Open on an idyllic Swiss mountain landscape — a tourist bus pulls up to collect its load of excited, babbling passengers, then disappears down an otherwise empty road. But ... someone has been left behind, a young woman. Waving and shouting frantically, she tries to catch the attention of one of her fellow passengers, but to no avail. Tentatively, she makes her way down a hill, following the winding trail against a backdrop of snow capped mountains. Eventually she comes across a small, cozy looking house in the forest. She knocks and calls out for assistance, but there is no reply.
Something though, is watching her ... something malevolent, struggling against its bonds until, finally, the bolts in the wall that tether it's chains give way.
Meanwhile, the girl finds an unlocked door and slowly ventures inside...
So begins PHENOMENA, the ninth film from Italy's master of horror, Dario Argento. One of his most messily playful films, PHENOMENA combines elements of gialli with the more supernatural terrors of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. The result is either Argento's most creative film or a self indulgent mess, depending on where you stand. But one thing seems certain — there is rarely a dull moment in this bizarre, magical realist/gothic horror hybrid.
After the beautifully shot opening sequence (predictably enough, the young tourist girl meets a grizzly end!), we meet Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), daughter to a famous movie star and on her way, under the supervision of Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi) to an exclusive Swiss Academe - The Richard Wagner School For Girls. The parallels here with the opening of SUSPIRIA are obvious to any Argento fan; we even get a narrator who, after one line, is never heard from again. Here though, the beautiful colours and dark fairy tale atmosphere of that previous film are replaced by a naturalistic, sometimes muted colour palette, which often seems to play against the gothic horror elements in the story. Goblin's wonderful score for SUSPIRIA also helped create a consistent mood, whereas Argento has chosen to use a long and varied list of musical collaborators — from Simonetti to Iron Maiden - for PHENOMENA. The result, often makes some portions of the film come over like a compendium of eighties rock videos, and has led to the accusations of self indulgence mentioned earlier.
After arriving at the school, Jennifer quickly finds herself an outcast — victimised by the other pupils and even the strict headmistress (Dalila Di Lassaro). She also discovers that the school's girls are living in fear of a maniac ... and on her first night, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses the murder of one of them. Waking up confused and disorientated, she stumbles on the laboratory of professor John McGregor, an entomologist, and his companion, a chimpanzee called Inga (are you still following?). When McGregor discovers that Jennifer has a telepathic link with insects (!?), which she can summon at will, he decides to help her find the murderer using the great Sarcophagus fly (which feeds on human remains) to led her to his lair.
Argento and his co-writer, Franco Ferrini, seem to have thrown every idea they can think of in to the mix but, perhaps surprisingly it pretty much works! We get a razor wielding chimpanzee, a deformed demon child with a spear and plenty of other macabre shocks along the way. The downside, if you care about such things, is that the viewer only has a sketchy idea what's going on a lot of the time. Even at the end of the film, I was still trying to put some of the pieces together, and to tell you the truth, I'm still not completely sure what was going on!
If you’re looking for the dark lyricism of PROFONDO ROSSO or INFERNO you probably won't find it here; if, however you’re looking for an entertaining, stylish Italian take on the slasher and Gothic horror genres, then PHENOMENA is for you! This is Argento having fun ... and even the master of horror is entitled to a bit of fun now and again!
This was one of Anchor Bay's earliest Argento releases, and so it's nowhere near the quality of their recent SUSPIRIA and OPERA discs. The image is not anamorphic, but otherwise the print looks fine apart from some occasional graininess. The audio quality is adequate but again, after the near perfection Anchor Bay have achieved recently, one can't help hoping that they revisit both PHENOMENA and TENEBRE in the future and give them the same treatment as some of the other discs in their Dario Argento Collection.
On the extras front we get two music video's: one directed by Michele Soavi for Bill Wyman, and another directed by Argento for Simonetti. There is also a tv interview for 'The Joe Franklin Show' which is entertaining, if only because of its toe curling nature. You have to feel sorry for Argento as he tries to explain PHENOMENA to the bewildered host! The main extra here is a commentary from Argento; make-up artist Stivaletti, Simonetti and journalist Loris Curci which gives some insight into the production.