Michael Mackenzie has reviewed the R0 USA DVD of Phenomena, a bizzare 1984 supernatural thriller from Dario Argento, starring Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence.
On its release in the USA in 1985 by New Line Cinema, Phenomena was butchered by over 25 minutes and repackaged as “Creepers”. The result was a deeply dissatisfying film that I have not experienced, but by all accounts it is unsurprising that it was initially panned by critics and die-hard Dario Argento fans alike. This release by Anchor Bay is more or less complete, although a number of shots (usually only a few seconds in length) that do not have a major impact on the story are missing here and there. They are supposedly presented in their entirety on the Italian DVD release by Medusa and the German DVD by Dragon Entertainment. That said, the Anchor Bay version is supposedly Argento’s preferred cut.
A young Danish girl, Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento), gets lost while on holiday in the Swiss Alps. After looking for help at a seemingly deserted cottage, she is attacked by an unknown foe, who proceeds to chase her through the mountains before beheading her. This turns out to be just one of a number of similar attacks on young girls in the area. The police enlist the aid of wheelchair-bound scientist John McGregor (Donald Pleasance), who studies decomosition and insect activity on corpses. Meanwhile, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor, enrolls at an all girls’ boarding school in the same area. Jennifer is somewhat unusual. She sleepwalks, and can communicate telepathically with insects. These traits immediately make her fellow students distrust her and the headmistress brand her as “Beelzebub”, but one night, after sleepwalking and witnessing a brutal murder, she falls in with McGregor, who believes that Jennifer’s special relationship with insects can be used to track down the killer.
A huge hurdle for a lot of viewers will be overcoming the bizarre insects/telepathy concept. It makes little to no sense but is presented with complete sincerity. In many ways it is a fantasy concept placed into a realistic world. It’s difficult to know what to expect with Phenomena because it is impossible to pin it down into one genre. On the one hand, most of the usual giallo conventions are present, even down to the mysterious black-gloved killer, while on the other an attempt is made to evoke a surreal, otherworldly atmosphere. Most bizarre is the sleepwalking subplot, which is unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the film and never referred to again. While it adds to the feeling of mystery and fantasy, it seems as if it is simply included as an interesting means of allowing Jennifer to find out about the murders and meet McGregor.
Some nice casting is on display. A young Jennifer Connelly takes on the part of the lead, and although she has her ups and downs, a lot of this may be due to the fact that, at times, her character is written as a spoilt bitch. Donald Pleasance always lends an air of class, and he is quite successful as the older and wiser but disabled mentor to Jennifer. Daria Nicolodi is positively disturbing as governess Frau Brückner. It’s quite amusing to watch Argento give his then-girlfriend more and more thankless roles with each film, usually with more and more malicious death scenes. Fans will also be pleased to spot a young Fiore Argento (Dario Argento’s eldest daughter) in the role of Vera, the girl who gets butchered in the opening sequence. (Incidentally, after a lengthy sabbatical from acting, Fiore shows up in Argento’s latest film, 2004’s Il Cartaio.) There is also an extended cameo from frequent Argento collaborator and director of Dellamorte Dellamore, Michele Soavi, as a detective.
The interplay between the different characters is good, and Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasance make an entertaining team of amateur sleuths, and for once, the dubbing is actually pretty good, especially for Connelly and Pleasance, who almost definitely provided their own voices. The same can’t always be said for the dialogue. It’s not Argento’s worst, but it has more than its fair share of clumsy exposition and bizarre non-sequiturs.
The photography is breaktaking. It is, for the most part, completely natural, without Argento’s usual penchant for weird lighting. The entire film was shot on location in Switzerland, and Argento is often content just to show off the natural beauty of the scenery. The sound design adds a lot to the atmosphere too, with the wind blowing through branches and lengthy gaps of silence creating a false sense of serenity. For a film interspersed with bouts of extreme violence and disgusting close-ups of insects crawling over human remains, Phenomena is an incredibly tranquil film. The lengthy scenes showcasing the natural scenery, set to a slow, melodic score, make the sudden scenes of violence, often set to heavy metal music, all the more surprising and disconcerting. The murder set-pieces are not as ingenious as usual for an Argento film, but one can argue that, here, the violence is less important than the overall atmosphere.
Almost all of Argento’s films seem to have the presence of an unseen force of some kind. In Suspiria and Inferno, there was a continual feeling of a dark power watching the characters’ every movement. Here, the wind takes on a personality of its own. John McGregor says that the region’s wind, the Foehn, causes madness. This gives the sensation that the characters in the movie are merely the pawns of some kind of greater force. It gives the film a quirky, offbeat sensibility that makes it difficult to know what is going to happen next. The level of tension is at times stretched to breaking point – something Argento is always good at.
Dario Argento’s films are notoriously hard to get into, and as a result he is never going to win mainstream acceptance. Phenomena is nothing like as instantly gratifying as Suspiria or Opera, but it is an excellent piece of work and one that grows on you with subsequent viewings. It is an interesting combination of his supernatural and giallo aesthetics in a film that is never quite sure what it wants to be – this somewhat schizophrenic nature is one of the many things that makes it so endearing.
Useless trivia: the costume designer on Phenomena was Giorgio Armani.
Phenomena is presented non-anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. For what it is (NTSC, non-anamorphic, and one of Anchor Bay’s earlier releases), the results are pretty good. Detail is surprisingly high: it’s not great, but I could name a number of more recent transfers of less aged, higher budget films that look a good deal softer. It does fluctuate though, and some scenes are more clearly defined than others.
The black level is really good too, resulting in a rich, deep, film-like look. The colours are quite muted, with a tendency for cold blues and greys, but this is most likely a stylistic choice, at least partially. The trailer included on the DVD shows warmer colours, but they do the mood of the movie less justice than the cold scheme the film itself is given. Compression artifacts are a non-issue. This was Anchor Bay’s first ever dual-layer release, and Phenomena is given a healthy average bit rate of 7.85 Mbps.
This isn’t a perfect transfer. It is limited by the inherently lower resolution of a non-anamorphic, NTSC, widescreen presentation, and Anchor Bay’s releases of Suspiria, Profondo Rosso and Opera certainly put it to shame, but all things considered this is a satisfying presentation. Its ratio and lack of anamorphic enhancement is going to annoy viewers with widescreen TVs, though. There is just no satisfying way of presenting non-anamorphic 1.66:1 on a 16×9 display, so I ended up watching it on my PC monitor and smaller 4×3 TV instead.
Three audio mixes are provided: English Dolby Surround 2.0 at 192 Kbps, English Dolby Digital 5.1 at 384 Kbps, and (somewhat bafflingly) French Dolby Digital 1.0 at 128 Kbps. An Italian audio track would probably have made more sense than a French track, but having said that, the film was entirely shot in English (although, as usual, post-dubbed) – a first for Argento, who until Phenomena had shot his films in a variety of languages depending on the nationality of the actors.
Interestingly, the mono French track is by far the clearest, representing the music in a much crisper fashion than either of the English tracks. As was the case with Anchor Bay’s DVD releases of Inferno and Tenebre, there is very little noticeable difference between the 2.0 and 5.1 tracks. The 5.1 track sounds very slightly fuller, but quite honestly there is nothing substantial in favour of one over the other. Both provide a remarkably good amount of bass and depth, making for a reasonably satisfying experience, even if the dialogue sounds slightly soft and scratchy.
The menu strikes me as being extremely ugly, with an irritating buzzing theme (to represent insects, obviously) in the background. For some reason, it reminds me of those PC emulators for retro console games.
The packaging is up to scratch and is similar to the covers Anchor Bay was creating for their other Argento releases at the time. Inside the case is a double-sided card, one side featuring a reproduction of the original Italian theatrical poster, and the other side containing chapter stops and DVD production credits.
Trailer – Running at two and a half minutes, this trailer is quite interesting and a little odd. It gives you a vague idea of the plot, and doesn’t spoil too many of the kills (although it does show the impressive slow-motion “head through glass” death from near the beginning of the film). Its greatest strength is at the beginning, where it successfully manages to convey the sinister atmosphere present in the film itself. Presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio at 192 Kbps.
Commentary – This commentary features director Dario Argento, special make-up effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, composer Claudio Simonetti, and journalist Loris Curci. Curci acts as a moderator of sorts, asking the different participants various questions about the film. Argento, unfortunately, doesn’t speak English all that well, so he struggles to convey a lot of things. It would have been better if he could have spoken in Italian, and had subtitles for the commentary. The other three speakers have a much better grasp of English, particularly Curci, who almost sounds like a native speaker at times. The commentary is interesting but a little disjointed. It’s certainly an improvement on the one for Tenebre (the only other Argento film to include a director’s commentary).
Talent bios – Bios of Dario Argento, Claudio Simonetti, Bill Wyman, Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Di Lazzaro and Patrick Bauchau are included.
Behind-the-scenes – This making-of features visual effects man Luigi Cozzi discussing his involvement in the film and the types of camerawork used. Originally recorded in Italian, a lifeless narrator translates it into English, talking over the original audio. The fact that the narrator calls the film “Creepers” shows that this was intended to tie in with the bastardized North American release from New Line. There are also a few clips from the film and a decent amount of behind-the-scenes footage. About half-way through, it switches to a interview with Cozzi, this time thankfully subtitled. He shows some of the props used in the film. Presented in non-anamorphic 1.33:1 and 1.66:1, which appears to be sourced from VHS, with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio at 192 Kbps. It is nearly five minutes in length.
Simonetti music video – This music video is entitled “Jennifer”, and is composed by Simonetti and directed by Dario Argento. This is weird to the point of being unsettling, featuring Jennifer Connelly in a bathroom having various disturbing visions. At one point the camera even pans past a photo of Argento. Jennifer then runs all over the place, intercut with shots of Simonetti and a scary-looking woman. It gets weirder and weirder as it progresses. It runs for around four minutes and is presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio at 192 Kbps. Image quality is abysmal.
Wyman music video – Performed by Bill Wyman and directed by Michele Soavi, this is comprised mostly of behind-the-scenes footage, material from the film, and shots of a guy (presumably Wyman) playing with a guitar. This is the haunting music that plays over the opening credits. It runs for around four minutes and is presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio at 192 Kbps. Again, the image quality is very weak.
Dario Argento interview – A positive cringe-inducing interview made for American TV, in which the presenter, Joe Franklin, attempts to discuss Phenomena with Argento (which, of course, is referred to as “Creepers”). This is made all the more hilarious by the fact that Franklin hasn’t even seen the film he is attempting to discuss, plus the fact that Argento is visibly annoyed (probably by the cuts imposed on the film) but trying to remain polite. It runs for a painful nine minutes and is presented in poor quality non-anamorphic 1.33:1 with weak, muffled Dolby Digital 1.0 audio at 128 Kbps.
Phenomena is one of Argento’s most controversial films after Inferno and La Sindrome di Stendhal, and it is definitely in the “love it or hate it” category. Therefore, individual viewers are going to have to make up their own minds about it, but it is an essential part of any Argento fan’s library, and remains one of his most intriguing works. The DVD presentation is pretty good and will probably not be improved on any time soon, although it’s a shame that the video is not anamorphic.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum