Phenomena Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
The young Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is sent to a private Swiss academy for girls where a vicious killer is on the loose, brutally murdering students. Jennifer is a “gifted” girl with the strange ability to communicate with insects and Dr. McGregor (Donald Pleasence) enlists her to help locate the killer. Jennifer finds herself in a bizarre murder plot with maggots, mutants, and razor-wielding chimpanzee mayhem! Can she uncover the killer’s identity before becoming a victim herself? (From Synapse’s official synopsis)
Dario Argento often cites Phenomena (aka: Creepers, 1985) as his favorite and most personal motion picture, despite it being generally disliked by even his biggest fans and critical champions, at least upon release. It followed Tenebrae (aka:Tenebre and Unsane, 1982), a film that marked a major shift in Argento’s relationship with his own movies. Tenebrae was born out of the frustration, when the director’s second supernatural-based feature, Inferno (1980), proved a difficult production, was met with critical indifference, and was a box office disappointment. It took his tried, true, and very popular gialli model and turned it on its head as a brutal, often ironic satire of his work, his fanbase, his critics, and even his own personal life. It was the Argento giallo to end all Argento gialli. Then, it was also a hit, which left him in a less vulnerable situation and, presumably, open to further experimentation with supernatural hijinks. However, unlike Suspiria (1977) and Inferno, Phenomena still holds tight to his established gialli mold on a basic plot level.
The Argento mold usually incorporates an artist type protagonist (writer, puzzle-maker, musician, et cetera), who witnesses a murder/attempted murder while visiting a foreign country. Intrigued, they mount an amateur investigation – often with the help of a new friend (sometimes a love interest) – and are targeted by the killer when they get too close to the truth. In addition to these established thriller motifs, Argento incorporates elements from his supernatural horror movies into Phenomena’s already jam-packed, wackadoo screenplay, including Suspiria’s girls’ dormitory location/culture and Inferno’s sentient and vengeful animals.
Common sense might dictate that Argento was (and is) too obsessed with certain ideas to move on to other things, but the larger story behind the screenplay may indicate that he was also overly invested in one of the story’s seemingly incidental plot devices – that insects can be used by law enforcement to date time of death and ultimately solve murders – yet he couldn’t quite find a way to adapt it into a horror/thriller context. During an interview with author/Argento biographer Alan Jones (seen in Profondo Argento, FAB Press, 2004), co-writer Franco Ferrini claims that the director randomly heard about crime-solving bugs on Italian radio, immediately ordered a book on the subject from a French entomologist, and proceeded to “locked himself away until he had read every page, because he was convinced that the concept for his next film lay somewhere between the covers.”
Not content to hem himself (and Ferrini) in with such a specific plot device, Argento was also determined to build his story around future Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, who was only 14 at the time, and the Swiss locations he had fallen in love with. So how, then, does one incorporate a high school-aged girl into a Swiss-set movie about crime-solving bugs that still needs to please a Horror Master’s vehement fanbase (Argento was riding high on a wave superstar celebrity status in Italy and investing a lot of his time co-writing and producing movies for his directing apprentices)? If you’re Dario Argento, you recycle story assets. You stick the teenage girl in a Suspiria-style boarding school in a foreign country (a caveat that ensures much of the student body is, as in the case of Suspiria, mostly Italian, rather than from the country where the film takes place), you team her up with an entomologist who has mounted an amateur investigation into a local serial killer, and you establish her psychic bond with insects to ensure that the language-free critters are able to communicate their findings.
In the end, Phenomena is short on sense or logic, but Argento’s blind eye to this insanity and his lack of supervision (Ferrini admits he found it almost impossible to tell his idol that any of his ideas were bad) endows it with a ridiculous charm that could endear it even to the director’s detractors. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) the killer is a mutated dwarf or that the entomologist is an invalid who is cared for by a vindictive helper chimp (/SPOILER ALERT) – each aspects that could carry an entire exploitation film under normal circumstances. This is filmmaker id at its purest and, because it was made before the depressing, Italian-horror-industry-killing 1990s, Phenomena is also gorgeously rendered. This beauty is usually what fans will tout as the film’s greatest asset and the reason non-fans need to see it (I’ve done the same myself over the years), but nice photography and creative violence come part and parcel with Argento. The real value here is found in his untethered, sometimes positively daffy creative choices, not with clever themes or cinematic innovation. This may sound suspiciously like I’m recommending Phenomena on the same so-bad-it’s-good basis as a Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragasso movie, but those films are amusing in their laziness. Phenomena is outrageously ambitious and the weird story behind that ambition only adds to its quality.
Phenomena DVDs & Blu-rays have grown into their own cottage industry. To understand why, you must first understand the difference between the three most common cuts of the film (though regional censorship dictates that there are probably several dozen cuts out there). Argento’s director’s cut ran 110 minutes, but American distributor New Line Cinema decided that was too long for Eurohorror nonsense and hacked out a whopping 28 minutes. They also changed the title to Creepers, based the advertising around the accompanying heavy metal soundtrack, and circulated it on VHS via Media Home Entertainment. The already abstract film was rendered completely incoherent and subject to a number of jarring jump cuts. In the pre-DVD days, stateside fans (or at least those without access to bootleg dupes of the Japanese Laserdisc) long assumed that most of the cuts were made to secure an R-rating and [i]Phenomena[/i] was some kind of incredible bloodbath, but, when Anchor Bay finally loosed the 110-minute edit on VHS & DVD, they discovered that the majority of deleted scenes related to its plot. Meanwhile, a 116 minute edit was cobbled together from rediscovered deleted scenes and dubbed the ‘Integral Cut.’ For a long time, this version was only available from German, Japanese, and Italian DVDs (give or take a few seconds), but every single Blu-ray version since, including this one, has included it in some capacity.
Synapse’s collection – which is the same as their Limited Edition set, minus the CD soundtrack and steelbook packaging – includes all three cuts, including the first availability of the Integral Cut in the US and the first HD availability of the Creepers cut anywhere. The 1.66:1, 1080p transfer they’ve used as the basis for all three cuts appears to be identical to the one seen on Arrow’s 2011 UK BD (not the recent 4K restoration), XT Video’s Austrian BD, and, I assume (without seeing it), Ascot Elite’s German BD (it also popped up on Amazon Prime streaming for a time). Normally, a shared, older HD scan would be cause for alarm (not to mention that Synapse tends to do a great job when they have the means to restore movies from the ground up), but this is not a typically noisy, fuzzy Italian-born transfer. The image quality is clean – especially compared to the DVD copies that most North American fans have been limited to – with only minor telecine noise, strong black levels, and neatly rendered details. The cooled, largely blue and lavender palette is consistent and more or less matches all versions of the film I’ve seen since the Creepers VHS, so I assume they’re accurate to cinematographer Romano Albani’s vision for the film (they also match the Italian advertising campaign). Improvements could be made to sharpness and dynamic range, which would help deepen gradations and harden lines without the occasional haloes seen in the wide-angle textures.
Synapse has prepared a litany of uncompressed audio options for this release. These include original 2.0 stereo English dubs for the director’s and Creepers cuts, original 2.0 stereo Italian dubs for the director’s and integral cuts, a hybrid English/Italian 2.0 stereo track for the integral cut (the language switches briefly to Italian anytime there is a scene for which no English dubbing was done), and a alternate English 2.0 dub for the director’s cut that includes slightly different sound effects and music cues. All of the tracks are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio and, as is usually the case for Italian releases from the era, all tracks are technically dubbed, since scenes were shot without on-set audio. I prefer the English and composite tracks, myself, because of the better music/effects/dialogue balance and because Connolly dubs herself. The Italian tracks do have some minor advantages when it comes to total range, however.
The musical soundtrack is sometimes credited to Goblin, but only keyboardist Claudio Simonetti contributed any new themes. This mislabeling is probably due to the fact that the absolutely fantastic main theme is often included on Goblin compilation albums and played by the band in concert. The other original themes were composed by former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and composer Simon Boswell, and the soundtrack also included previously released metal/rock tracks from Iron Maiden, Andi Sex Gang, Motörhead, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. I can conjure a million reasons as to why Argento’s script is so weird, but God only knows how he managed to mishandling heavy metal music. Phenomena was the first of three of his movies that utilized established metal acts – followed by Demons (Italian: Demoni, 1985; co-written/produced by Argento, directed by Lamberto Bava) and Opera (aka: Terror at the Opera, 1987) – and he didn’t seem to really understand the appeal of such music just yet. Still, it adds something extra to the very ‘80s aural texture of the film and sounds good in uncompressed DTS-HD MA.
Commentary track with Derek Botelho and David Del Valle (110-minute director’s cut) – The author of The Argento Syndrome (BearManor Media, 2014), Botelho, and film historian/TV & radio host/writer/general Hollywood gadabout Del Valle discuss every nook and cranny of the film, Argento’s larger career, and the other movies that inspired and were inspired by Phenomena.
Dario Argento's World of Horror (76:00, HD) – This was the first feature documentary about the director and was the first lead director credit for future Cemetery Man’s Michele Soavi. It had been previously released on US VHS by Vidmark, Laserdisc by Elite, and solo DVD by Synapse, but was never available in HD. The subject matter covers the director’s career up until that point (1985), including significant behind-the-scenes footage from Tenebrae and Phenomena.
Interview with Andi Sex Gang
Phenomena international trailer and Creepers trailer & radio spots
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.