Phenomena (1985) and Dario Argento’s use of ambient and sentient dream space.

Rev., Jun 10, 2018.

In recent analysis, my model for studying the nature of the visualizations of horror or dreams in horror movies has expanded from the hypnagogic, to include two other states lying horizontal and vertical to those states, the Ambient and the Sentient. The hypnagogic involves those activities that take place “inside the head” of the person, that is, the central cognitive spiral at the center of thinking, and then its adjunct places.

phe 1

but, then, it occurred to me, there was a trope shot of people surrounding a victim at the level of the lattice, and that encircling imagery seemed to be the nearest convergence of a whole series of wider circlings, which constitute a whole host of Ambient sources for visualizing horrors coming from farther off upon the self

phe 2and, then, finally, if there are wider circlings, there are also, beyond even that, wider invasive forces, usually on the scale of natural forces, that also come in upon the self, and these (perhaps inspired by my reading of how rumor took over a Roman camp in the Aeneid), these are Sentients, as the idea that the forces of nature have and will come at you, and attack you, that idea can only be premised on the occult idea that the world is an entirely Sentient place

phe 3

now, the thing about this particular way of expansive study of modes of visualization of dreams or altered states of consciousness in movies, is that it also gives me a tool to at last get to the heart of why Italian giallo-based horror seems so, as I have put it over the years, pulled apart. The simple declarative answer is that Bava and Argento set the tone for everyone else, and everyone else copied them. But, then, those directors too, and I think in the past I have faulted Argento for being just a formalist for this, they also stretched the envelope of the scope of haunting forces, and, for that, entered into the Ambient, even on beyond that to the Sentient zone to explain the origin and composition of haunting forms. In fact, Argento’s Phenomena (1985) might be one of the most sentient-based, pulled-apart horror movies ever made, sometimes that makes it hard to follow, but, overall, it reveals a startling vision of a world in whole made Sentient by horror. In this note, I address the Sentient quality of Phenomena (1985).

There is an opening prologue crime, showing that the problem that exists at the school where Jennifer Connelly is going to attend already is ongoing, when a girl runs for safety, but, oddly, into danger. That is, she is in her hypnagogic sort of sleepwalking terror space, with phone cords, in spiral form, and pictures, in oval form, evincing vertiginous impulses, approaching a spinning climax

phe 4but then she runs off, and, weirdly, runs into a very scenic cave site, which speaks of “the Translyvania of Switzerland,” as they call that part of the country, but also is perhaps a quote from Herzog’s Nosferatu, as indicating, by its whoosh of water, an entry into a dark place

phe 5but, then, it is precisely when she gets to the end of the tunnels, to the overlook over the waterfall, that the knife of the killer takes on a life of its own, this, then, also a hypnagogic force

phe 6and by crashing her head through glass, and causing all the glass to spray around her, pushes her through the outer limit of the hypnagogic, but at the edge of the Ambient, as ambient glass circles around her to communicate death

phe 7and then the movie shows her body being washed away, spending rather a lot of time on that, indicating that by this her body has been bust out of the hypnagogic, into the ambient and even the sentient spaces of the world, but those alive forces treat her body as just a thing

phe 8

then, the movie breaks, to the police investigation, but in a manner almost equal to the best of the wind in the trees movies, the Mexican movie, Even the Wind Was Afraid, this movie blows the wind to indicate that it is a bad wind, and it is on the occasion of remarking of the wind that it is twice mentioned that the movie takes place in “the Transylvania of Switzerland”. The wind blowing is, no question, a sentient force (if you think it blows for a reason).

phe 10Jennifer, then, looking incredibly self-assured at 15, confident, even grown up, checks into the school. The first thing I notice is there are a lot of very large pictures in the rooms, here

phe 11and here, back facing the door

phe 12and again

phe 13and again

phe 14and another one in the outer hall

phe 15and then again with the head mistress

phe 16and then it profiles her escape

phe 17all of these harken back to earlier Italian gothic movies, and generally represent a defenseless openness to the outside, as if the place cannot protect itself from the outside. Usually, a landscape painting means danger is coming from the outside, but when they are picture-window big they mean that the outside and the inside have merged, the inside is open to the outside, and what this means for Jennifer is that the hypnagogic realm of the school is, right away, too limited for her, and she, by her talents, opens it up to let in ambient and sentient powers. The pictures then as it were are placed at the outer border of the adjunct spaces of the hypnagogic, to tell us that the movie will be constantly opening up to other places beyond the school, that is, this is not a movie limited to the school. Indeed, the ambient moments in the school seem ill-informed and a bit hysterical. There is one scene, later on, when the head mistress, Jennifer in bed, rather ridiculously calls her demonic, because she seems to have a power over nature.

phe 18well, she would say that, because, for her, human power is limited to the conscious, and maybe the hypnagogic, but not to any ambient powers with regard to nature. To have a power that can communicate with nature, as, for example, Jennifer does, with her symbiotic relationship with insects, means that she is a witch. In fear, the headmistress loses all her professional composure, and backtracks her mind to peasant days, any woman who controls nature must be a witch, so we have to expel her and, worse, commit her to an asylum. And she, of course, makes this panicstricken speech in front of a painting, evoking her standing between Jennifer and nature, and trying to close off the openness of the place to nature

phe 19then, there is an even more interesting, but awkward scene, as if Argento was less interested in it, but when the girls hear that she has a power, they circle around her, to bully her, this is the classic Ambient shot, meaning that a whole social world is collapsing in on her, to torture her

phe 20but, then, Jennifer pushes them back, by, in fact, performing a bit of witchcraft, which silences them

phe 21she calls in the flies, and they come against the windows in a way way worse than even in the Amityville Horror

phe 22that is, she escapes and trumps an Ambient attack, by commanding a Sentient force of nature, and bringing that in against it, to stop the attack. It is a good scene. (But, of course, it is also this that causes the head mistress to freak as Beezelbub in the bible is the demonic Lord of the Flies, and if she has power over the flies, that means she is the devil).

This whole business with the insects in this movie is both the thing that makes it interesting and what causes some problems. It starts with a curious role played by Donald Pleasence, he is an expert in insects, but, specifically, what insects in what sequence come to a dead human body, meaning that if you count the phase of infestation the body you find is in, and identify the insects, you can count back and tell when the body was murdered. All of this, this way of investigating, the deeply forensic, and then motivated by the movement of insects and larvae or maggots, this takes the movie out of the hypnagogic into the Ambient realm, as these forces would not normally be noted by the hypnagogic mind, and then encircle and decompose the self in an attacking manner more consistent with the Ambient (my personal exposure to this world was at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, when I was given a chance to visit the beetle room, where beetles were cleaning the final material from a skull)

phe 23so, right away, the movie lurches us out of the normal precincts of the hypnagogic, into the further afield realm of the Ambient. This gives things a different tone. A note. In previous remarks, I identify the Raggedy Ann doll trope in American movies as indicative of the Dead Eyes of the World, that is, it is a device to give a murder witnessed a non-witnessing dead eye look to tell you the awful truth that the world does not care about you. In American movies, it is mostly at that level, that things stay, as we most definitely do not want to hear about that, and, in general, in middle class popular culture, we are committed to the idea that the world does care, and no one dies for no reason. But, in Italian movies, it is worse than that. It occurred to me, watching A Blade in the Dark (1983), that, yes, the killings were brutal in a much more depersonalizing way

phe 24But what was really upsetting was seeing the killer drag the body around, and the director even make a scene of this

phe 25and, it occurred to me, in American movies, the body, even if killed, remains in hypnagogic space, to scare, but, in Italian movies, after death, it is pulled out into Ambient space, space which in American movies is only inhabited by the Dead Eyes of the World doll trope, but, here, the Dead Eyes of the World doll trope is played by, replacing it, a real dead, murdered body, meaning that, chillingly, not only does the world not care, but the killer does not care, and, worse, the person who was in that body just a moment ago, also, is gone, and does not care, it is a pretty grim view of things, and evocative of the deep morbidity of giallo movies. So, by pulling the movie out of the comfort zone, if you will, of the hypnagogic, and re-placing it in the Ambient Zone, with communication to the Sentient, Argento has indeed resituated the horror in a very strange, very abstract, very grotesque place, and it makes a certain amount of sense as in Suspiria (1977) it was the attack of the maggots coming from a rotten carcass of delivered meat stored in the attic that caused a moment of full-on revulsion as the maggots got into everyone’s hair and the like, so here he builds as if in a sequel on that motif to make it the site of the modus operandi of the story, and, in fact, two major scenes in Jennifer’s exploration of the mystery. Therefore, with this, I can make the surprising claim that, though it involves the hypnagogic, Phenomena is mostly an Ambient movie in full, with Sentient incursions

phe 28this pulled-apartness is no more evident than in two or three remarkable sleepwalking incidents in the movie. These scenes are so prolixly labyrinthine, pulling the cord of the search out to the farthest extent possible, that one, if one was simply arguing from the fixed point of view of the frame of the hypnagogic, might say this is a baroque or mannerist movie. But, in the logic of displacement to the Ambient, these scenes are revealed as just explorations of the horror potentials of those zones. In the first one, she is sleeping,

phe 29but the wind acts on her sleeping mind, to pull her out, she dreams she is exploring, I think I got this right, a haunted house, as per Argento, remote, entirely empty

phe 30and, then, as if fed by the TV, left on by her roommate

phe 31she is agitated enough, to “wake up,” or rather sleepwalk

phe 32inside her head, she is seeing long corrdiors, these are whoosh formations, dropping her down into REM state

phe 34a corridor, these are nicely done

phe 35but, in her REM state, she is “awake,” she gets dressed, and walks. The large picture here then represents the edge of hypnagogic space, entering into Ambient space, by way of REM sleep state

phe 36and, indeed, having brought us to this state by way of a lighted whooshing corridor, and then a picture, Argento makes it clear that this is a state that is composed of a shuttle of visualities from the picture, as, here, she literally walks into the world of the picture, the picture opens up on the screen, and becomes the outside (like later in Stendhal Syndrome (1995), I suspect this picture was also altered to maybe almost make it move, to give it the deepest possible sense of immersion (a sense conveyed to me in art only by a swimming mermaid painting by Bochlin, and then a wave wading picture by Repin)

phe 37and then more of the lightshow corridors, with a constant, if not strobe effect, reminding us we are in her sleepwalking episode

phe 39and, then, in this state, with a more traditional iris shot, we spiral down the stairs

phe 40and the whole of them, for us, because we are on the outside looking in, but therefore need more rational images explaining where she is

phe 42that is, she has pretty traditionally, moved from being in bed, sleeping and dreaming, to a sleepwalking state, which is a dysfunction that drops her down through adjunct space, and through the entoptic zone represented by the pictures, and then the lattice-whoosh composite space (remember, I do not hold modernist directors to noncompressed or uncompound notions of dream), in the white space, and the stairs, both, then, as her sleepwalking moves down through the REM zone horizontally out to the Ambient zone outside of the hypnagogic adjunct space, she enters that space, the sleepwalk, and I would also note that while in entoptic hypnagogy the Spotlight, as I call it, a type of light dream, is a small device of a bright spot derived from a blue spot over one’s half-dreaming, the Full Moon is here proposed to be the deeper sight of that sign  as she moves into this REM dream state, high overhead is the mark of her point of departure, herself, in the form of the full moon

phe 44

and the full moon

phe 45and then she begins to walk very far in her state, horizontally, perilously

phe 50and she has premonitions or reviews of things that will or have happened, she comes by a house

phe 51and sees, in the whited out REM state, a murder

phe 52and then she goes out into the woods, all agitated by the wind

phe 53she goes into town, and there is a swell scene where she is almost hit by cars

phe 54but she sees the town in her dream, all whited out, I really love these floodlit shots of the oldness of these old towns (they make me think of whatever panic attack must have motivated Anthony Bourdain this week to, in one of these towns, Kayserberg, up in France, end his life (RIP))

phe 55and this, my favorite shot in the movie

phe 56and then there is inevitably an adventure, but she jumps out, away from the boys who want to take advantage of her

phe 57so she ends up in another fall, down a forested hill, deeper and deeper in

phe 58and then the movie tosses us a curveball, way out at the edge of the Ambient, she is seen, but seen by an insect, and an insect eye, in multiple iris form, very strange, this is now Sentient force

phe 60all of this is rationalized as part of her dream, but then she shows up at Pleasence’s place, and gets the explanation

phe 61All of this, then, takes her, by way of the magic of sleepwalking, because she is driven, it is implied, by an intuitive force in dream, out from the comfort of the hypnagogic, into the REM state then through that out into a wide open Ambient version of the world, and there, at the end of it, she even encounters the far edge of that zone, to see into the Sentient, and it is out there, at that place, that Pleasence’s house stands, to lead her through to the wider areas of the movie

phe 62

for, no mistake about it, she does go there, in terms of moving out through the Ambient to the Sentient, because she is, in fact, literally, sentient, that is, Pleasence finds out that she is psychic in that insects like her and communicate with her, and she can sense their need to tell her things, so she can be lead to places by the insect. Even better, it seems that if she is sentient with regard to the following of flies, she can even be sentient with regard to the Sarcophagus maggot, the flesh eater, the main maggot that feeds on dead bodies, and, in her sleepwalking state, she can by walking down in and through and out from the REM hypnagogic state, enter into the Ambient zone, and then beyond, to the Sentient, where the insects begin to communicate with her. And that, that phenomenal premise, is exactly what happens in her next sleepwalking episode. This time she leaves the house in slightly less clothing (and Argento always edging on addressing the sexuality of a 15-year-old is a bit creepy throughout)

phe 63then THIS is where the movie takes it to the next level, she moves fully out into the Sentient zone, because here is where a firefly now leads her, in her dream, a classic intuitive movement not unlike something out of a David Lynch movie

phe 64and this takes her to an empty house, where she finds a glove

phe 65and on the glove are maggots, indicating that the glove had something to do with a murder

phe 66and, then, even more remarkably, the maggot, or the firefly who lead her there, SHOWS HER the murder, in multiple fly eye iris

phe 67and then when she reports it all to Pleasence, we revert to that classic zone of the horror movie, the under-the-microscpic mad scientist vision, in this case, confirming that this is from the body

phe 68

and the microscope

phe 69In her second walk, she goes much further, and we learn a new thing, she can follow the insects, as graphed out here, her second sleepwalk takes her quickly through the Ambient out through the fly-eye iris into the far wilderness of the Sentient zone, where she has powers, at least when she sleepwalks, and all that is brought back and dissolves back to that favorite place of horror, and a subgenre I love, the microscope view of a menace, in this case the unsettling study of maggots, inherently disgusting to all humans, no doubt

phe 70

but, then, while I previoulsy mentioned that her being attacked by all the girls in the school was an ambient moment, in the context of the hypnagogy of the school, in sequence, it comes right after this episode, and when she tells the head mistress what happened, she is castigated for lying, and for being a witch. SO, when, bullied, she pauses and says, “I love you all!” this the abreactive pause, then she brings in the flies

phe 71but, then, Argento turns up the volume, by suggesting exactly what the head mistress fears, that she does, in fact, have a power to summon the flies, to protect her, or do things for her, and that is by bringing a swarm of flies in, to attack the school

phe 72and, then, the movie steps back into waking life, to as it were “exploit” her powers, Pleasence explains that this fly in a box will go crazy when it gets close to a place where other of its kind are lodged, that is, maggots, and so if it is true that you can read the minds of flies and they tell you things, take it, in daylight, awake, and when the fly in the box goes crazy, which you alone can sense, get out, and follow it like a geiger counter until it stops being crazy, because it has come to the site of a murder. And so in one of the movie’s most deliriously weird sequences, happening all in waking life, but of a highly extenuated Sentient nature, she takes the box on the bus

phe 73and here it is, her little meter

phe 74and goes for a long ride in the countryside, amazingly so

phe 75and, then, it does, in fact, go crazy, so she gets out, and it takes her to a house (note that she is all in white to appear disembodied in hypnagogic and ambient zones, dematerialized, made into a kind of ghost)

phe 76and she searches a room in a trope I call the Far Place, but this is, in Sentient space, a really far Far place

phe 77then there are some maps or something, she is interrupted by the caretaker, thinking it the killer, she freaks, but that is a dead end

phe 78but, then, as she leaves, Argento lets us know, by an extreme close-up of the fly

phe 79the fly was right, as below that floor, there was a hand, covered in maggots

aaaaFinally, Jennifer has had enough, she will not return to the school, so the assistant mistress takes her home, after a whole runaround to get a ticket at the airport, so, again, this time again waking, she is walking into a strange place

aaaaaathis is a straight up hypnagogic place, but with all the mirrors covered (this does raise the suspicion that the lady is a vampire, but it is not that)

phe 82it is a creepy place, there is a false scare of a large doll, whom Jennifer momentarily thinks is the woman’s son

phe 83then there is as close to a shower scene as a director would be able to get with a fifteen year old, she is told by the mistress to take some pills, to sleep, she is apprehensive, but does, but, then, in the bathroom, notices that there are maggots all over the place

phe 84then she refuses to take the pill, it makes her sick, so she throws it up, now she knows the woman has ill will toward her, and while the woman is out abducting the snooping police officer, she tries, not unlike a scene quite far removed from its point of origin in Suspiria, she struggles with a whole scene at a transom trying to get to a phone there

phe 85then she finds out, after more twists and turns, that the house is filled with maggots, because the woman has created a place below, in the basement, which is full of maggots, a kind of pool where she throws the dead bodies that her son, a homunculus monster, kills, and in this one, I feel for young Connelly, she has to swim and strive to survive in a sea of maggots

phe 86and then, trying to wrap things up, she runs again, only to then have to use her Sentient powers to call down the flies to kill the little monster who attacks her again

phe 87but this then knocks her into the lake, and there is a fire on the lake, which she tries to get out of it (Argento trying, but failing, not to peek up her dress)

phe 88and, then, when she emerges, the implication of the Eye of Isis (ie thigh gap lit through) being that she emerges from this struggle a grown up, successful, her uncle comes for her, but then is, and I think this is over the top, beheaded by the mother, who is also doing killing on her son’s behalf

phe 89and then, as another eventuality that I think strains credibility, Pleasence’s monkey comes back into it to kill the woman before she kills Jennifer, and that’s that, all of this later happening as if a traditional horror movie in the hypnagogic zone, but with incursive twists provided by the fact that we have set up sentient powers at her disposal, that is, the animals.

phe 90For me, the ending is a bit of a letdown. Having, in the course of the movie, lead us into the far frontiers of the visualization of Sentient terrors, while it is true she made use of her Sentient power to, once, be saved, and the monkey perhaps picked up on her sympathy with the animal kingdom to come to her defense, the movie did in fact pull back in entirely to the hypnagogic realm, and left the Ambient and Sentient zones which it had so intriguingly explored, at bay, at loose ends, and did not, in fact, instrumentalize them in a progressively climactic way in the finale, as ought to have happened. Nonetheless, Phenomena is a very interesting document, in showing us why Argento’s movies are so pulled apart and apparently abstract and arty, in fact, they are that because he chose to explore a farther out realm of the dreamy, both the Ambient and the Sentient zones of the visualizations in human perception of where horrors come from.



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