Collectively, they were called “The Hepta Group,” and during their peak years — the late ’80s and early ’90s — they were Spain’s three “witch” answer to “Ghostbusters.”
Got a haunted house or antique store, poltergeist trouble or some other supernatural “Phenomena” issues? Call those TV “psychics” — “If you don’t mind, I prefer ‘medium.'” — Gloria, Paz and Sagrario, and maybe their friend Father Pilon. They’ll assess, make contact and help you cope, maybe even “bust” your ghost.
Yes, like “The Pope’s Exorcist,” “Phenomena” is presented as something based on truth. But I never ran across their “Mundo Oculto” (World of the Occult) TV show during trips to Spain back then. I have no idea how true any of this is because I can find no reference to a non-corporate “Hepta” group online.
True or not, that’s a promising set-up for this jaunty Spanish comedy about bantering, bickering psychics — “medium” one prefers, “brujas” (witches) another labels them — called in on a “case” in the early ’90s, one that put their Catholic priest pal and mentor Father Pilon (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) in the hospital.
Sagrario, played by Belén Rueda (“The Orphanage,””Sara’s Notebook”), is the glamorous blonde, the most famous TV “face” of the trio. She’s “living in the past” leaving her “no time for the present,” their priest pal counsels her (in Spanish with English subtitles). She still mourns her late husband Carlos, and since they made a “Houdini pact” that whoever died first was to use a code to contact the surviving spouse from beyond the grave, she’s always looking for signs. And finding them.
Paz (Gracia Olayo of “Holy Camp!”) is a pragmatic grandmother raising her grandkids, a volunteer ghost buster who, unlike Sagrario, isn’t “cashing in” on their efforts at investigating and “managing” the paranormal.
And Gloria, also a volunteer who resents Sagrario’s pay-for-ghostly-play gig, is the fearless and impatient one, a chain-smoker wearing out a dating service, with prospective beaus fleeing her presence once they realize who she is. Gloria (Toni Acosta of “Poliamor para principiantes,” aka “Polyamory for Dummies”) wants to find love after 50, and is resigned to enrolling in pharmacy school to make a living.
Can these loud, fractious psychics agree to tackle this haunted antiques store and the creepy apartment building above it, where Father Pilon had his “accident?”
Director Carlos Therón bounces between jokes and sometimes violent jolts in this good-natured comic thriller. The funniest bits have them coping with a fangirl antiques dealer — “My FIRST ouija board!” — and her increasingly fearful and frantic ( to the point where he’s lost his eyebrows and his hair is coming out in clumps) husband.
They bring along a physics student (Óscar Ortuño) and some “gadgets” to detect metaphysical disurbances, an incredulous skeptic destined to become more credulous as their investigation encompasses apartments above the store, and a teen with Down syndrome (Maria Gil) who lives there.
Scripted by Marta Buchaca and Fernando Navarro, “Phenomena” plays more like the promising pilot to a TV series than a movie that wholly delivers the comic or traumatic goods.
There’s great chemistry among the leads — so good that you kind of wish it was a series pilot, or a franchise origin story — and the effects are modestly impressive.
But we need a little something more than the reliable truism that any answer to the question “Is this safe?” is going to be wrong. We need bigger laughs than any assertion — after a steel-tipped spinning top has hurtled across a room and pinned one medium’s sleeve to a table — that “The dead aren’t violent” and “It’s not like he was AIMING” is nothing anyone should take to the bank.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, smoking, profanity
Cast: Toni Acosta, Belén Rueda, Gracia Olayo, Óscar Ortuño and Emilio Gutiérrez Caba
Credits: Directed by Carlos Therón scripted by Marta Buchaca and Fernando Navarro. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:35