AVAILABLE ON LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY: 8th May, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 116 mins [Italian version], 111 mins [export version], 82 mins [ CREEPERS edit]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the Swiss countryside, a lost tourist, Vera Brandt, is murdered by an unseen assailant. Sometime later, her head is taken to forensic entomologist John McGregor, who is helping the police in trying to catch a vicious killer. Meanwhile Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a movie star, arrives at the Swiss Richard Wagner Academy for Girls, and that night, whilst sleepwalking, witnesses a student being killed. Found by McGregor’s chimpanzee attendant Inga, she is brought to his house and McGregor becomes convinced that she has some kind of telepathic communication with insects, something that she could perhaps use. Back at the school, another student is murdered and Jennifer is led by a firefly to the killer’s glove….
I doubt that many Dario Argento fans would call Phenomena one of his greatest films, but I have a sneaky feeling that a few more would consider it as one of their personal favourites….and they’d be in good company too, as Argento himself has, on a number of occasions, said it is his own favourite of his movies. I’ll happily admit that I’ve watched it more often than I have some of the man’s better works, even back [yes, I’m that old] when it was only available in the hacked up Creepers edit. To put it plainly, the film is just insane, a haphazard, crazy dream of a movie that perhaps shouldn’t work very well at all, at times coming across as a combination of elements from earlier Argento movies [principally Four Flies On Grey Velvet and Suspiria] mixed with Carrie with a load of insects thrown in. And it’s primarily because it’s so bonkers that I like it so much. Nothing makes any sense, the thing doesn’t hang together at all – for a start the entire subplot about the heroine sleepwalking doesn’t affect the main story much at all and could have been removed from the script without much effort. But I’m glad it’s there, as glad as I am that that the film also crams in communication with insects, a giallo mystery, an evil deformed child, his equally dangerous mother, a vengeful chimpanzee with a razor, a morbid back story involving rape [between prison bars], possible necrophilia, a strange boarding school in the ‘Swiss Transylvania’, an asylum reminiscent of the nine circles of hell, and reliable old Donald Pleasance with a Scottish [or is it Irish?] accent. There are some supremely silly ideas and scenes, but I don’t think I’d want Phenomena any other way.
Made without the producing or distributing aid of his father and brother for the first time with [he’d both fallen out with both], it was inspired by articles Argento read in an American newspaper about sleepwalkers, schizophrenics and mediums having an affinity with insects, and how maggots can provide the time of death during an autopsy. Its origins can perhaps also be seen in an early scene in Deep Red where a character talks about insects using telepathy. Argento and Franco Ferrini’s story developed further when Argento became a vegetarian and stayed in a Zurich clinic in an area dominated by a fierce wind called the Fohn that according to legend can drive people mad and cause the birth of monsters by knocking over pregnant women. Peter Ustinov and Liv Ullmann turned down the roles of McGregor and Jennifer, and Orson Welles almost met with Argento to play McGregor but was to ill to travel. Argento wanted Connelly right away for the lead but she initially turned down the part because of she didn’t want to do the nude scenes required, was scared of chimpanzees, and didn’t like playing a character called Martha. The director agreed to have no nudity, let her use her own name, and have a double for most of the chimp action, though the animal still often went for her and bit part of a finger off. For the absurd bit where Jennifer summons up loads of insects after being bullied, she originally levitated as well, but the effect looked poor and the scene was reshot. Filmed in and around Zurich, and then Rome, the film was Argento’s first to be shot with live production sound, though some Italian cast members still spoke their own language. A commercial success in Italy, and a huge hit in Japan, Phenomena was still badly treated by its US distributors New Line, who removed 27 minutes and retitled it Creepers, though it was a still a box office failure in America and the UK. It had further censor cuts in the UK, which shortened each violent moment even further and removed every single razor slash from the final killing for the video release. God, what us horror fans used to have to put up with back then!
Phenomena opens magnificently. Tourist Vera, played by Dario’s daughter Fiore, misses her bus, and the look on her face is almost heartbreakingly sad. She wonders about in the Swiss countryside until she finds a house revealed by a terrific crane shot going up and above some trees,, and something I must say right here is that Romano Albani’s photography of the Swiss outdoors is fantastic throughout this film, evoking the beauty of the hills and the trees but also giving it considerable menace. These gorgeous locales, the lakes and cottages, are scary, something enhanced by the fact that it always seems to be windy. As Bill Wyman’s haunting synthesiser and guitar track passes the same chords around and gradually increases them in volume and power, Vera is eventually chased by the killer, whom, of course, we are some of the time, and viciously dispatched, scissors horribly impaling a hand and a head crashing through glass in slow motion. Argento surely loved the head crashing through glass routine –every film from Four Flies On Grey Velvet to Phenomena shows it– and Phenomena even repeats it later on in a different murder scene. Now we cut to entomologist Dr McGregor talking to the police in the first of several conversations involving the character which contain dialogue so barmy it’s a wonder Pleasance was able to keep a straight face as he’s required to say things like: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic”. Though this is beaten later on a number of occasions. “That sound you can hear is a mating call, you’re exciting him and he’s doing his best to excite you” says McGregor to Jennifer who’s just bonded with an obviously randy bug. “And to think we only just met” is the girl’s priceless reply. It’s either atrociously bad writing or some kind of mad genius. I know which side I lean towards, I just can’t help myself, even though I know that what little critical faculties I have probably go out the window when thinking about Phenomena.
Jennifer arrives at her school where everyone conveniently speaks in English, and befriends her roommate Sophie, but her sleepwalking [her point of view being oddly but rather effectively realised by a white corridor full of black doors] and her friendliness with the insect kingdom soon result in her becoming an outcast, especially after Sophie is murdered after a nocturnal rendezvous with a boyfriend – and I’ve given up trying to wonder why she not only goes outside while there’s a killer on the loose , but why – after they’ve had a tiff – she starts to casually stroll back, without a care in the world. Surely she’d head back as quickly as possible? After an encounter with two youths who try to get fresh with her [well, at least they’re of the same species], McGregor’s chimpanzee Inga takes her by the hand and leads her to McGregor – though the ape is outdone in uniqueness [at least until the climax] by the firefly who leads her to the killer’s maggot-ridden glove. Jennifer eventually sets out to find the murderer, accompanied a sarcophagus fly which will apparently go mental when near the dead bodies that the killer seems to store somewhere. Now in terms of pacing this film is all over the place, occasionally moving fast, but for much of the time content to leisurely stroll through its story with not really much actual tension – but then this is the world of Phenomena, a world where – for example – the heroine is made to have an ECG just because she’s been sleepwalking, in a school which actually has an ECG room in it, and therefore bears no resemblence to reality, so perhaps one should almost feel privileged that we’re allowed to savour things. And the last 20 minutes then pile on the often original [at least for the time] thrills, chills, and just plain yucks.
Jennifer in a pit of full of mud, dead bodies and maggots is one of the director’s greatest images of pure horror, while somebody breaking a thumb to remove a chain is one of Argento’s most unpleasant visuals. While there are less killings than in his previous film Tenebrae, Argento tries hard outdo it for graphicness, finishing with a razor killing that at the time must have seemed closer to the more drawn out viciousness of Lucio Fulci than typical Argento violence. But there’s also an odd beauty to parts of the film. Aside from the outdoor scenes, Albani mostly restricts himself to black and white, and lights nocturnal scenes with an eerie blue [in fact blue instead of black is the colour of every nightly view from inside a window] but he somehow manages to create some kind of Italian Gothic artwork with his limited colour palette. There’s some great roving Steadicam camerawork, some insect POV, and nice use of overhead shots to try to make some of the longer dialogue scenes more interesting. And there’s one of the greatest shots ever in an Argento movie; Jennifer emerging from the water in darkness, the black showing up the very green grass in the foreground which Jennifer is about to reach while, behind her, is another patch of grass, but unnatural in colour, blue and grey, representing the surreal nightmare she is escaping from. That’s the thing about this bewildering film – you could call it idiotic in some respects, especially with regard to its storytelling, but in some ways this strange coming of age tale has been made with some care and even cleverness, and you can tell that it’s made by a true master of cinema even if it seems he may have been on drugs some of the time. The special effects are variable, the insect scenes employing all the old tricks from coffee grains on the lens to cartoon animation, but I’ve seen modern CGI that’s worse.
Jennifer Connelly, in her second film role [the first was Once Upon A Time In America], is sometimes very good [notably during a convincing vomiting scene], and sometimes a bit poor, especially in a few the longer dialogue scenes, but she was still just starting out and it was a very difficult part to carry off. She does have some chemistry with Pleasance, which gives their scenes together some warmth. Daria Nicolodi, though not having much screen time and being dubbed into English, stays in the mind as one of Argento’s most unhinged, yet oddly most sympathetic, crazies. She’s completely over the top, but for me this suits the film, though Troy Howarth in his commentary track disagrees. On the other hand Patrick Bachau just looks bored as the main cop. Phenomena has an incredibly eclectic sound track [though not quite as eclectic as the one for Opera his next movie], ranging from the uneasy ambient droning of Simon Boswell to beautiful compositions, often making use of Pina Magri’s haunting wordless singing, by Claudio Simonetti, to heavy metal tracks by the likes of Iron Maiden and Motorhead. The music is often totally ‘in your face’ and provides some considerable energy to some moments which are otherwise a bit lacking, though there are some odd applications of music, especially Motorhead’s pounding Locomotive played during the aftermath of one death which may otherwise have been genuinely sad. But picking Phenomena apart is a pointless exercise unless you really insist that movies should have some grip on common sense. It’s so damn eccentric and curious that, while I can’t say that it’s a great movie, I can’t help but love it. If only Argento’s last few pictures had even a spark of its personality and style.
So Arrow present all three main versions of Phenomena in this fabulous release. I can’t fault the picture and sound quality of the 4k restoration in any of the cuts. Contrast, depth and colour are all superlative and the outstanding photography of the film is really allowed to shine. I would say that this is virtually reference standard for a release of an older film. Disc one houses the 116 minute Italian Cut which is the version that was shown in Italy before it was trimmed to 110 minutes for the International Cut which is on disc two. These two versions are essentially the same movie, with the edits made for the International Cut just removing little snippets of scenes, sometimes just a line of dialogue or a shot. They strike me as rather pointless. Though Phenomena was supposedly shot in English, no English track survives for the extra footage so the Italian Cut reverts to Italian language with English subtitles, just as in the longest version of Deep Red. This means that in some ways the best way to enjoy the Italian Cut is to view it in Italian. Considering that the English dialogue is often rather unnatural, viewing the film in Italian doesn’t really harm it even though you don’t hear the voices of Connelly and Pleasance. And then we have the Creepers version on disc three, which was masterminded by director Jack Sholder [The Hidden, A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge], so it’s not a total failure, and one can see why New Line wanted a tighter, faster, less whacky and less vicious film. Almost every scene in the first half is truncated, and often quite well, though sometimes with continuity errors. The ECG scene is gone [perhaps wisely], as is the second murder revealed to Jennifer through psychic empathy with a maggot, but the second half] is less different than the first except for one scene being moved. It was interesting for me to revisit it after so many years, and it works better than I thought it would do, though I doubt I’d revisit it again.
Disc one also contains an audio commentary by genre writer Troy Howarth. He’s getting better and better at this talk track lark and this one really is on the Tim Lucas level. Okay, it’s not quite as informative as it perhaps could have been [ but then I’m saying that as the owner of three books on Argento – other listeners may feel differently], and I doubt that any buyer needs to hear another go-through of Argento’s career, but Howarth is clearly enjoying himself praising the many strong points and trying not to laugh at the daftest bits. He clearly finds Phenomena great fun to watch but isn’t afraid to really criticise it quie harshly at times too. He does seem to mistake the murderer though – though admittedly the film isn’t very clear on the subject and it could very well be my mistake. In any case, I can’t imagine the commentary on the Region ‘A’ Synapse Blu-ray being any better, though I’d still like to hear the one on the All-Region Japanese release as it features Argento, special FX Make-up effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, Simonetti, and journalist Luris Curci. The Jennifer music video included on that release and others does turn up here though, despite being directed by Argento, it’s not great. It mostly consists of Connelly looking at herself in the mirror, wondering around and eventually running intercut with footage possibly shot through glass of Simonetti performing the [fantastic] piece and another actress. It’s nice to have, but little more than a curio.
Disc two has The Three Sarcophagi which is a superb examination of the film’s three edits, pointing out tiny cuts and even some replacement of footage for the 110 minute version which I’d never noticed before, and showing how much work went in to creating the best ‘hybrid’ 116 minute version; previous attempts at it, including the German Dragon DVD I own, had sound inconsistencies. It’s a truly fascinating half hour featurette, though the best special feature is housed on disc two. Of Flies And Maggots runs just over two hours [which is over twice as long as the documentary which is on the earlier Arrow Video Blu-ray release and was on some of the DVD versions], with extensive interviews with crew and cast members, mostly in Italian [what a shame Connelly never seems to want to talk about the film], and sometimes intercut with behind the scenes footage. As the only DVD of Phenonema I have is the Dragon [because at the time I bought it, it was the only one to have the 116 cut], and I hadn’t bought it on Blu-ray, I have no idea if these snippets appeared on the older doc but they made this Phenomena fan grin from ear to ear. There are some good stories, such as Dario grabbing Fiore’s ankles so she fell through the fake glass, but I’ll leave the reader to find most of them out for themselves, and I doubt that the omission of the odd separate interview or music performance present in some earlier releases will be a disappointment for many considering the extensiveness of the doc.
This is undoubtedly the ultimate release of Phenomena and gets my highest praise and recommendation – unless you’re new to Argento, because this film probably isn’t really the place to start!
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
*Brand new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all three versions of the film: the 116-minute Italian, 110-minute international and 83-minute “Creepers” cuts
*New 5.1 surround mixes of the Italian (116-minute) and English (110-minute) soundtracks in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, derived from the original 4-channel Dolby Stereo elements
*New hybrid English/Italian soundtrack for the 116-minute version in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo
*Italian soundtrack for the 116-minute version in lossless PCM 2.0 stereo
*English soundtrack for the 110-minute version in lossless PCM 2.0 stereo
*English soundtrack for the 83-minute version in lossless PCM 1.0 mono
*English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
*New audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films
*The Three Sarcophagi, a new visual essay by Michael Mackenzie comparing the different cuts of Phenomena
*New feature-length documentary including exclusive interviews with co-writer/producer/director Dario Argento, actors Fiorenza Tessari and Davide Marotta, co-writer Franco Ferrini, production manager Angelo Jacono, special optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi, makeup artist Pier Antonio Mecacci and composers Claudio Simonetti and Simon Boswell
*Original Italian and English theatrical trailers
*Limited edition 60-page booklet containing new writing by Mikel J. Koven, Rachael Nisbet and Leonard Jacobs
*Limited edition packaging featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp