Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasance, Daria Nicolodi
Distributed by Arrow Video
Dario Argento’s Phenomena likely needs no introduction to stalwart genre fans, having come crashing onto the scene amidst the peak of his mark on Italian cinema and diverting on a strangely fantastical, and risky, genre-melding approach for a director who until then had mastered mainly in clearly defined witchery and giallo-styled thrillers. The casting, in reaching further afield than Argento had previously dared with lead actress Jennifer Connelly and genre hero Donald Pleasance, would also hearken to the call of the US shores that beckoned his talent for future consumption, cementing Phenomena as a truly transitional piece of work for the filmmaker. Considering the current standing of Argento’s genre output with increasingly disillusioned fans, Arrow Video’s new UK Blu-ray offers a perfect shot-in-the-arm reminder of why we all loved Dario to begin with, and still continue to hold out hope.
The plot of Phenomena concerns the young Jennifer Corvino (Connelly), daughter of a famous movie star, who finds herself shipped off to a posh Swiss boarding school while her father works. Suffering from a sleepwalking disorder and possible split personality, Jennifer also discovers that she has the uncanny psychic ability to communicate with insects. While these unusual qualities make her a target for ridicule from fellow students, it also makes her an asset for entomologist John McGregor (Pleasance), who hopes to use her skills to track down and identify a vicious murderer who has been killing young girls near the school.
For the most part, Phenomena delivers similarly to Argento’s usual output: We have the black gloved killer, stylish murder scenes marked with pounding soundtracks and brutal, close-up violence, and the murder-mystery “whodunit” core narrative. The audience is thrown a few major curveballs, however, via plot devices such as Jennifer’s insect friends, the role played by the wheelchair bound McGregor’s chimpanzee aide, and the revelation of particularly monstrous killer. Everything finds itself ensconced in an almost buoyant, dreamlike and magical quality which begs that any idea of comprehension be left at the door. This ensures that, while the director’s work has never proven easily penetrable for the uninitiated, Phenomena’s bravery and sheer quirkiness make it an especially difficult one for first-timers, but a heck of a lot of fun for those appreciative of him at the top of his game. The final act begins with some prime Argento-style battling with the killer before segueing into something that not many will be prepared for, featuring swarms of killer flies, decapitation, and the most mental monkey wielding a straight-razor that you’ll ever see. It really is something to behold.
Dario does drop the ball on the odd occasion, mostly through some truly baffling use of 80s heavy metal tunes – for example as the backing to a rather sombrely-paced scene where a pivotal character’s body is being wheeled to an ambulance while a distraught Jennifer watches, though in the case of Phenomena it really just adds to the magnetic quirkiness of the whole affair. The rest of the soundtrack, in fact, stands amongst some of the finest work that long-time Argento collaborator Claudio Simonetti and his band Goblin have produced for the director’s films. The original music succeeds in adding another layer of ethereal magic that may have been absent without it and, in turn, elevates Phenomena to essential viewing for Argento’s existent fan base and those with some exposure looking to delve a little deeper.
Never to be accused of skimping on effort when it comes to the special features, Arrow’s new Blu-ray release of Phenomena comes sporting a four-panel reversible sleeve from which you can decide on your choice of original and new artwork to display, a fold-out poster, and an exclusive collector’s booklet with input from long-time Argento expert Alan Jones. These were unfortunately not included in the review pack, but let’s just say that knowing the quality of Arrow’s usual physical inclusions, and the quality of Jones’ work (no, we’re not related!), these will definitely be worth getting your hands on.
In terms of video extras, we have Music for Maggots, a 6-minute long talk with Claudio Simonetti regarding scoring Phenomena. In truth, it’s not a particularly satisfying piece as the composer seems rather reluctant to say too much about the film itself and doesn’t go into a whole lot of detail as to the reasons behind scoring certain scenes in certain ways. Unlike the score itself, it’s very empty and unexciting. Next up is Creepers for Creatures, which follows effects maestro Sergio Stivaletti across audience Q&As at various festivals. This one’s more interesting than the musical featurette, as Stivaletti does go into some greater detail with reference to visual effects and his career in general.
Finally, a brand new 50-minute documentary entitled Dario’s Monkey Business rounds out the package. This one is excellent with input from Dario himself, Luigi Cozzi, underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, Sergio Stivaletti and co-star (and Dario’s ex wife) Daria Nicolodi. There’s lots of meat here and a particularly candid attitude – especially from Nicolodi, who shows no fear of discussing her feelings about the film, Dario’s career, and her relationship with the director at the time. The lack of a feature commentary is disappointing, as is the lack of input from Connelly – though one assumes this is likely a film that she would be reluctant to take time from her now burgeoning Hollywood career to discuss in any depth.
Visually, the high definition presentation is excellent, sporting the complete Italian cut of the film (as opposed to the shortened US version, which was entitled Creepers), along with English and Italian audio. At some points, the film drops to Italian with subtitles, as an English track was either never recorded or lost to time, for those particular scenes/shots. Quite possibly the most complete cut you’ll ever get. The quality of the transfer itself is never in question, busting out a surprising amount of stability and solid colour displays. Some scenes appear quite grainy, but despite this the picture refuses to soften or lose too much detail. It’s the best you’re likely to have ever seen this film and leaves it, like the film’s title, just short of Phenomenal.
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5