By the time Phenomena was released in 1985, Argento had demonstrated an impressive breadth of ability straddling the borders of different subgenres. He had delivered a surprisingly engaging murder drama in his remarkable debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, some bloody shock giallo in his masterpiece Deep Red, a slab of truly unnerving supernatural violence in the successful Suspiria, and a rich explosion of brutality in the disturbing Tenebrae. The horror sphere was enjoying a renewed lease of life in the mid-eighties, and as such it’s little surprise that Argento’s 1985 addition to the genre has something of the supernatural bent of Suspiria, though interestingly the colourful mix of other back catalogue influences seems to suggest that the director was at something of a crossroads in his career. Indeed, some would argue that Phenomena marked the beginning of a decline, though later moments such as the oddly enjoyable The Black Cat, and brutal yet exhilarating The Stendhal Syndrome would highlight the inherent talent of the Italian supremo.
The result of this melting pot of self-referential historical material amongst some newfound tricks is an odd experience; the imagination, creative filming, and ability to shock and disgust is here in abundance, and hardcore Argento fans are rarely disappointed by the contents. Yet it’s difficult to sanction an unequivocal green light for the movie where the warmly welcomed innovation and creativity sits starkly alongside some questionable performances, lukewarm scripting, bizarre location choices, unconventional soundtrack selections, some regrettable special effects, and meandering plot.
Strangely, it’s the young Jennifer Connelly who carries the strongest performance in the unfolding horror, and despite having to interact with some below par counterparts, she ensures proceedings retain a level of credibility amongst the insanity of the storyline. Donald Pleasence, as the wheelchair-bound entomologist Professor helping Jennifer to track down the brutal murderer, is another shining light amongst the cast, and edgy Daria Nicolodi (who was wonderful in Deep Red) plays an important role in the film with suitable conviction and quality.
The crux of Phenomena is Jennifer’s ability to interact with insects, and it’s this entomological equivalent of Dr Dolittle that perhaps unsettles the balance of the movie the most. Whilst the idea in itself may be credible in a picture that thrives upon the fantastic, the manifestation of this connection is often through the medium of thoroughly unconvincing special effects, which shatters, temporarily at least, the suspension of reality previously amassed. The bizarre moment where the firefly leads Jennifer to some evidence is particularly artificial, and a less ambitious approach to the insect elements of the picture would almost certainly have been a more sensible option. That said, some of the more visceral and brutal scenes are handled with impressive gusto.
The other issue is the assembled musical choices. It’s rare to hear such an incongruous collection of eclectic audio, and this aural backdrop further undermines the credibility of the visuals. Whilst Iron Maiden and Motorhead tracks would under many circumstances be welcome additions to a movie, here they pierce the bubble of horror and contribute a strange, misaligned pacing to the moments of tension. Claudio Simonetti’s soundtrack adds some gothic atmospherics, yet even his segments seem wide of the intended target, and a shadow of the thrilling output Goblin contributed to Suspiria and Deep Red.
For all of the absurdity of the ill-advised fantasy effects and incongruous music, when it comes to creative, stomach churning, exhilarating horror, Argento delivers. After some intriguingly bizarre dream sequences and giallo-style murders, the movie eventually accelerates towards a conclusion that is gripping, tense, repulsive, horrific, and utterly satisfying. The disparate threads are woven together, events combine to overwhelm us, and the mistakes of the earlier scenes are, by and large, forgotten.
Phenomena is Argento's bizarre, demented, eighties fairytale horror. It's flawed on multiple levels, yet for all of its difficulties, it engages throughout, and the shocking climax provides rich reward for your patience during what is an often crazed, uneven, though enjoyable horror journey.
Phenomena is another entry in a long line of Arrow Films releases, focusing on horror classics and the better quality nasties. Beware that when you pop the disc in your drive, you'll be faced with an Arrow Films promotional trailer proudly announcing the uncut nature of their releases. You have been warned!
There's no doubt that this is a high quality transfer of a film which has shown its age on earlier releases. Presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and using the high definition mode 1080p, the end product benefits from tight definition and accuracy. Despite the slightly odd horror location choice of Switzerland, the opening scenes look glorious, with the rich green swathes of forest being rendered with an impressive depth of colour, given the age of Argento's movie.
There are some anomalies to note, yet I view these with some sympathy given that such good work has been applied to the transfer. Some moments are conspicuous by the fact that they do not appear to have been treated in any way, such as the moment where poor Fiore meets her end at the window over the waterfall. The picture suddenly becomes heavily grained, in contrast to the smooth rendering of the surrounding scenes, yet strangely it doesn't interfere with the end result.
The MPEG-4 AVC encoding appears to have done its job well, though the disc size is fairly hefty at a total of 44.7Gb, with the movie itself constituting 32.7Gb of that total.
I'm unsure if the packaging will be the cover I've pictured, or the cover shown on the DVD edition of the movie; the menu backdrops are certainly taken from the latter.
There are English subtitles available.
Audio is available in English and Italian stereo. Whilst the reproduction of the audio is clean and free of distortion, the source material results in a delivery that is strong on middle, but lacks defined bass and clarity of treble. The finished product is still enjoyable enough and doesn't disturb the picture unnecessarily, and some of the delivered sounds are absorbing (such as the rushing of the waterfall during Argento's daughter Fiore's demise early in the picture), but some extra impact through punchier bass and precise treble would be welcomed.
You may notice that on some occasions the characters switch to Italian dialogue (subtitled in English). This isn't an Argento trick to unsettle the viewer, but rather a consequence of lost audio, and some audio which was never recorded in English.
Arrow Films deserve recognition for a healthy quotient of extras that don't feature pointless or recycled footage from other sources.
First up is a 52 minute featurette, Dario Argento's Monkey Business: The Making of Phenomena, where various individuals surrounding the film, including the man himself, discuss aspects of the production, and also touch upon connected interests in other Argento products.
Perhaps most revealing of all is Daria Nicolodi, a former wife of Argento (and star of a number of his films) who speaks candidly about featuring in his movies, and her marriage to the difficult yet talented man.
Music for Maggots: Claudio Simonetti Remembers Phenomena is the disappointing segment out of the three. It runs for 6 minutes, and Simonetti discusses his input into the music behind the movie. Whilst it's interesting to hear Simonetti's comments, the piece doesn't contribute much to our understanding of the film and its production.
The final extra is an 18 minute 54 second segment entitled Creepers and Creatures: Sergio Stivaletti Live Q&A Sessions, where special effects guy Sergio Stivaletti answers questions at an Irish film festival. It's a welcome addition to the provision of extras, and there are plenty of cuts from Argento's and Stivaletti's films to accompany the verbiage. Amusingly, some of the questions from the Irish audience are translated in the subtitles! Despite struggling with some aspects of the language, Stivaletti works hard to answer the questions put his way.
Argento's Phenomena is a mixed bag of eighties-tinged fantasy horror. Whilst suffering from a confusing choice of audio, some questionable effects (alongside some strong examples), and a variance in quality of performances, there's no denying the gusto with which the horror elements are delivered. With a good quality visual transfer and a generous allocation of engaging extras, Argento fans should be pleased to add this Arrow Films release of Phenomena to their collection.