We all know that horror has been the best genre to highlight issues faced by women, and it has served as the best place for women to attain some kind of catharsis by defeating all kinds of demons, poltergeists, and ghosts. But when it comes to fighting those supernatural entities in a professional fashion, that post has been occupied by a group of men called the Ghostbusters since 1984. Paul Feig tried to change the status quo. However, before even hitting the theaters, the film got embroiled in all kinds of controversy as regressive, self-proclaimed fans of the franchise started to treat it in a misogynistic way. And when the movie flopped, the makers blamed its failure on the bad press, while the audience blamed it on the all-female cast. Naturally, the conversation about the actual quality of the film was sidelined, and any efforts to give Lorraine Warren from “The Conjuring” some company in the ghostbusting business were stopped. Thankfully, after all these years, things are starting to look bright in terms of diversity with “Phenomena.”
The horror comedy is based on real-life paranormal investigators called the Hepta Group, founded by a priest named Father Pilón. It opens in 1998 Madrid, where Pilón learns about something supernatural going on in an antique shop that’s set within an apartment-like building. As per usual, he calls his trio of ghostbusting heroines, Sagrario, Gloria, and Paz, so that they can discuss how they want to tackle the case, while a budding parapsychologist, Pablo, shadows them to learn more about this job. Unfortunately, only Sagrario shows up, thereby forcing Pilón to cancel the meeting and recce the antique shop on his own. That’s where he encounters something demonic, and the experience sends him into a coma. This causes Sagrario, Gloria, and Paz to finally unite and check out what’s going on in the antique shop. Contrary to their expectations, the owners of the shop, Enrique and Marisa, welcome them enthusiastically, as the trio’s work is legendary. However, all the excitement and laughter go down the drain as soon as they begin to realize that ghostbusting isn’t fun and games.
While talking about horror comedies, I’ve always been of the opinion that horror has to be horrifying, and the comedy has to be funny. The cardinal mistake that all horror comedies make is that they overdose on the comedy and forget all about the horror. This imbalance is only accentuated by the nature of the comedy, which is usually slapstick, and the horror, which for some reason is also slapstick. In “Phenomena,” the characters written by Marta Buchaca and Fernando Navarro are over-the-top and animated. The situation they find themselves in becomes increasingly absurd. But none of them pause to make fun of anything because the writers know that that’d dilute the gravity of the case. And that’s where the horror aspect of the film comes from. Buchacha and Navarro create ample space for Carlos Therón to flex his directorial muscles and generate an atmosphere of fear and tension. While he’s doing that, the writers add layer after layer of subtext about child abuse, witch-hunting, the inability to let go of the past, guilt, family responsibilities, and more. Why? At the end of the day, if the audience can’t root for the characters, they won’t laugh when you want them to laugh and get scared when you want them to be scared.
There’s an ever-escalating sense of tension and scale, despite the finiteness of the location, in “Phenomena.” It begins like your standard, fake ghost sighting mission. Then it veers into “humans are the real monsters” territory. And the vibe of the finale can only be defined as “biblical.” Due to the writing and Therón’s directorial chops, you never feel any kind of whiplash every time there’s a shift in the tone, though, because he gives the audience these breathers, which also serve as breaks for the characters amidst the deceptively long takes. Therón’s understanding of staging and blocking is fantastic as well, as it allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the physical space that the characters are inhabiting. I don’t know if that’s something every movie should do. But if your horror comedy is set in a singular location, you have to ensure that your audience feels that they’re holed in there with the characters and have nowhere to escape. While the overall production design, lighting, costume design, practical effects, and visual effects are pretty good, they run into some issues when the set gets darker. I think if I had watched this theatrically instead of my small screen, I would’ve been a little more forgiving—especially since this movie deserves the big screen treatment.
Coming to the acting, Belén Rueda as Sagrario is clearly the leader of the group, and she constantly oozes confidence. But there’s a vulnerable side to her that she hides until she can’t. And the fact that this push and pull is tearing her apart from the inside, especially after seeing Father Pilón on his deathbed, is totally palpable in her performance. Toni Acosta’s Gloria is the hotshot of the group, and it clearly has something to do with her ability to read everyone’s minds. Her arrogance is kind of infectious, which is probably why when she throws her body to save her friends, you understand that her rough exterior hides her unwavering love for her friends. Although Gracia Olayo’s Paz is always in the background, quietly recording the stars of the show, I think she’s the backbone. When push comes to shove, and everyone is knocked down, she’s going to be the first one to get back up and pull everyone with her. In addition to all that, the stuff that these three women (all over 50 years old) did in that third act made me voluntarily drop my jaw on the floor. Óscar Ortuño is as adorable as Pablo. Iván Massagué and Lorena López are hilarious together, but Massagué manages to be incredibly scary too. Miren Ibarguren is unrecognizable in all that makeup, and she is nightmare-inducing. As for the rest of the cast, they are all great, even if they’re on the screen for 2 minutes.
At the end of “Phenomena,” when Sagrario, Paz, and Gloria have gone to their respective abodes to recuperate, a little teaser says that the trio’s escapades aren’t over. If I can be honest, that excited me more than most MCU movies and as much as the “John Wick” movies. What I am trying to say is that I rarely get excited about sequel teases in this era of remakes, reboots, requels, spin-offs, legacy sequels, and cinematic crossovers. I am truly tired. So, if a film, which isn’t based on an existing IP or banking on any kind of nostalgia, has piqued my interest in such a way that I want ten more adventures with Sagrario, Paz, and Gloria, I think that’s a huge win. But here’s a massive disclaimer: We all know how Netflix works. They need a massive amount of views to register a movie or a show as a success, or else they shelve any and every future plan. Going by the lack of hype and fanfare around this amazing film, I won’t be counting on the streaming platform to give me a sequel anytime soon. If someone can buy the rights and start a franchise based on this fictional version of the Hepta Group, that’ll be amazing. With all that said, please watch “Phenomena,” form your own opinion, and let us know your thoughts on the film.