Monday, February 21, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Phenomena (1985)

Release Date: March 7th 2011

Label: Arrow Video
Duration: 115 min.
Region Coding: Region 0 PAL

Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence
Tagline: Jennifer Has A Few Million Close Friends. She's Going To Need Them All.

Plot: Poor sleepwalking Jennifer Corvino (Connelly) doesn’t fit in at her boarding school and her uncanny ability to control insects isn’t helping her popularity. With the aid of a local entomologist (Pleasence), can she use her psychic insect skills to find the killer who’s leaving her fellow pupils in bloody pieces?

Film: Phenomena is the third of what has become known as Dario Argento's animals trilogy; a trio of films beginning with the giallo classic The Bird with the Crystal Plumage(1970), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and ending with Phenomena (1985). The film was released following Tenebre (1982), one of my favorite Argento films, a stylish Giallo classic. Originally released here in the states in a severely cut version called Creepers this is a weird, dark fairytale that recalls many elements of Argento's supernatural thriller Suspiria (1977). The film begins as  tourist Vera Grandt (Fiore Argento) misses a bus in the Swiss countryside. She approaches a nearby home in search assistance but when no one answers enters the house. Once inside she arouses the interest of something fiendish that's been chained to the wall. Whatever it is pulls the chains from the wall and attacks the young woman with a pair of scissors. She escapes the initial attack and runs madly through the forest to a nearby gorge where she is cornered and decapitated in a visually stunning manner, her head shattering a pane of glass in slow-mo and falling to the waterfall below. Months later Jennifer (Connolly) arrives at a nearby Swiss boarding school, definite shades of Suspiria. There she meets Frau Brucker (Daria Nicolodi), the stern headmistress (Dalilia Do Lazzaro) and her new roommate - even more shades of Suspira. Jennifer has a few odd quirks, she regularly sleepwalks plus she is able to telekinetically communicate with insects. Neat, a real lord of the flies. When she's sleepwalking she envisions a long white corridor with many doors, great surreal Argento visuals. During one of her episodes she unwittingly witnesses the murder of her roommate and during yet another nocturnal stroll wonders off school grounds where she encounters and befriends entomologist Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasance with a snazzy Scottish accent). McGregor is wheelchair bound and relies on his Chimpanzee named Inga to assist him. Inga is very helpful and super protective and later wields a straight razor on a revenge mission, it only gets weirder. McGregor and Jennifer form a bond over their shared love the insects and he warns her that a demented psychopath on the loose in the area killing young girls. Back at school Jennifer is not well-liked and less-so when her creepy affinity for insects is revealed when she summons a swarm of flies upon the school in a fit of anger. The headmistress is intent on having her committed to a psychiatric after the event but when the men in white arrive Jennifer has fleed to McGregor's who irresponsibly sends her in search of the killer armed only with a sarcophagus fly to aid in the detection of cadavers. The search for the killer obviously puts her in imminent danger which leads to a startling revelation and bizarre final confrontation on a boat with a fiendish freak and his mother.

There's not an extraordinary amount of death and gore here but what here is significantly gruesome, predominantly some slasher-style killings and rotting flesh. The decomposition special effects work by Sergio Stivaletti is stomach churningly effective while the pre-digital optical effects work by Luigi Cozzi lends a bizarre atmosphere to the proceedings. Claudio Simonetti of Goblin performs the main title theme but the signature Goblin music is not as prevalent throughout the film as in previous Argento film scores and instead we get cuts from Motorhead and a tasty Iron Maiden track "Flash of the Blade". Great tunes but the music is a bit jarring  and may take you out of the film temporarily.

DVD: Arrow Video have been on a winning streak with a series of prime Dario Argento releases including Inferno, Deep Red and now Phenomena. This is the Italian director's cut of the film presented in it's original 16:9 enhanced 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image looks very good and gets an edge over previous editions with a crisper and more detailed image. There is an abundance of film grain during the darker lit scenes and the first kill of the film in particular but overall a very good transfer. Audio option include a 2.0 stereo English and Italian language soundtrack with subtitle option for each track including a brand new subtitle translation for the Italian language track. It should be noted that the English audio reverts to Italian during a few scenes with missing audio much like the Arrow edition of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. There's a nice selection of exclusive special features including a 50 minute documentary and two featurettes. The Anchor Bay DVD from 2008 features some great exclusive content as well including a commentary track from Dario Argento, Sergio Stivaletti and Claudio Simonetti. A newly created DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix would've been appreciated but the stereo tracks are quite good and even a carry-over commentary from the Anchor Bay edition or a new commentary with Argento historians Thomas Rostock or Alan Jones would've been fantastic. Still, this disc begs for a spot on the DVD shelf in your house.

 - DARIO'S MONKEY BUSINESS: THE MAKING OF PHENOMENA (50:03) a documentary featuring interviews with key talent behind the film including director Dario Argento, star Daria Nicolodi and underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia and more. A pretty typical Arrow Video documentary from High Rise Productions in that it contains great interviews intersperesed with clips and stills from the film that color the viewing experience. I always game for Daria Nicolodi interview who is quick to point out Argento's faults, good stuff.
- MUSIC FOR MAGGOTS – an Interview with composer with Claudio Simonetti (6:17)
- CREEPERS FOR CREATURES:  Sergio Stivaletti lives Q+A sessions from Dublin and Edinburgh. (18:08)

My screener contains only the disc information and none of the  wonderful Arrow Video packaging, but should you buy this edition it will include the following...
- Four panel reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
- Two sided fold out poster with new art work
- Exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on Phenomena by Alan Jones, author of Profondo Argento
- Original art by Rick Melton

Verdict: One of the odder films in Dario Argento's repertoire, a mash-up of his earlier giallo style like Deep Red (1975) with the dark fantasy elements of the supernatural thrillers Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). It's not prime Argento but I think when held up against his post Opera (1987) output it stands tall. Killer insects, a mutant freak and a cunning chimp -  this cannot not be good, right? Overlooked and well worth a buy in my opinion. Gets better with each view. 3.5 outta 5