it would be a wait of 15 months before it hit British screens, Phenomena –
Dario Argento’s ninth feature release – was first unveiled to Italian audiences
early in 1985. It had been three years since Tenebrae (which despite stiff
competition is my favourite Argento) and at the time Phenomena was broadly
considered his weakest offering. It’s narrative core, which concerns a young
girl communing with insects in order to identify a maniac killer, was indisputably
a shade bananas (rather apt given the significant involvement of a vengeful
primate!), but for me it was by no means his least interesting film to that
point and considering the mixed bag of cinematic fodder bearing his name that’s
appeared in the years since, I’d not hesitate to cite it as one of his more
Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the teenage daughter of a famous movie star,
arrives at The Richard Wagner International School for Girls in Switzerland
where she learns from her new roommate that a number of girls in the area have
gone missing, the possible victims of a serial killer. Jennifer suffers from somnambulism
and one night she wakens to find herself lost in the woods, whereupon she
encounters a friendly chimpanzee which leads her to safety at the nearby home
of its owner, wheelchair-bound entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald
Pleasence). Jennifer is fascinated by insects and when she tells McGregor she’s
able to communicate with them telepathically the two become firm friends.
McGregor has been assisting police on the serial killer case in an advisory
capacity and believes that the corpses of the missing girls can be tracked down
by the Great Sarcophagus, a species of fly that can detect rotting flesh. He
duly convinces Jennifer she can help solve the case by using one that he has
captive to guide her to the refuge of the killer.
(with Franco Ferrini), produced and directed by Argento, it’s obvious from the
above précis that Phenomena is structured upon some pretty outré ideas. But
even if the results aren’t entirely satisfying, I applaud the man for
attempting to do something beyond playing safe and recycling the same old
giallo formula. Besides which, overlooking its inadequacies – not least of
which is a run-time that overstretches the narrative’s ability to fully engage –
there’s some really good stuff going on here.
of that run-time, if ever proof were needed that it’s possible to have too much
of a good thing then Phenomena is it. There exist three versions of the movie:
the 116-minute Italian cut, a 110-minute international edit, and an American
theatrical cut (retitled Creepers and which, at 83-minutes, had almost a third of
the Italian original’s run-time sheared off it); against all expectation it’s
the latter tightened-up version that arguably plays best.
I digress. The Swiss locations are breathtaking and in terms of set-up, Phenomena’s
opening sequence – which finds a young girl on a class trip into the mountains
being inadvertently left behind when the coach departs (they used to count us
aboard in my day!) – is terrific. The girl, played by his teenage daughter
Fiore, goes looking for help and happens across a chalet nestled in the
hillside where someone (or something!) tries to kill her. She flees but is
pursued by the grunting, scissor-wielding maniac to an observation platform
overlooking a waterfall. All the pieces are in place for the film’s first
murder sequence and with almost lascivious relish the camera observes a
stabbing, followed by a slo-mo backwards lurch through a plate glass window and
finally a decapitation. There’s graphic mayhem aplenty peppered throughout the
remainder of the movie (including a protracted wallow in a vile stew of rotting
cadavers), but for sheer style this opener is never quite matched.
Connelly was 14-years-old when she shot Phenomena and given that it was only
her second feature film appearance (following a small part in 1984’s Once Upon
a Time in America), it’s remarkable just how confidently she carries the film;
not only a budding beauty but already exhibiting the talent that would carry
her on to great acclaim (including an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind) in the years
ahead. Donald Pleasence showed up in a fistful of Italian chillers of varied
worth during the 1980s and he’s as reliably entertaining as ever here, adopting
a Scottish accent as the academic whose closest chum is a chimp. Argento’s
long-time partner and go-to leading lady (cf. Deep Red, Inferno, Tenebrae, Opera)
Daria Nicolodi delivers with elan, so too for that matter does gorgeous Flesh
for Frankenstein star Dalila Di Lazzaro, present as Jennifer’s chaperone and
school headmistress respectively. It’s good to see prolific player Patrick
Bauchau on hand too, although he’s a tad underused as the investigating police
inspector, very much relegated to the sidelines of the action.
Cinematographer Romano Albani does an outstanding job of getting the most out of the idyllic locations; shots of the cherubic Connelly ambling through verdant fields against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains are visual nectar and linger in the memory long after the violent set pieces have been forgotten.
A really good score is all about melody and Claudio Simonetti nails this one in spades, although where the soundtrack is concerned there are also some strange artistic choices; Simonetti’s work dominates, but a number of scenes are accompanied by rock anthems, so jarring and inappropriately matched to what’s happening onscreen that it’s almost as if a someone has switched on a radio full blast to rudely drag you out of the moment; a prime example of this occurs when Jennifer watches the dead body of a friend being stretchered off by paramedics, a scene that should have been wreathed in emotion but which is instead decimated by the raucous musical accompaniment.
Not exactly vintage Argento, but countless notches up from his sourest plonk, I can’t pass up mention of one of the most absurd scenes in the movie. An apparently sedated Jennifer is being watched over by a nurse who dozes off in the bedside chair, but our heroine isn’t really asleep; Jennifer quickly rises to make her escape, but despite the fact she proceeds to make the most outrageous racket – stumbling into her drip-stand and barely managing to stifle the chimes from a clock – the slumbering nurse doesn’t even stir. The whole sequence is so out of synch tonally with the rest of the film that I’m unsure it can have been intended to provoke chuckles, yet it’s so playful that I can’t quite conceive that it wasn’t either.
First released to Blu-ray by Arrow mid-2017 as a 3-disc special edition comprising all three cuts of the film, Phenomena is now available on separate Blu-ray and DVD releases as a “standard edition“ containing just the longest (Italian 116-minute) version. This cut includes several short passages that were never dubbed into English and these are presented in Italian language with English subtitling. Picture quality throughout is excellent and the film can be viewed either in English (excepting the aforementioned moments) or Italian with English subs, and there’s also the option to watch in the company of author Troy Howarth’s commentary. Complementing the movie is a feature-length documentary entitled Of Flies and Maggots, which comprises in-depth interviews with more than a dozen people who worked on the film (among them Argento, of course, as well as co-writer Franco Ferrini, executive producer Angelo Iacono and actors Daria Nicolodi, Davide Marotta and Fiore Argento), all punctuated by vintage on-set production footage. Running 2-hours, it clocks in at a few minutes longer than the movie itself and the reminiscences of its participants provide an engrossing insight into how the film was made, although cinematographer Romano Albani’s amusement when recounting the apparent cruelty inflicted upon the chimpanzee by its trainer is uncomfortably indecorous. English and Italian versions of the trailer are also included, plus there’s a VHS-quality Claudio Simonetti music video, ‘Jennifer’ (the film’s infectious main theme). Finally, there’s a step-through image gallery which the menu mis-identifies as a Japanese pressbook; it in fact displays pages from the Japanese movie program (a different thing altogether).