Phenomena (US - DVD R1)
Gabe speaks to insects with his mind, and asks them for a refill on lemonade.
Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is the privileged daughter of a movie star, who is sent to a Swiss boarding school to complete her education. Jennifer has an affinity for insects, with which she seems to share a telepathic relationship, and suffers chronic sleep walking, which also puts her under the microscope with the prim and proper headmistress. Meanwhile a rash of violent murders plague the area around the school, and during one of her sleep walking episodes Jennifer becomes known to an invalid insect specialist involved in the case named John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). McGregor recognizes potential in Jennifer, and the two unlikely heroes set out to solve the crime.
Phenomena is rather regularly cited by Dario Argento as his personal favourite among his collection of features. This actually tells us quite a bit about the director’s aims as a filmmaker. Phenomena is easily the strangest film in a very strange collection. If this is Argento at his most free and most happy, then we may have a much madder maestro on our hands then we ever imagined. Had the film been a success Argento may not have retreated back to his Giallo roots, and instead produced more challenging, bizarre, and personal (!?) motion pictures.
Phenomena is not very popular among Argento’s detractors, and even his biggest fans tend to look down on it. Über-fan and writer Alan Jones calls the film ‘childish’ in his original Starlog review, critic Maitland McDonagh has slightly nicer things to say, but also refers to the film as ‘silly’ in her book ‘Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds’, and Kim Newman refers to the film as ‘almost a total failure’ in ‘Nightmare Movies’. The only really nice thing I can find in my library about the film is John McCarty’s (not a fan of Argento’s by any means) brief review, where he calls it ‘fun in a brain damaged fashion’.
The thing about these negative reactions is that they’re all correct— Phenomena is a phenomenally silly, childish, brain damaged failure, but this is what makes it special. The film is infinitely entertaining, and provided you don’t go in to it with too much knowledge, consistently surprising. Argento rounds up successful elements from all his most successful films, and mixes the pot with the grace of a fingerless chef. From Deep Red he grabs some psychic abilities, from Suspiria the girl’s dormitory atmosphere, and from Inferno he takes the weird affinity for animals. There’s a supernatural element in Jennifer’s control of insects, and the basic structure of the film’s first two-thirds is similar to his popular Giallos.
My personal disappointment in Phenomena comes from the almost pedestrian manner (well, pedestrian for Argento) in which the film is shot. Despite the pure insanity of the plot and characters, Argento and cinematographer Romano Albani (whom Argento had worked with on Inferno) don’t utilize many strange angles or acrobatic camera movements. The lighting is also pretty standard considering the stylized extremes Argento had just experimented with on his last three films. There is some expressionism in outdoor scenes, which all seem to be lit from below, and a few fun boom shots, but overall it’s a bit of disappointment.
Phenomena features one of Argento’s strongest casts. The film marks Jennifer Connelly’s second foray into film acting after her strong performance in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and though Argento’s use of the fourteen year old in sexy terms is a bit dubious, performance is strong enough to carry the excruciating dialogue through the entire 110 minutes. Donald Pleasance doesn’t put too much into his character (one he’d been playing since the ‘50s), but his presence is large enough considering his history in the horror genre, as well as stand by Patrick Bauchau. The surprise at the time was Daria Nicolodi, who had been Argento’s lover for the years leading up to the film’s release (she is Asia’s mother). In previous films Nicolodi had been treated much the same manner as the virginal heroes of ’80s slasher favourites. The loss of love between the actress and director obviously had an effect on Argento’s casting choices.
When originally released in the United States, more or less straight to home video, Phenomena was renamed Creepers (which in fairness is a more ‘scary’ name) and cut by almost thirty minutes. The already abstract film thus made even less sense, and was subject to jarring editing and pacing. Fans often assumed that the cuts had been made for violence, as had happened with Tenebre, but when Anchor Bay finally released the longer version on VHS and DVD, we discovered that it was plot that was removed. An even longer version, the ‘integral version’ appeared in Japan and Germany later, and unfortunately this re-release is missing those extra six minutes.
Effectively this is the same transfer as the original Anchor Bay release (which was re-released as a double disc set with Inferno), though it has been anamorphically enhanced, which makes some noticeable difference. The overall print is identical to the non-anamorphic release, more or less, to the point where I’m not sure any of my carefully cultivated screen caps reveal much of anything different. I’ve cut it down to this one, which best shows the increase in detail during darker scenes, and the slightly richer contrast.
The print is still dirty and grainy, but never so overtly so that it hinders viewing pleasure. It appears that there’s been an attempt at sharpening the image along with the anamorphic upgrade, so some shots appear a bit less soft. The problem is that other shots suffer compression noise along edges, and blending hues are somewhat sharply divided, especially in skin tones. Detail levels fluctuate regularly, but maintain an overall nice look. I wonder about the Blu-ray possibilities for the film, as this awesome comparison seems to reveal different issues with each and every release of the film.
Another problem, one that fans like me have mostly come to appreciate over the years, is the mismatched soundtrack. Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti does produce an impossibly fun main theme, and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman manages an impressively eerie exploration theme, Phenomena marks the short lived beginning of Argento’s dubious obsession with ’80s heavy metal. Not only does this music date and already dated feature, but Argento’s sound editing is constantly way, way off.
This release carries the same Dolby Digital 5.1 remix as the earlier Anchor Bay release, and things still sound pretty good. Most of the surround work is devoted to the film’s music, and basic wind sound effects. The dialogue isn’t as plagued with reverb and echo as other early Anchor Bay remixes, though there’s a lot of volume inconsistency, thanks to the dubbed voices. Still, the majority of the track is stereo at its base, which leads to some bleeding when people are speaking.
For the most part we’ve got the same extras here that adorned the original release. Things start with that same Argento, Sergio Stivaletti and Claudio Simonetti commentary track, moderated by journalist Loris Curci. This track doesn’t go so well for Dario, who doesn’t speak much English. The degree to which Argento was made uncomfortable by this and Tenebre’s commentary tracks ensured that he’d never record one again, and so far he hasn’t. Stivaletti and Simonetti are more comfortable, and fill in some of our questions.
The one new extra is a retrospective featurette, featuring new interviews with the maestro, his co-writer, Daria Nicolodi (who covers the ‘lack of love’ aspects of her role in the film, and who is wearing red gloves with a t-shirt for some reason), Fiore Argento (Dario’s less famous daughter), the D.P., Stivaletti, and Luigi Cozzi (also a director, who worked on effects). The featurette covers a lot of the same bases the older featurettes already covered, but overall the producers are sure to get some new info as well (well, new info to those of you that haven’t read three books all about Argento already). The featurette, entitled ‘A Dark Fairy Tale’, runs about seventeen minutes.
The rest of the extras are straight from the older release, including five minutes of footage from a documentary about Argento (which is available on the German release of Tenebre in its entirety), focusing mostly on Luigi Cozzi’s recollection of his effects work, an awkward but endearing interview from 1985 with Argento on the Joe Franklin Show, and two music videos. The Michele Soavi directed Bill Wyman video is a bit dull, but the Argento directed Simonetti video is a dash of 1985 Italian MTV to die for.
If your planning on understanding the cult obsession with Dario Argento, this isn’t the place to start. However, if you’re in search of a wild, wacky, and unmistakably ‘80s horror film you could do a lot worse. Phenomena hasn’t exactly been overhauled by Anchor Bay, but the anamorphic enhancement does make some difference on screen, and the new retrospective featurette is pretty good, if not a bit short.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 27th May 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English, Dolby Digital Mono Italian
Extras: Director/Effects Supervisor Commentary, Retrospective Featurette, Behind the Scenes Featurette, Trailers, Dario Argento Bio
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Fiore Argento, Patrick Bauchau, Jennifer Connelly, Mario Donatone, Eleonora Giorgi
Genre: Fantasy and Horror
Length: 110 minutes
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