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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Phenomena
Phenomena
Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // May 27, 2008
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Cameron McGaughy | posted July 4, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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"Phenomena! Doo doo, doo doo doo! Phenomena! Doo doo doo doo! Phenomena! Doo doo, doo doo doo, da doo doo, da doo doo, da doo doo, da da doo doo doo doo doo!"
- Kermit the Frog, Sandra Bullock and those two pink Muppet thingies

The Movie
A daredevil chimp, a head-severing maniac, a crime-sniffing house fly, Jennifer Connelly. Hmm...one of these is not like the other. What else but the wacky mind of Dario Argento could be responsible? Phenomena is one of the Italian slash master's more oddball entries--and that's saying something, my friends. It stands out from his library of work for being beautifully (and unapologetically) bananas.

It's like the maestro put Carrie, Basket Case, The Exorcist, Monkey Shines (yeah, I know it came after), The Swarm and even his own Suspiria into a blender and lit 'er rip--but forgot to pit the lid on. How else to explain a film in which Connelly sexually arouses a beetle moments after it shoots spooge onto the face of Donald Pleasence? (Beetlejuice!) "That sound that you can hear is a mating call...you're exciting him, and he's doing his best to excite you!" "And to think we only just met!"

This film arrived three years after Tenebre, one of my Argento favorites, and for a long time was only available in North America as a highly edited VHS version (82 minutes from 110) renamed Creepers. Anchor Bay released the uncut version on DVD in 1999, and this release is the same save for two improvements: the widescreen transfer is anamorphic, and one 17-minute feature has been added in the extras.

Connelly appears in her second feature film--in an odd coincidence, her first (Once Upon a Time in America) was for another Italian legend. She was just 13 when filming this, long before she won an Oscar for one of the many acclaimed works in her more recent filmography. She is Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of an American movie star. The student arrives at a Swiss all-girls school in a mysterious area known as that country's Transylvania. It's a place where the ominous winds have been said to cause madness. That might explain the killer that's been dispatching of the town's young girls and trying to preserve their bodies.

The police have enlisted the help of bug expert John McGregor (Pleasence), who thinks insects may hold the key to the mystery. By calculating the growth of maggots and flies on the dead bodies, he can pinpoint the victims' time of death. And Jennifer has an odd connection with insects--a telepathy that enables her to summon answers of her own. She also gets visions (seen through insect eyes) of the victims, primarily during her bouts with sleepwalking.

It's a pretty neat skill, but it doesn't win her any friends at the spooky school, as her classmates and the headmistress are quickly convinced she's cuckoo. For fun, one mean girl even shoots her with a fire extinguisher (ouch!), while the headmistress (the imposing Dalila Di Lazzaro) wants to ship her off to the mental hospital: "She's not normal...she's diabolic! The bible also refers to the devil as Ba'al Zebûb, which means lord of the flies. Look at her--the lady of the flies!" And what's with that foreboding warning from the school's Frau Brückner (Argento regular Daria Nicolodi)? Seems the main building on campus is the only one the girls are allowed in--all the others are closed because they aren't safe: "Never go into them, ever!"

Mean Girls

Jennifer joins forces with the super-intelligent McGregor, a wheelchair-bound professor who is assisted by Inga, a super-intelligent chimp (Tanga, in her only role). The professor soon gives Jennifer a bloodhound to help in her sleuthing. No, not a dog...a super-intelligent sarcophagus (for dunces like me, it's a fly: "That fly is your magic wand!"). It seems that paranormal powers are natural in insects, so we now have a new crime-fighting team: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Fly! (thank you, thank you! I'll be performing all week, ladies and gentlemen!). Still with me? Did I mention there are lots of maggots here?

It's all sheer lunacy, and I love every second of it. If nothing else, Argento is always entertaining, and it says a lot that he can create suspense out of such absurd set-ups--like Jennifer's ride to the potential lair of the killer, with her seeing-eye fly ready to pounce. As always with the director, it's the visual style that sells the film, and he doesn't disappoint. It starts with a great opener, where a school girl (Argento's daughter Fiore) misses her ride and is stranded in the lush green countryside--a colorful sanctuary Argento soon smashes, toying with our perception of Switzerland as a haven.

The director provides plenty of jolts and beautiful scene compositions that keep you on your toes. And whether the influence is there or not, some of the sequences reminded me of films that came later, like Saw, The Blair Witch Project, The Descent and others.

Like many Argento films, logic can sometimes (okay, frequently) take a vacation. You may find yourself questioning the unexplainable actions and decisions by some of the characters, like Jennifer's roommate Sophie (who makes two really stupid decisions), some careless drivers (I'm still not sure what was going on there) and Frau Brückner, who has the most ridiculous over-reaction to a bee I've ever seen. And, uh...Jennifer? If you want to sneak out quietly, why did you put your loud shoes on? (And it took you that long to figure out you were in danger at the end?!)

Some other weird decisions will have you scratching your head: an ominous narrator talks to us when Jennifer first arrives at the school, never to be heard from again; and McGregor's frequent references to his Jennifer-like assistant Rita tempt us with an intriguing sub-plot that goes nowhere.

Argento continues his love with hard-hitting heavy metal music, a combination that doesn't work most of the time. The random songs (from Iron Maiden, among other bands) are jarring cacophonies, a mismatch of sight and sound. They often accompany scenes with a slower pace, giving us diametric forces that don't gel. (One of many scenes that suffer includes Jennifer trying to reach a phone.) I preferred the more subdued original score from the likes of Bill Wyman and Claudio Simonetti.

The whodunit aspect isn't really the point here; compared to a lot of Argento's other works, this one doesn't hinge so much on the mystery (you'll probably figure it out well in advance). This isn't one of his really bloody efforts, and the kills aren't excessively creative (you don't get too much weapon variety, with a spear knife the main method of mayhem). And while a few of the sequences at the end are a little clumsily choreographed by Argento standards, the film is just too crazy and random to not love.

Phenomena is an experiment, a movie mash-up of ideas and influences that revels in its sheer madness. And it's one of the few films with costume design by Giorgio Armani! How can you not be intrigued?! You have to see it, if nothing more than for the end. Lord, I love those last two loony minutes! Although you can guess the final punch line, actually seeing it will put a big smile on your face. Oh Dario, I love your demented mind!

The DVD

Video:
The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer. I don't have the 1999 (apparently non-anamorphic) release for comparison purposes, but this one looks okay. There's a lot of grain throughout, and a few scenes suffer more than others (one sequence during the opening kill--shot with a different technique--is in incredibly low quality). The film is sometimes very dark, and detail can suffer because of it. Even the colorful outdoor scenes have a somber quality to them. It could be better, but it could also be a lot worse.

Audio:
Three options await you: a 5.1 and 2.0 surround track, and a French mono option. If you aren't familiar with Argento films, you'll notice something a little off about some of the dialogue. Phenomena was shot in English and dubbed into Italian, although the non-English speaking talent apparently dubbed their own lines into English for the U.S. release. I still don't get it all myself, but the result is that outside of Connelly and Pleasence, a lot of the other actors look like they're dubbed, even though it actually looks like they are speaking English. For some actors it's not that noticeable, for others it is. It takes some getting used to, but this entry isn't nearly as off-putting as some of Argento's other U.S. DVD releases. The 5.1 track is pretty non-existent in the rear channels most of the time, coming to life only occasionally.

Extras:
The only new extra on this release is A Dark Fairy Tale (16:47), a collection of new interviews with Argento, Daria Nicolodi, co-writer Franco Ferrini ("Phenomena is really a fairy tale, a dark fairy tale"), special make-up effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, special optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi and Argentio's daughter Fiore. It's an entertaining collection of musings, all related through subtitles (everyone is far more comfortable speaking in their native Italian). Argento talks about his influence for the film, citing a story about investigators studying the behavior of insects at a crime scene. "It was a beautiful idea," he says, noting that he soon spoke to a French entomologist. "He explained everything about how the world of insects applies to the world of criminals."

The best material comes from Nicolodi, who was sent to America to cast the lead role and was met with resistance from some moralistic people (one woman threw the script in her face). She notes that Connelly's parents liked the scenes from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that she showed them ("I didn't show them any scenes from Deep Red," she says with a laugh). She and Argento have fond memories of Connelly: "I had a great passion for this truly beautiful face she had," Argento says. "Those eyes truly were like a vision for me." Nicolodi has another great story about one of the scenes, and also notes that Connelly had to be taken to the hospital for a chimp-related injury.

It's a shame Connelly couldn't be convinced to share her thoughts on the film--how great would that have been?! (Argento notes in the commentary that Connelly is "a good soul" who was great to work with, but they don't really know each other today). As a side note, I always remembered a comment that Winona Ryder gave many years ago, a slightly disparaging quote that called Connelly's acting into question (Connelly was considered for the lead in Heathers). My, how the tables have turned...

There's zero mention of Pleasence in the new feature, although Argento notes his admiration in the audio commentary ("A good friend of mine... a very good man."). "I think it's my most personal film," Argento says. "Today I think that it is the best film that I have made, that I have the fondest memory of." Everything else here was on the previous release: the audio commentary is led by journalist Loris Curci and has Argento, Stivaletti and composer Claudio Simonetti. All speak English (Argento seems the least comfortable) and share their thoughts on various parts of the production. Although it's a little choppy, it's an interesting listen.

Luigi Cozzi & The Art of Macrophotography (4:39) is old, low-quality footage (some translated by a narrator, some subtitled) of the special effects man talking about shooting the insects and trying to make them behave as actors. You get some rough clips of the Italian-dubbed version of the movie, which look a lot more annoying than the dubs in this version.

Up next is an oddity: Argento as a guest on a clip from The Joe Franklin Show (9:01), an American variety program. This was broadcast on August 29, 1985, and has the director interviewed by Franklin, who hammers home the Hitchcock comparisons. They are joined by another guest--David Copeland, an actor and stunt coordinator for soap operas ("soapdom's premier stuntman!")--who occasionally chimes in. As a source of information on the film, it's mostly useless. As a cheesy '80s time capsule, it's delicious. Argento isn't as comfortable speaking English, and isn't allowed to really develop his answers--although he does note that he's a vegetarian who loves animals, and of the film: "It's different, it's not only a horror movie...I like the beautiful in the darkness." It's all entertaining, especially with this hysterical exchange between the men flanking Argento: "What a nice face--right David?--to be a horror director!" "Absolutely! Looks like a sweet guy to me!"

Also included are two music videos of the film's stronger pieces: "Jennifer", composed by Simonetti and directed by Argento, includes original footage of Connelly; while Bill Wyman's "Valley" (directed by Argento underling and future director Michele Soavi) combines new and old footage. You also get the film's theatrical trailer and trailers for three other Anchor Bay releases, and a text bio of Argento that shares his inspirations ("I feel a great affinity with Poe; I understand his pain...for me Edgar Allen Poe is the origin of all horror") and notes that the poor critical reception to Phenomena caused him to focus on producing for a few years.

There are a few scenes from this film that have never been available on a Region 1 release, although none of them sound too crucial or interesting. This is regarded as Argento's "approved" cut.

Final Thoughts:
One of the most crazy, kooky entries from Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, Phenomena is a mash-up of ideas and influences that may not always make sense, but it sure is entertaining. This edition has two minor improvements from the 1999 release: an anamorphic transfer, and a pretty good 17-minute feature. If you don't have that one, get this. And depending on your level of Argento mania, it may be worth the upgrade. Everyone else should just sit back and enjoy the unabashed insanity of this visually striking oddity. Recommended.

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