete version is reviewed here. It makes for fine, not-too-serious Halloween viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Argento’s weird thriller was a huge box-office hit [in Europe]… Though Argento’s plot is often confused and grotesque, he has a remarkably energetic visual style (mobile camera, slow-motion, careful lighting, creative editing) that is never boring.”–TV Guide

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK CITY (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, , , , Ian Richardson, , Bruce Spence

PLOT: J. Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a dingy hotel bathroom. In the adjoining bedroom lies a dead prostitute, and Murdoch is soon suspected of murdering five women, although he has no memory of these events. Inspector Frank Bumstead (Hurt) interrogates Murdoch’s wife, Emma (Connelly), who hasn’t seen her husband in days.

Still from Dark City (1998)

WHY IT SHOULDN’T MAKE THE LIST: What seems like a typically Hitchcockian “wrong man” scenario gradually turns into something far more complicated and weirder… but not weird enough (in my mind) to be considered one of the 366 weirdest films of all time. I suspect Dark City seems “weird” mainly to people who consider all science fiction weird (and revealing that the film is science fiction may already be giving too much away). Still, it is a truly fascinating and visually stunning production that continually asks the question, “what is reality?,” and does so in a far more sophisticated manner than the similar and much more popular The Matrix.

COMMENTS: At first Dark City seems to be film noir, and the look of the movie is vaguely 1940’s, with almost every scene taking place at night; all of this is somewhat similar to director Alex Proyas’ previous The Crow. The film’s highly impressive art direction (by Battlefield Earth’s Patrick Tatapolous) is reminiscent of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Brazil, although on his director’s commentary, Proyas denies any such influence. Kiefer Sutherland plays creepy Dr. Schreber, Murdoch’s therapist, in a manner that subtly recalls 1940’s character actor Peter Lorre. But the 1990’s-style special effects, produced some 15 years ago, are still flawless. The sight of skyscrapers sprouting out of the ground predates Inception by more than a decade. And the musical score by Trevor Jones (The Dark Crystal), part of which was used to advertise the first X-Men film, is electrifying. Dark City is a true gem, and, unlike The Matrix and its sequels, it raises the questioning of reality, and then actually grapples with the idea, instead of forgetting all about it and simply indulging in showy displays of special effects. Dark City presents plenty of visual spectacle, but that spectacle is actually germane to the storyline. It’s well worth seeing.

This Director’s Cut DVD is about 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The changes seem relatively minor, although Sutherland’s opening narration, which gave away too much of the plot, has been removed for this new cut. Also, Connelly plays a nightclub singer, but her singing isn’t very good in this extended version; in the theatrical cut, a woman with a better voice dubbed her. Somehow, the fact that her singing is now rather flat and… sleepy… only adds to the film’s dreamlike, creepy atmosphere. The DVD extras are quite extensive. There are three audio commentaries, one from Proyas, a rather dull one from screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David (The Dark Knight) Goyer, and another from Roger Ebert, who admires this film a great deal. He has only done two other audio commentaries: for Citizen Kane and Casablanca! There is also an on-screen introduction from Proyas, who explains why he assembled this new cut in the first place, the theatrical trailer, a couple of “Making Of” documentaries, and a Production Gallery of photographs taken by Sewell, who was apparently a real shutterbug on the set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…relentlessly trippy in a fun-house sort of way… Proyas… is a walking encyclopedia of weird science-fiction and horror imagery.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A dreamy teenage girl must rescue her kidnapped baby brother by journeying to the Goblin City at the center of a bizarre labyrinth.

Still from Labyrinth (1986)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the MC Escher-inspired set-design, the unexpected sexual tension between teenaged Connelly and fruitily-dressed goblin king Bowie, and a devout cult following, Labryinth is ultimately just too close to a mainstream Muppet fantasy to place on a List of the 366 Weirdest movies. We’ve passed over slightly stranger movies in this genre—the visually similar Henson-directed The Dark Crystal and the thematically similar Henson-produced MirrorMask—and, although I think Labyrinth is a better film than either of those, it’s difficult to justify certifying this one when its companion films don’t even get to sniff the List.

COMMENTS: In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s breasts were famously flattened out with tape so the 16-year old could play a pre-pubescent girl. Labyrinth takes a different strategy: 14-old Jennifer Connelly plays exactly her age, portraying a hormonally testy girl-woman caught at the stage where her attention starts to shift from stuffed animals to the well-stuffed pants of strutting rock stars. That shot of rising estrogen distinguishes Labyrinth from other Oz/Alice in Wonderland fairy tale variations, giving it a subtext that goes over the heads of the tots in the audience but leaves adults with additional nuggets to ponder (and no, that’s not another reference to Bowie’s stretch pants).

There’s an impressive amount of imagination on display here, starting with Henson’s puppets, who reveal an almost limitless variety (each individual goblin looks like a representative of its own species) and a nearly human expressiveness (to be honest, the puppets out-act both Connelly and Bowie). The girl’s three companions—the cowardly dwarf Hoggle, the bestial Ludo, and Sir Didymus, the comic relief knight/terrier—are all worthy additions to Henson’s Muppet menagerie, and there is a zoo full of eccentric Wonderland-esque supporting creatures, including walking playing cards, Continue reading CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)