A curious amalgamation of mid-eighties rock video aesthetics -- which have dated the film rather more severely than most of the director’s preceding works – and outlandish, fantastical fairy tale elements, “Phenomena” is allegedly Tim Burton’s favourite Dario Argento film (according to co-writer Franco Ferrini, as quoted by Alan Jones in his book Profondo Argento). Whether this is true or not one can see how the idea might have taken hold. The film deals overtly in themes of Gothic-tinged romance, primarily taking place in a secluded but magical natural landscape in Zurich, Switzerland -- and features a teenage Jennifer Connelly as the Snow White-pure precursor to Wynona Ryder’s similarly guilt-ridden and excluded outsider character from “Edward Scissorhands”. A daft murder mystery plot, built around a displaced innocent with emotional problems who psychically communicates with insects, lends it some similarity with other mainstream works that would have been more familiar to audiences than Argento’s own at the time. For instance, the film’s central character, Jennifer Corvino, is comparable to the character Carrie from Stephen King’s titular novel and Brian De Palma’s subsequent film adaptation.
While it still plays host to the elements and motifs of Argento’s trademark giallo structure, the inimitably Italian mystery sub-genre with which the director made his name is rapidly sidelined in the name of mainstream fantasy showboating and an all-pervasive, flashy ‘80s surface gloss that makes the film feel much less personal than the director’s previous dealings with supernatural themes in “Suspiria” and “Inferno” -- both of which were stylish, dark and lyrical; although it has to be said, the man himself seems to feel differently. “Phenomena” is illuminated throughout with ice cool, blue-white fibre optic lighting, and dressed in sleek Giorgio Armani fashions that often detract with their clinical artifice from the fantastical nature of the proceedings outlined in Ferrini and Argento’s eternally restless and erratic plot. The gory horror elements supplied by Sergio Stivaletti in his capacity as special effects supervisor often seem to be trying a bit too hard to compensate for this sterile ambience; thus we’re treated to decapitations, vicious spearings, a repellently deformed monster child drooling syrupy bile, and a maggoty cesspit full of rotting cadavers that feel more like the kind of thing we’d expect to find in a Lucio Fulci film than in the oeuvre of Dario Argento.
So desperately is the film trying to establish itself as a much more international, mainstream horror outing it seems, that it never quite finds its own character or creates its own world in the way Argento’s ‘70s films all manage to, remaining caught in an ‘80s time-warp of big hair and empty music video values that clash awkwardly with its wilder plot ideas, the attractively storybook Swiss fairy-tale set designs and the picturesque mountainside locations. “Phenomena” is a film that features flashes of inventive brilliance rubbing up next to gauche silliness and frequently unconvincing transitions between the two. Certain features seem to undermine rather than enhance each other and the overall impression left by it is of a flawed project that never managed to find a completely successful way of unifying its aims or fully establishing what it was trying to achieve. The film is never going to be seen as a masterpiece then, but it has just enough crazy Argentoesque moments to make it memorable, even if not all of them actually work. There are even a few contrarians who continue to insist this is their favourite Argento film. Maybe Tim Burton really is one of them?
The film actually begins with a beautifully evocative sequence that promises much: a brooding alpine location provides the film with a visual character of a type we’d never previously seen before in Argento’s work; a floating crane shot, rising above a windswept terrain of green with snow-capped mountains in the distance, and an archetypal little Hansel & Gretel-style Swiss cottage, sets a unique and promising tone, with a forbidding music cue introducing an unsettling note as a lost Danish tourist (played by Fiore Argento) enters the apparently harmless house on the hill that turns out to have something nasty and malevolent chained to a wall upstairs -- insecurely chained to a wall upstairs, as it turns out.
The ensuing chase scene through the stone grotto that seems to appear from nowhere; the now almost standard, in an Argento film, head-crashing-through-a-window-pane-sequence (there are two in this film) and the ensuing decapitation above a gushing waterfall, signify the perfect blending of serene fairy tale ambience in a picturesque setting with grotesque and macabre-looking horror dramatics that, unfortunately, are rarely combined to such assured effect anywhere else in the rest of the film.
Jennifer Connelly was cast as Jennifer Corvino after Argento apparently became ‘obsessed’ with the actress from seeing her in pre-cuts of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in America”, although she and her family needed much convincing before the thirteen-year-old eventually accepted the role. The film was more or less written to accommodate her -- thus the whole notion of the American teenage daughter of a famous movie actor being sent to a Swiss boarding school after the break-up of her parents’ marriage. Argento seems unsure how to proceed down the obvious fairy tale route with this storyline, and how far to push the obvious parallels with “Suspiria” that it is bound to invoke for his fans; thus a note of indecisiveness is introduced with an incongruous voice-over narration in the same style as the one at the beginning of that film, which suddenly appears fifteen minutes in during Jenifer’s arrival at the college, but which is never thereafter used again.
In keeping with the smooth, minimalist cool white lighting style introduced by the new fibre optic lighting techniques being employed on the shoot, the school is stripped of the more florid and baroque elements of Argento’s previous supernatural films: the exterior of the Richard Wagner School for Girls is faux classical with an elegant white marble façade and classical columns. Inside, the school is furnished with simple oak furniture and polished floors with white walls -- a straightforward but attractively elegant production design job. The timeless elegance of the school and the mock Wicked Witch persona assumed by the glamorously attired Dalilla Di Lazzaro who plays the film’s stern headmistress, help set out a particularly eighties visualisation of an expensive foreign boarding school, shot with cinematographer Romano Albani’s muted colour palette; but the irritating teenagers who populate the place tip the balance too much towards the eighties’ fashions of the day with their Bee Gees T-shirts and such like, not to mention their constant chatter about pop music, boys and sex, scripted with all the embarrassingly inauthentic and contrived archness only two middle-aged Italian blokes could’ve mustered when trying to write dialogue for modern teenage girls.
The girls all hate Jennifer for being different: she floats about the place dressed in ethereal white, and suffers from episodes of sleep-walking, during which she sees girls from the school being murdered in fleeting visions. The fact that there is a homicidal maniac on the loose and that several girls have already been brutally murdered before Jennifer has even arrived at the place, all without any real heightened sense of panic or extra security having been introduced, is another of those weirdly awkward Argento-isms that are all part and parcel of the director’s cinema: the girls all just accept that there is a killer on the loose and that they are his targets with placid equanimity, and their parents and teachers seem utterly unconcerned by the fact as well. The audience is expected to follow suit.
Horror veteran Donald Pleasence makes for interesting casting as Professor John McGregor, an entomologist who uses the study of insects to help the police to determine facts about the time and cause of death of the killer’s various victims. Pleasence chooses to make this wheelchair-bound character Scottish, although many are not too convinced about the effectiveness of his assumed Edinburgh burr. There is something attractive about the whole idea of this character though, who is companioned by an affable chimpanzee called Inga whom he has trained, with the aid of a laser pointer, to fetch things for him. Nevertheless, I’m not sure he works very effectively within the parameters of this particular film, and the character gets somewhat lost in the midst of all the excitement involving the heroine’s sleep-walking visions, a spear-thrusting killer of rich schoolgirls on the prowl, and underground vaults full of the remains of the mad killer’s victims etc. The relationship between the professor, Inga and Jennifer is suggestively rich in possibilities, although they don’t actually get much screen time together. McGregor is mainly used as a source of inspiration for Jennifer Connelly’s character: encouraging her to accept her difference and her otherness, and to learn to see her powers as a gift instead of a curse; it is also McGregor who shows her how to use her talents to track down the killer: with the aid of a Great Sarcophagus Fly (which is driven mad by and attracted to the smell of putrefaction), she is able to exploit her psychic affinity with insects by encouraging it to lead her to the killer’s lair, drawn there by the stench of flesh from what turns out to be an underground bunker in which the killer stores his/her victims’ rotting remains!
This theme of the supposedly psychic powers of insects -- which Jennifer herself shares, and which therefore provide her with a natural bond with them -- is the source of most of Argento’s more outlandish, fantastical conceits in this film. The director’s attempt to encompass mainstream fantasy cinema in his work was a new development at this stage in his career and there are many promising indicators in “Phenomena” that it could have been a successful one. For instance, the director employs characteristically offbeat segmented insect POV shots, and the camera also often floats at head height during many instances of action, as though following events while mimicking an insect in flight. Also, Argento consistently films whole scenes of dialogue from above in a literal representation of the fly-on-the-wall viewpoint. The more fantastical scenes such as when Jennifer follows a firefly to find a clue left by the killer, or conjures a storm of flies to assail the exterior of the school after she is tormented by the pupils, imbue the film with a rich children’s storybook fairy-tale quality shot in a modernist style, but Argento chooses almost deliberately to undermine many of the best instances of this by plastering inappropriate Heavy Metal across them by the likes of Motorhead and Iron Maiden, when the visuals would seem to demand a more lyrical musical expression instead. The dream sequences are slightly more successful realisations of the rock video choreography approach the film takes towards many of its set-pieces: the shot of the unexplained, futuristic neon-lit corridor that interrupt Jennifer’s episodes of night-time somnambulation are effectively paired with Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli’s driving synth-rock cue. The Italian musical duo also provide pseudo-operatic synth pieces that feel more in keeping with the essential fantastical nature of the film’s story, particularly at the climax. The film’s score, which is derived from a number of composers and rock artists, is generally too diverse and lacks a constancy of tone, though. In fact, simply removing the Heavy Metal from the soundtrack would’ve gone a long way to helping the film gel more successfully.
The film is ultimately a bit too uneven and awkward to ever be fully rehabilitated as a major work by Argento. Instead, the viewer must make do with individually wonderful shots, an abundance of creative ideas and wildly extravagant set-pieces that almost work, but then get undermined by an idea that doesn’t quite integrate with the finished whole. This is no more evident than in the insane final twenty minutes, in which Jennifer finds herself in the killer’s apparently quaintly furnished lair (all kitsch cuckoo clocks and antique furnishings) that morphs into an iron-shuttered prison with a bunker underneath containing a pit of human offal and a brutalised and chained prisoner, escape from which finds the heroine being menaced by a deformed, genetically insane monster on a night-time lake harbouring a circle of fire. The symbolic imagery of rebirth and trial by fire, the ubiquitous themes of corrupted motherhood and the nature-worship that would crop up again at the end of “Opera” are as nothing to the final concession to outrageousness the director capitulates to (and which almost makes all the film’s other sins forgivable), namely the scene in which a razor-wielding chimp unleashes bloody mayhem upon the unfortunate Daria Nicolodi, a sequence which still stands as one of the director’s most improbably vicious creations.
“Phenomena” debuts here on Blu-ray with a high definition transfer which is probably going to get a fair kicking in on-line reviews if the reaction to previous Arrow Video Argento Blu-ray treatments is anything to go by. The transfer certainly looks softer than I might have wished and black levels often seem a bit wishy-washy, at least at first. The outdoor sequences tend to look better though, and in the latter half of the film everything seems to get a great deal sharper for some reason, and the level of detail rises considerably. I think it’s fair to say that this looks much better than any previous DVD releases, but it’s not as good as Arrow’s other recent Argento HD discs. The English LPCM 2.0 stereo audio track is rather nice (no 5.1 track, I’m afraid!) and quite powerful overall, although there is a slight echo-like effect noticeable throughout. The Italian audio track is also included but is slighter weaker. This is the full ‘integral’ cut of the film, which restores a few scenes and some extra lines of dialogue that were cut from the original English language version (as opposed to the later, butchered version released under the name “Creepers”). For these scenes the English audio automatically reverts to Italian with English subtitles, which means the soundtrack level also drops slightly thanks to the difference in quality between the English and Italian audio sources. These extra seconds aren’t particularly necessary, and I’m not sure they were ever meant to be part of the final edit at all, but the forced change in language doesn’t detract from the overall effect of the film.
The main extra here is a fifty minute documentary on the making of the film called “Dario’s Monkey Business: The Making of Phenomena”. It features Dario himself, an amusingly acerbic Daria Nicolodi, underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, Sergio Stivaletti and Luigi Coz,i who all appear in what is a fairly straight telling of the film’s production history from initial seed of an idea to the actual shooting, and finally the film’s subsequent reception and its current reputation. Argento seems to be much happier with the results of his past efforts here than he has often seemed on the other making of documentaries in Arrow’s range (they must have been filmed in one session since the director is always shown speaking in the same surroundings). Remarkably “Phenomena” appears to be one of his favourite films overall. Daria Nicolodi is her usual forthright self and is often highly amusing here, especially when talking about her tussle with her chimpanzee co-star at the end of the film. Gianlorenzo Battaglia’s contribution is perhaps the most interesting for those interested in the actual technical aspects involved in shooting the film – his underwater photography contributes to one of the best sections of the work and he makes interesting comparisons to his work on “Phenomena” and the underwater ballroom sequence in “Inferno”. Stivaletti talks about his concept behind his first proper film makeup effects and Cozi talks about the optical effects he was involved in and the difficulties of what to do with a million fly extras once you’ve finished with them. He then makes a few tactful comments about the films reputation since its initial release. Nicolodi meanwhile is somewhat less tactful in her assessment of Argento’s writing talents. Argento himself though, is convinced the film stands up, claiming that even Alan Jones now likes it (Jones gave the film an utterly excoriating review at the time, reproduced in his book “Profondo Argento”)!
Appending this fairly comprehensive documentary, there is a separate six minute featurette on the music of “Phenomena”. “Music for Maggots – an interview with Claudio Simonetti” features the man himself talking about his contribution to the soundtrack, in which he claims that the music he and Fabio Pignatelli wrote for the film is some of his best work.
Lastly an edited video of two Q &A sessions held by Sergio Stivaletti after screenings of “Phenomena” in Dublin and Glasgow rounds of the disc. Lasting just under twenty minutes, the sound quality is slightly muffled but the big-bellied effects man’s regard for the film shines thorough nonetheless. He also talks about the experience of directing “Wax Mask” in response to a question from the audience.
The Arrow Video release naturally comes with all the packaging extras – booklet with new writing by Alan Jones, double-sided poster, multiple sleeve options – that now characterise the range (it will be interesting to see how Jones now rates the film, unfortunately I didn’t have the booklet with my review copy) and a DVD version is also separately available with exactly the same content.
“Phenomena” is not one of my favourite Dario Argento movies and this isn’t the very best-looking of the Arrow Argento collection; but the film has its followers and features moments of sporadic brilliant even if, overall, it is only an average Argento film. This is still a worthy release with some interesting comment from the contributors in the main documentary and a much cleaner transfer than we’ve seen before.