1985, Italy, Directed by Dario Argento
Colour, Running Time: 115 minutes
Review Source: Blu-ray, Region B, Arrow; Image: 1080p 24fps 1.66:1, Audio: LPCM Stereo
(Review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Taking a side step away from the style of story mechanics that Argento is more accustomed to, Phenomena introduces elements of supernatural influence and fairy tales to what would otherwise have been the very conventional reiteration of a killer on the loose. Jennifer (Connelly) is a young girl moving into a boarding school in the vicinity of a recent horrific killing. She is the sensitive type, communicating psychically as she does with insects, sleep walking whilst vividly dreaming, and generally being at odds with the schoolmates who eventually ostracise her for her differences. Her friendship with the town’s resident entomologist (a Scottish Donald Pleasance…) leads Jennifer to use her connection with insects to get closer to the facts of the killing, thereby hopefully discovering who the killer is.
The film has a generally slow pace to it and killings, if you’re expecting this after viewing some of Argento’s other work, are infrequent but still violent and extravagantly staged. The details of the plot lack plausibility but I guess you wouldn’t expect too much else from the writers (i.e. Argento and Franco Ferrini) if you have already seen Demons, Opera, etc. The whole story is told carefully with various characters having relevance that leads indirectly to who the killer actually is. It is also peppered with foreshadowing specifics that hold weight further down the line (for example, the entomologist demonstrating to the chimp that a switchblade knife is dangerous). The finale goes a little overboard in its attempts to surprise the audience in my opinion but the journey arriving at that point is a satisfactory one. In particular for me are the sequences located in the mountainside - tangibly atmospheric and having a tendency to tingle the flesh. The opening seven minutes - in which a girl misses the bus and, not really knowing what to do, goes wandering off along the windy fields to her demise - is one of my favourite Argento sequences. Special mention must go to the soundtrack here (in part composed by Goblin), frequently embellishing the footage with a strong emotional core, although I don’t think the use of Iron Maiden’s Flash of the Blade is necessarily the best option here, despite being a fan of Maiden’s 80s material myself. Dario was caught up in the idea of utilising metal tracks with some of his 80s films, seemingly as a means to simply make them more culturally relevant rather than because it was best for the movie (Demons excluded). Having said that, Motörhead’s Locomotive (from the No Remorse album that followed the near breakdown of the band) truly kicks ass in any context. Phenomena feels a little different when considered alongside Argento’s other movies, but analysis and repeat viewings are kind to your opinion of this film - it’s a good experience, especially when one thinks about the disappointing output of the director from the late 90s onwards.
General opinion of the film was not helped by the fact that it was butchered at the hands of its distribution company for the original theatrical and video runs - half an hour (!) was removed before it was released at the time as Creepers (this was in turn then cut by a further 6 to 17 seconds for film/video respectively in the UK by the BBFC). The longer version has since been released a couple of times on DVD by Anchor Bay in the US, as well as by Medusa in Europe, and a substandard (but at least longer cut) Divid2000 disc appeared over here in the UK. Watching Phenomena in HD (the full version, now completely uncut) is particularly rewarding - the photography of the Swiss mountains is stunning and this is most notably apparent on Arrow’s Blu-ray. Thankfully Arrow have commandeered an exemplary transfer that looks natural, thoroughly stable, and very detailed throughout; quite beautiful to behold in fact. Where some viewers may not appreciate this is in the periodic macro shots of insects and maggots - if you’re interested in seeing the individual hairs of a fly’s mouth then it’s all here! And the cesspool that Jennifer falls into towards the end of the film has never been more repulsive than it is in this resolution - truly stomach churning. Audio is thoughtfully supplied in two tracks - English (with a few seconds of Italian/German where scenes weren’t entirely dubbed in English) and Italian, both uncompressed stereo. English subtitles are of course provided. The score sounds particularly powerful, whereas some of the dialogue varies in quality and often sound effects are clearly still living in the decade they were created - a faithful audio representation nonetheless. Also included is a 52 minute making-of documentary, a short interview with the highly talented Claudio Simonetti (co-founding member of Goblin), plus a 19 minute Q&A session with Sergio Stivaletti, who was involved with the special make-up effects on the film before embarking on a notable career that has involved him with a number of acknowledged productions over the years (note, he also recorded a brief introduction for this disc that plays before the film begins). Arrow also include a reversible disc-case sleeve granting you four front cover options, and a two-sided poster, all within a cardboard slipcase. This is a highly commendable package for a movie that’s better than it was once thought of.