Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jeepers! Jennifer's Creepers

Allow me to start with a totally shallow assertion that has nothing to do with horror but everything to do with my personal jealousy:

Jennifer Connelly has and has always had one of the most fantastic heads of hair in the history of cinema. Possibly mankind.

Seriously. It positively glistens. I thought about digging out those 3D glasses that have been sitting on my nightstand since My Bloody Valentine because the shine was that bright that I needed the shade.

Creepers, aka Phenomena, is a 1985 horror/thriller/mystery by Italy’s favorite hit-or-miss surrealist Dario Argento.  While it never attained the popularity of some of his earlier giallos, it did boast an awfully impressive poster that hung on display in my local video store throughout the late 80s. 

A few years before entering the Labyrinth, Jennifer Connelly played Jennifer Corvino*, the impossibly gorgeous poor little rich girl with a natural kinship to insects, chimpanzees, and a wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasance. While her superstar father is off filming on location, Jennifer is sent to an exclusive yet terribly lax boarding school in a creepy European village ("People call it the Swiss Transylvania." “Why?” "I don't know. They just do.") run by one severe ice queen and a frumpy bee-a-phobe/former Mrs. Argento. Despite her glorious mane and celebrity pedigree, Jennifer has some difficulty making human friends. Perhaps she should stop sleepwalking (a major sign of snobbery, according to the cool kids) and start listening to the Bee Gees, who get a major shout-out from a 14 year old girl who not only sports a Bee Gees t-shirt, but also makes a Bee Gees reference in class, just in case you didn't know that she liked--you guessed it--the Bee Gees.

As we expect from any good Argento heroine, Jennifer finds herself caught up in a violent web of nightmare imagery, slow motion death scenes, and oddly mismatched musical scoring that ranges from 80s metal to electronically mixed opera. (One can't help but wonder how acting against the beats of the band formerly known as Goblin gave Ms. Connelly an edge in fighting creatures known as goblins.)

But back to the story: A creatively violent killer has been hunting teenage girls and while the cops are pretty clueless about how to catch him, they are smart enough to call upon invalid entomologist Pleasance for some pointers on when the murders took place based on corpse worms. He in turn sends the young Jennifer out to investigate along with a sarcophagus fly. Remember how that lovable lug Luto was friends with rocks, so when trouble was brewing he could let out a howl and boulders would come a’rollin? Jennifer has a similar relationship with creepy crawlers, be them stinging wasps or sweet lil ladybugs. As you might guess, this comes in handy more than once, although Argento is skillfully restrained in avoiding insect excess. 

Call it Suspiria: The Middle School Years. Like Argento's best-known classic, there is an eerie Snow White vibe that threads itself throughout the story, from the dark-haired ingenue lost in the woods to a witch's house with its own juicy secrets. I won't go any further for fear of spoiling what is an original film culminating in one of the most bizarre (yet in hindsight, very strongly foreshadowed) climactic end scenes I've seen in some time. Personally, I'm always intrigued when a filmmaker like Argento scales back to tell a smaller, more personal story (similar to George Romero’s Martin). Supposedly Argento has said Creepers one of his favorites, and I can see why: this is an intriguing, teasingly paced film that slowly pulls the audience in and leaves them with a finale that’s somehow simultaneously hysterical, horrifying, and damn adorable.

High Points:
Two very different but most excellent decapitations

Donald Pleasance and Jennifer Connelly, particularly during their shared scenes

One word, two times: Swarm

The entire last 20 minutes

Low Points:
I have a pet peeve regarding 'special guest stars' in films. Since the movie-making process is a temporary thing, isn’t everybody involved a guest? Thus, when the music of Creepers is provided by 'special guests' Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and more, what does that mean? Did they do all their recording on a party boat?

Lessons Learned:
Exclusive private schools in Switzerland are run like reformatories, with forty kids to a desk-less class. Expect sudden outbursts and mass chanting of “Screw the past!” and “Richard Gere!”  to occur during literature lessons.

Insects + 13-year-old girls make fantastic detectives, especially when investigating a violent serial killer known for killing 13 year-old-girls

Sophie is French

Winning Line:
“Please. I’m a foreigner and I’m lost.”

Repeat Offender:
Like many horror films centered around a beautiful woman, this one includes a subplot in which someone is trying to stick her in a mental asylum

Doll Alert:
Patience...a creepy little image starts the beginning of the gloriously Grand Guignol ending.

Buy: This is included in Mill Creek's Drive-In Classics Pack, but only as the edited American version. My copy clocked in at a mere 83 minutes. The uncut film is out there, with 20 minutes of extra footage (much of it dialogue and plot based) and while I always champion the cheap, I would recommend the investment. Fans of Argento will enjoy his signature style wrapped around a film that is genuinely different; general horror lovers should love the fantastically sublime finale; Jennifer Connelly admirers can be creepily pleased to see she was pretty much always a ridiculously beautiful downer, even as a young teenager. I, on the other hand, continue to envy her even more now that I see she spent her childhood with both Jim Henson and Dario Argento.

*Maybe it's my Long Island experience talking, but the name Jennifer Corvino so does not sound like the virginal maiden Connelly's meant to represent. There's something about the Italian Americanness of it (pronounced in my head in a flat smoker’s voice as ‘Jenifah Cahvino’) that calls to mind a hairdresser with press-on nails and acid-washed jeans. Is it just me?  


  1. This is my absolute favorite Argento film and this a fantastic tribute. As for the special guests, I am milling it over. The use of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" is totally inappropriate in the film. Hence, their unwelcomeness and "special guest" status.;) Late. Hans.

  2. I know that in some cases, "special guest star" is a contract thing, but maybe it also had something to do with the bi-nation-ous of the film, or just a way to slip in big names in the credits. I totally agree about the inappropriateness of some of the music choices. Maybe Argento was going for more dreaminess, but I don't think my nightmares have such abrupt musical style switches.