It was H.P. Lovecraft who introduced us to the fear of the unknown when he conducted extensive research and stated that mankind’s primal emotion is fear, and what we fear the most are the things we cannot possibly comprehend. Theron uses this concept and introduces us to the ‘unknown’ through events and characters in the movie, “Phenomena.” You may find it a bit dragging in the beginning, but as soon as you get into it, the film finds its pace and rhythm. Whenever it is a horror film, sound and visual effects should work their magic; if they fail to create the atmosphere, then everything gets diluted. Given that “Phenomena” is a horror comedy, the director knows for sure that he is treading a path that should be both funny and frightening, bizarre and bloody, combined with screams of terror and shrieks of laughter. The film does manage to create tension from the beginning to the end but fails when it comes to getting a few laughs. The bond between the three middle-aged women who are the three witches in the film is impeccable, and therefore the film completely rests on them and their investigation into the paranormal events. They are brought together when Father Pilon is attacked by the witch hunter, Manuel Isidro Sarmiento.
All three women have something personal that they go through, but they still come together to get answers when their leader, Fr. Pilon, is attacked and falls ill all of a sudden. Sagrario Ruiz de Carvajal (Reuda) has lost her husband, Carlos, and is therefore lost in her own world, wanting to connect with him supernaturally. She is thinking of communicating with Carlos, as she feels that he is trying to contact her while she tries to find out what exactly happened to Fr. Pilon. On the other hand, Gloria (Toni Acosta) wants to try out a different lifestyle than being a psychic medium. She wants to go on dates and have dinners with interesting men. Paz (Olayo) documents and records whatsoever happens while they try to communicate with the ghosts and investigate the paranormal.
In the film, you will surely get hints about the director’s opinion on what fear is. Through Paz, he informs us that fear is nothing but a nuisance and waste of time, and in fact, in the first half of the film, this is clearly stated. It is only in the second half that the director gets serious and informs the audience that there is the paranormal, and although we don’t have to be scared of it, we ought to be aware that there is something beyond our control and the understanding of science.
While I did feel that the performances by each of the actors were fantastic, I also felt that there was something lacking. It didn’t feel like watching something similar to ‘The Conjuring’ franchise. The story didn’t grip me. Why were they looking for what they were looking for? Only because their leader is ill, the motivation didn’t justify their search or make their search look terrifying. There are a few previous cases of attacks described, but they do not really suffice to give us that scary feeling. The character Marisa gives us lighter moments through her performance when, on the one hand, the incidents that are unfolding are scaring her husband, and, on the other, she finds them interesting.
The director won my heart when he used the tropes of horror efficiently. The dim lighting makes us watch objects and events that happen one after another carefully and with the utmost attention. The dark colors used signify the darker and shadier moments in the movie. The doors opening and closing add to the horror that is slowly building in the film. And the lights that flicker rightfully set our mindset to expect the unexpected. While the three women investigate, they try to prove whether the paranormal is real or not. Do they succeed? To some extent, they do, but not very convincingly.
The three women start the search along with Pablo Marimon, who believes in science and has a rational explanation for everything that happens at the shop where the investigation is taking place. But midway through, the director decides to remove the character, hinting that he has a lot to discover and equip himself with. Maybe he is going to come back in a different and stronger avatar in a sequel or something. But he was a fantastic addition to the dynamic between the three women and their chemistry through his sudden explanations about the unfolding events and then later reacting to their realization of his incompetence in the supernatural area in which the three women were experts.
“Phenomena” slightly hints at the afterlife, tweaking old-fashioned frightful instances into moments of laughter; I am not too sure whether it worked; perhaps it did for the Spanish audience. It is definitely easy to watch, unlike ‘The Conjuring’ and the like. It is the first time that you notice characters who are in their middle age trying to investigate a paranormal case. They have had their share of experiences, and now that their leader is ill, they have gotten into investigating, making the plot look believable and enticing.
While watching “Phenomena,” the viewer in me wanted to see something different from the past. The chandeliers that swing and flicker, the doors that creak, and the possessions that take place in the film are nothing new. Perhaps the way it is presented needs appreciation, but one would expect a bit more from an award-winning director of great caliber.
From the mood and atmosphere with which the director plays in the film, it is very clear that he wants his audience to be afraid of the unknown and not of the already known, which truly worked for me. The ending of the film kept me glued to the screen, too, because that is when the three women uncover the haunting that has taken place for the past few years and the attack that Fr. Pilon went through. The sudden disappearance of Gloria escalates the whole situation between the three women. And later, when they notice that she is possessed, it still increases the momentum of the film and makes you want to know and understand more.
After Gloria is saved, Gerardo Plana’s narration of what exactly happened looked forced and wasn’t really necessary if it had already been told while the story was being told. Overall, with stellar performances and the perfect use of the tropes, the film does work. Maybe the director could have taken into consideration the wider audience and the intricacies that would make it a successful horror comedy, enticing viewers across platforms and countries. Perhaps the possibility of viewing different kinds of films on varied streaming platforms makes us more broad-minded viewers. “Phenomena” had its lighting and visuals in place, which made me want to watch the movie from the slow start to its fast-paced end. If you love the paranormal, then this movie is just right for you.