Director : Dario Argento
Screenplay : Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1985
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)
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 super slow motion, turning each breaking shard of glass into its own mini-symphony of violent excess.
We are then introduced to Jennifer, who is 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 just happens to be 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 film 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 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 piling up, 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 air has gone out and it just seems silly. It doesn’t help, either, that Argento matches the patchwork approach to narrative in his soundtrack, which mixes the expected electronic rock score by the likes of former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti and Rolling Stone Bill Wyman with sudden intrusions of 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, with nearly half an hour hacked out, followed by the indignity of being remonikered with the cheesy title Creepers. I can imagine the U.S. distributor trying to make sense of Argento’s bold mixing of fantasy and murder-mystery and deciding that the best thing to do would be to leave as much of it as possible on the cutting room floor, which, of course, is the worse thing you could 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. 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: The Anchor Bay Collection DVD|
|Phenomena is available individually or as part of Anchor Bay’s “The Dario Argento” collection five-disc box set, which also includes Tenebrae,Do You Like Hitchcock?, The Card Player, and Trauma (SRP: $49.95).|
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|Release Date||May 27, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The big news here is that Phenomena is finally available in an anamorphic widescreen transfer to replace the previously available nonanamorphic disc. The 1.66:1 image is a notable improvement over the nonanamorphic transfer, with sharper detail, blacker blacks, and better color. The remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack adds some depth and space to the assaultive music score and adds directionality to some of the sound effects. It’s strange, though, that no Italian language track is included.|
|The supplements will be familiar to those who purchased Anchor Bay’s original 2001 DVD release. The audio commentary, which is moderated by journalist Loris Curei, features writer/director Dario Argento, special make-up effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, and composer Claudio Simonetti. Everyone in the commentary speaks English (some better than others, unfortunately), and it is generally focused and informative, especially since Curei is on hand to keep the participants on track by asking probing questions. There is also a pair of featurettes. “A Dark Fairy Tale,” which runs 17 minutes, is a solid retrospective that includes interviews with Argento, cowriter Franco Ferrini, cinematographer Romano Albani, effects artist Sergio Stivaletti (who conducts his interview sitting in front of a mock-up of a naked woman cut in half, natch), optical effects supervisor Luigi Cossi, and actresses Daria Nicolodi and Fiore Argento. There are some good stories to be told, especially the various methods used to wrangle all the insects and get them to do what the script needed. Interestingly, Argento claims that he thinks it is the best film he has ever made, which is the exact opposite feeling of most critics and fans. “Luigi Cozzi & the Art of Macrophotography” is a 4-minute featurette that, given the video quality, looks like it was made not long after the film’s release. It features a brief interview with Cozzi (dubbed into English), who is surrounded by props from the film, and lots of behind-the-scenes footage of the insects being filmed and the optical effects used to create the swarms of flies. Also included are nine minutes of excerpts from Argento’s rather awkward 1985 appearance on The Joe Franklin Show, the host of whom has clearly never seen an Argento film. Along with the original theatrical trailer (not the U.S. release trailer), there are also two music videos (neither of which were probably ever shown on MTV): one for Claudio Simonetti’s “Jennifer” (which stars Jennifer Connelly in new footage) and one for Bill Wyman’s “Valley.”|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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