|Director: Dario Argento
|Screenplay: Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini
|Stars: Jennifer Connelly (Jennifer Corvino), Daria Nicolodi (Frau Brückner), Fiore Argento (Vera Brandt), Dalila Di Lazzaro (Headmistress), Patrick Bauchau (Insp. Rudolf Geiger), Federica Mastroianni (Sophie), Donald Pleasence (Prof. John McGregor), Fiorenza Tessari (Gisela Sulzer), Mario Donatone (Morris Shapiro), Francesca Ottaviani (Nurse)
|MPAA Rating: NR
|Year of Release: 1985
Even by the baroque standards of Dario Argento’s oeuvre, which frequently casts narrative coherence to the winds of stylistic excess, Phenomena is simply too much. Described by the director as a supernatural thriller, Phenomena is set in the Swiss Alps and tells the story of a schoolgirl named Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) who realizes that she has a telepathic connection with insects at the same time that a psychopathic serial killer is stalking the grounds of her posh boarding school. The film opens with a typically bravura Argento murder sequence in which a student (played by the director’s daughter, Fiore Argento) misses her bus, wanders into a nearby house, and is stabbed by an unseen assailant with scissors and eventually decapitated. The centerpiece of the sequence is the girl’s head crashing through a window in extreme slow motion, turning each breaking shard of glass into its own mini-symphony of violent excess.
We are then introduced to Jennifer, the 13-year-old daughter of a famous movie actor who is conveniently shooting a movie in Thailand and is completely unavailable. While sleepwalking one night, Jennifer winds up in the home of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), an entomologist who is assisting the local police in solving murders by using the fly larvae on decomposing remains to determine the time of death (“Or murder,” he adds ominously). Unlike everyone else, Professor McGregor is not bothered by Jennifer’s love of insects and is not threatened by her seeming ability to communicate with them. In fact, he encourages it, telling her to use them to help her track down the serial killer.
That brief plot summary certainly distills the major strands of the narrative into something seemingly coherent, but it doesn’t begin to hint at the film’s more bizarre detours. For one, Professor McGregor, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is assisted by a trained chimpanzee who will later wield a straight razor and become the film’s avenging angel. The story gets truly bizarre once Jennifer digs deep into the central mystery, and without giving too much away, I will note that at various points it involves a kidnapped police officer chained in a dungeon, a mutant child, a good character who turns out to be utterly deranged (and hysterically performed by otherwise accomplished actor), and what has to be one of the nastiest images in all of Argento’s films: a maggot-filled pool of decomposing body parts into which Jennifer is ingloriously dumped.
Phenomema constantly skirts the edge of being something unique and enthralling, but at each turn Argento turns up the volume a bit too loud or piles on just a bit too much, even for those who appreciate his elaborate excesses and don’t mind when it doesn’t always add up in the end. The twisting narrative certainly keeps your attention, but as the revelations start accumulating, you begin to get the sense that Argento and his cowriter Franco Ferrini are just throwing things at the wall and hoping they stick. The longer the film plays, the less internal cohesion it has, and by the time we get to its multiple climaxes, all the air has gone out and it just seems silly. It doesn’t help, either, that Argento matches the patchwork approach to narrative with his soundtrack, which mixes the expected electronic rock score by former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti and Rolling Stone Bill Wyman with sudden intrusions of abrasive heavy metal by Iron Maiden and Motorhead. One of the chief pleasures of Argento’s films is the way he melds music and image, but here it often feels discordant and forced, with the shrieking lyrics and screaming guitars drowning out the suspense.
Like most of Argento’s films, Phenomena was heavily cut for its U.S. theatrical release, this time with a full 25 minutes hacked out, followed by the indignity of its being re-monikered with the cheesy title Creepers. At the behest of the executives at New Line Cinema, the film’s U.S. distributor, Jack Sholder, who had just completed directorial work on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), was tasked with trying to pare down Argento’s brash mixture of horror, fantasy, and murder-mystery. He ultimately decided that the best thing to do was to leave as much of it as possible on the cutting room floor, which, of course, is the worst thing you can do to an Argento film, especially one like this in which the connection between the film’s two halves (Jennifer’s relationship with the natural world and the murder mystery) is already tenuous at best.
That Creepers is a disaster goes without saying. Argento’s longer version of the film is significantly better, yet it also stumbles and falls under the weight of his own idiosyncratic ambitions and wild tonal shifts. Yet, as much as it fails, Phenomena is never less than intriguing as it darts back and forth between abject violence and oddly serene spiritual contemplation. Of all of Argento’s films, this may be the most “peaceful,” even if Argento’s idea of tranquility is Jennifer standing in the middle of her boarding school, her hair inexplicably blowing, while repeating softly, “I love you, I love you all,” as a massive swarm of flies envelops the building.
|Phenomena Two-Disc 4K UHD Set
|This two-disc set includes three versions of the film: the 116-minute Italian cut, the 110-minute international cut, and the 83-minute U.S. cut.
|Hybrid English/Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround (Italian Version)Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround (Italian Version)Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo (Italian Version)English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround (International Version) English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo (International Version)English Alternate DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo (International Version) English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono (Creepers)English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 “stereo music version” (Creepers)
|Audio commentary by film scholar Troy Howarth (Italian Version)Audio commentary by Argento scholar and author Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist and radio/television commentator David Del Valle (International Version) Of Flies and Maggots (2017) documentary“The Three Sarcophagi” visual essay on the different versions by Arrow Films producer Michael Mackenzie “Jennifer” music video, directed by Dario ArgentoU.S. theatrical trailer and radio spots for CreepersOriginal Italian and international theatrical trailers
|March 14, 2023
|Synapse Films’ new two-disc set of Phenomena includes the same transfers that they released last year in their limited edition set. The 4K UHD (2160p) HDR10-compatible presentation of all three versions of the film on two discs—the 116-minute Italian Version, the 110-minute International Version, and the 83-minute U.S. version retitled Creepers—all look outstanding. The increased resolution and enhanced color palette make this presentation notably better than the many previous Blu-ray and DVD releases. The cinematography by Romano Albani (who previously worked with Argento on 1980’s Inferno) looks gorgeous, with rich primary colors, inky blacks, strong contrast, and a nuanced grain structure that looks great in motion. The texture of the film is consistent throughout, with the exception of the extreme slow-motion shot in the opening sequence (shot at 320 frames per second), which looks notably grainy, as it always has. As with so many Italian films that rely heavily on postproduction dubbing and are shot in multiple languages, the soundtrack for Phenomena has always been problematic, especially for the Italian Version, which has some lines of dialogue that exist only in Italian, making a complete English-language track impossible. Synapse’s disc includes a dizzying array of soundtrack options for the multiple versions, offering virtually every possibility imaginable. The International Version has lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks that have been mastered from the original 4-channel Dolby Stereo elements, as well as a rare alternate DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo mix that features different sound effects and music cues. The Italian Version includes Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 stereo soundtracks, also derived from the original 4-channel Dolby Stereo elements, as well as a recently created “hybrid” English/Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that is primarily in English except for the lines of dialogue for which no English-language track exists. The Creepers cut includes an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural and 2.0 “stereo music version” soundtracks that were mastered from the original 3-track DME magnetic mix.
All the supplements are the same that were included in the limited edition set. There are two audio commentaries: One by film historian and genre specialist Troy Howarth (Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento) on the Italian Version and one by Argento scholar and author Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist, and radio/television commentator David Del Valle on the International Version. The aptly titled Of Flies and Maggots (2017) is a comprehensive, two-hour retrospective documentary about the film’s production and reception that includes then-new interviews with director Dario Argento; actors Fiore Argento, Davide Marotta, Daria Nicolodi and Fiorenza Tessari; co-writer Franco Ferrini; cinematographer Romano Albani; production manager Angelo Jacono; special optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi; special makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti; makeup artist Pier Antonio Mecacci; underwater camera operator Gianlorenzo Battaglia; and composers Claudio Simonetti and Simon Boswell. Equally good is the 30-minute featurette “The Three Sarcophagi,” a visual essay in which Arrow Films producer Michael Mackenzie compares in detail the three different versions of Phenomena. He looks at differences both large and small, although the most intriguing part is when Mackenzie goes into minute detail about how he and his sound engineers reworked the English/Italian hybrid soundtrack to smooth out the audio shifts between the soundtracks, making for a newly seamless sonic experience. We also get a Dario-Argento directed music video for the song “Jennifer”; U.S., Italian, and international trailers; and radio spots for Creepers.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Synapse Films