Blu-ray Review: PHENOMENA (1985)
It’s a real shame when great horror films get shoddy releases. When Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s 1985 film PHENOMENA originally came out in the US, it was heavily cut and under the title CREEPERS. Not only were films like this cut for some of the more intense violent imagery but also for “boring plot” that American distributors, I guess, felt their viewers would not be interested in seeing. I’m all for a fun gore-filled popcorn flick, but there are some horror directors who also have things to say with their films; one of whom being Argento. Finally there was an uncut DVD release a while back restoring the 28 minutes (!) of previously unreleased footage but even that cannot compare with the jaw-dropping new Blu-ray from Arrow Video in the UK.
A young girl is sent alone to attend a Swiss boarding school by her famous movie star father. Young Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is not your normal girl though, she suffers from bouts of sleepwalking which might be a second personality trying to rear its head. Because of this other self, she has the ability to communicate with insects and quickly develops a relationship with local entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence). The bug man is called to help the police determine some insect involvement at a crime scene. Some of the young girls at Jennifer’s school have been murdered and along with McGregor, his helper chimp, and some bugs she sets out to solve the mystery behind it all.
While I love Argento I have not seen all of the man’s films; I've seen a great number of them, especially the older stuff, but not all. Before I watched this new Blu-rayPHENOMENA was completely new to me and all I knew about it was it starred a young Jennifer Connelly. I’m happy to report the film is a surprise of greatness. Over the years people have said that Argento has lost his once artistic and brilliant touch - I agree and say that there are single shots in his first film, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, that have more style and substance than the entire running time of MOTHER OF TEARS (one of his most recent films). This film exemplifies everything great with an early Argento film from the incredible soundtrack, to the intense atmosphere, to the almost operatic sequences of violence and so much more.
There are some things people well versed in Dario’s films will find familiar and comforting. From the beginning your ears are treated to the soothing sounds of a Goblin penned and performed score, which is enough to bring a smile to any horror fan’s face. This group is responsible for some of the most interesting and creepy accompaniment to Italian, and some other, horror films to date. Regular collaborators with Argento you no doubt have obsessed over the music from SUSPIRIA and DEEP RED (to name a couple) and this film is no different. Some themes sound a little more 80s romance/comedy than I’m used to hearing from the prog-rock outfit but the main theme is everything I love about them. Eerie passages of wandering synthesized notes highlighted by a shrieking soprano voice. Dario’s fascination with girls in boarding schools is in full effect here as is a signature shot of a victim, usually female, going face first through a window. Only here it does not stop there and adds a shining silver spike shoved through the back of her head and out her mouth! This is thanks to the amazing FX work of Sergio Stivaletti. If you think this is crazy and shocking, just wait until the last act where his work will really make a splash on you.
It’s kind of funny to see how young Connelly looks here compared to her leading role in LABYRINTH just a year later. You can also see her acting chops are not completely up to speed but she does a fine job as the sleepwalking bug whisperer. Pleasence was a very accomplished actor, who most probably know from HALLOWEEN as Dr. Loomis, but his role as the wheelchair bound Scotsman is a little humorous - not because of any necessarily bad acting on Donald’s part, but because the Scottish accent comes and goes quite often (guess it really didn’t matter in the original Italian audio track that would be dubbed over anyway).
Arrow’s new Blu-ray is beyond beautiful. It would be hard to tell that this film is over 25 years old if you did not already know - at least until some of the sweet fashions give it away. Cinematographer Romano Albani shot some breathtaking views of the Swiss countryside and they are now probably more beautiful then ever before. Very little grain of any kind, it looks like it could have been shot within the past few years. A couple of the animated insect flying FX shots are the exception, but there’s not much that can be done there.
On the bonus feature side of things, this disc feels a little lighter than some of their other releases, but what we do get is great quality stuff. Leading the pack is a 50-minute making-of doc called “Dario’s Monkey Business” featuring interviews with Argento, star Daria Nicolodi, make-up FX artist Stivaletti, underwater cameraman Gianlorenzo Battaglia and a few more. This shares some great insight and tales from the set about what it was like to work with thousands of flies and maggots - hint, it smelled like death. The secret to the shots of swarms of flies was nothing more than the scene being superimposed with film of coffee grounds being dumped into water. Very interesting. Goblin main man Claudio Simonetti discuses making some memorable tunes in the (too) brief “Music for Maggots” and “Creepers for Creatures” has just under twenty minutes of footage from Q&A’s with Stivaletti in Dublin and Glasgow. While all of these features are great I really wish there would have been some other fun things - especially a trailer. This is the biggest oversight, but at least you get four panels of stunning cover art choices, a double-sided poster of said art and a small booklet with an essay on the film by author of PROFONDO ARGENTO, Alan Jones.
Arrow Video beat everyone to the race on this release. No other high-definition version of PHENOMENA exists, and I don’t think anyone even has one on the horizon. Even if another is to come out here in the States you would be hard pressed to surpass the fantastic job done here. Import it now!