Dario Argento is perhaps the biggest name in Italian arthouse horror, with dream-like tales of murder and eroticism, which confuse, horrify and titillate in equal measure. Due to his unique pacing and visual style, Argento's films have often been edited and changed to fit a more typical Hollywood narrative; his films have been edited and changed so many times that it becomes hard to have the "true" Argento experience. However, thanks to the people over at Arrow, one of Argento's most confounding and surreal films, Phenomena, comes to a limited edition Blu-ray with all three different edits on this three-disc set, so is this set worth picking up and which is the superior edit?
Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous actor is going to an exclusive boarding school for girls. However, there are a series of murders related to a strange serial killer and Jennifer discovers strange powers over insects.
So I am going to start off this review by plainly stating that I didn't really like Phenomena. This wasn't due to the version I watched; because I watched them all. I guess that the Italian practice of recording dialogue in post never really sits right with me, though you can watch the 110-minute cut and the 83-minute cut entirely in English and the 116-minute cut with minimal Italian dubbing. But that is merely a nit-pick with a technical choice by a national cinema.
It is very hard to review a film that has three distinct cuts all with different running times so I will comment on each cut regarding pacing. The 83-minute cut may feel like a more typical Hollywood horror/murder mystery, but because almost half an hour of footage was cut from this version, the film feels empty, flat and devoid of the one thing that would be appealing: its fantastical construction. However, the exact opposite problem is faced by the 116-minute cut and to a lesser extent the 110-minute cut. Both feel a little bloated with disparate parts that don't quite come together; the murder mystery, the bug bits, the twist reveal, the crime fighting entomologist and his monkey nurse and many, many more.
I can appreciate what Argento is trying to do with Phenomena. He presents a world that is constructed within the logic of a dream. I do have an appreciation for the surreal, Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, and Un Chien Andalou are two of my favourite films. But they are different to Phenomena in two major ways, one has just one simple thing that it is trying to explore while the other is just over 10 minutes long.
Maybe the problem that I have with the film wouldn't be so great if it wasn't for the painfully wooden and soap-operatic performance of Jennifer Connelly, as well as anyone else who wasn't Donald Pleasence, which put me off becoming invested in the characters and therefore the narrative. Jennifer acts like she is sleepwalking, muttering terrible dialogue in a dull monotone that feels like she is reading it for the first time. I can hear the criticism now, 'but Ben, that's the point, its a dream, so she should act like she is sleeping', well if that's the case then make it consistent. When she faces terrible situations, like a pit of rotting body parts and maggots, she screams, not reacting with the same bewildered look she has for anything else. I can also hear comments like 'English isn't Dario Argento's first language so ease up on the criticism of his dialogue'. Well, Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón won the best original screenplay BAFTA for Gravity and their first language is Mexican Spanish.
There are also some great landscape shots and the film drips with atmosphere and style. If this film was taken in separate elements I would say that I enjoyed them greatly, but when they were all put together I couldn't fully enjoy the film.
Phenomena is something I think that I will never get. It is a film that is meant for someone with a different taste to my own. Maybe one day I will watch it and enjoy it, but for now all I can say is that I didn't much care for it, but I can appreciate what it is trying to accomplish and respect that other people will enjoy this film.
Arrow have done a great job with all three discs. The films have a hybrid Italian and English soundtrack (depending on the cut of the film) that is presented in a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, that was transferred from the original four track Dolby Stereo Elements. Similarly, the visuals are rendered in 1080p from the original negatives, and there are no analogue errors that would occur due to the transfer. None of them contains any digital errors either in the video or in the audio. The switch to high definition has paid dividends to the film which has tons of small flying or creepy crawly things. The move to Blu-ray has enhanced the dream-like vision Argento has for this film.
The menus are also well constructed and easy to use. The amount of audio and subtitle options there are is a little confusing, but it just means you can watch the cut you want, with the language track you want. Overall, this is a great set mechanically, and there are no issues that would stop me from recommending Phenomena to Argento fans.
The discs are packed with extras that add so much to enhance the experience of the original movie and its many different variations. From commentary by a respected film scholar specialising in the Giallo genre Argento often operated in and trailers of Phenomena shown in Italy and England, to a half an hour video essay detailing the differences in the cuts, Arrow is aware of the type of person that will buy this set. In fact, if I actually liked the film I would have also picked up this set as a student of film history and the differences that come up in a movie's marketing and reception.
Overall, because I didn't like the film I can't really recommend the set. It is, however, a Dario Argento film, so if you are a fan of his work already then I would argue that this set is a must; all three cuts are available and means that you don't have to purchase three separate Blu-rays, and the extras also change the way you can experience the films. Alternatively, if you are a fan of meandering movies that operate upon dream logic, it is probably worth tracking down the 110-minute cut as to my mind it can be seen as trimming the fat (even if fractionally) of the 116-minute cut, and seeing whether you like Phenomena and deciding for yourself to purchase this set afterwards.