Retro-review: New on Special Edition BluRay from Synapse!
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Fiore Argento, Federica Mastroianni, Fiorenza Tessari, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Patrick Bauchau, Alberto Cracco, Kaspar Capparoni, Mario Donatone, Davide Marotta, Fulvio Mingozzi, Michele Soavi, & Tanga as Inga the Chimp!
PHENOMENA is one weird little monkey of a movie. It’s got psychic insect powers, a killer monster child, maggot eye view, Donald Pleasance with an Irish brogue, sleepwalking, a fiery lake, a pool of maggots, and a pre-pubescent Jennifer Connelly (who I had a pre-pubescent crush on that carried over into my pubescent and adult stages of life). It also is one of the few Dario Argento films I saw when it was originally released in theaters in America as CREEPERS. Having seen the film numerous times at different stages of my life, I find it interesting to rewatch for review.
A young girl named Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly—BTW I love it when actors have the same name as their characters for some reason) arrives in an Italian boarding school around the same time a serial killer is murdering young women in the area. Jennifer has difficulty fitting in despite being the daughter of a famous actor when her fellow students find out she is a sleepwalker and seems to have the power to communicate and control insects with her mind. Befriending a wheelchair bound, insect expert named Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) who is working with the police on the unsolved murders by studying the maggots that have formed on the bodies, Jennifer develops her attunement with bugs and befriends McGregor’s chimpanzee assistant Inga. Rebelling from her school run by her strict headmistress Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi), Jennifer decides to help Prof. McGregor in his investigation, but this puts both McGregor and Jennifer in the sights of the killer. The film culminates in a wet and fiery confrontation between Jennifer and the killer that isn’t completely unlike the final battle between Jason and Tina the telekinetic in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 7: THE NEW BLOOD mixed with PART 6: JASON LIVES.
When I first watched PHENOMENA as CREEPERS, I found the film to be somewhat enjoyable. What stuck in my head were the bizarre and gory moments like a monkey walking around with a straight razor, a swarm of flies, Jennifer Connelly splashing around in a pool of maggots, and Donald Pleasance in a wheelchair and brandishing a laser pointer. Very little else stuck, as I was young and more interested in the shocks and scares than things like story. I remember digging the film, but more as a collection of shocking moments than a story I could connect with. I find it interesting that these moments stand out to me because it is very much the Cliff’s notes version of the story in its visual form. When I recently rewatched it, I appreciated this film more for Argento’s ballsy, “throw anything against the wall and see what sticks” mentality that went into making PHENOMENA. Films are made these days with half of these odd details and to realize that Argento was able to pull together all of these elements into one semi-cohesive story is a testament to his power as a storyteller.
I love the way Argento splices the supernatural with Giallo in this film. Jennifer’s power over insects somehow fits in this weird world of monster babies and serial murders and proves to be crucial in Jennifer tracking down the killer. You can see elements of this film not only showing up in the latter FRIDAY THE 13TH’s, but also SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in its fetishization of insects. All the while, Argento embraces Giallo themes through the masked and gloved killer offscreen, the extravagant death sequences, the ineptitude of the police, and the reliance on a key witness of that crime (in this case, maggots as Jennifer is able to see the murders through their eyes). Seeing this murder mystery play out and the overly complex manner by which the whole thing resolves, as insane as it is, is a love letter to the Giallo films of old as seen through a supernatural and hyper-gory lens.
PHENOMENA is not a perfect film. This is Jennifer Connelly’s first film and it shows. While she is ravishing and radiant here, she comes off as a blank slate in some scenes and overly bratty in others, making it a challenge to actually like this poor little rich girl in peril. Pleasance decision to adopt an Irish brogue and then drop and use it whenever he feels like it is another odd aspect of this film. But the real detriment of PHEMONENA is the decision to add in metal music from Motorhead, Iron Maiden, and other Headbanger’s Ball mainstays in keys scenes really do undercut the entire creepy feel to the film. The dated metal music was probably used as a means to tap into the increasing popularity of MTV in the eighties, but it just doesn’t fit in here. I wish Argento would have left his headbanging at home and left the music solely up to Goblin again as there are scenes that come off as laughably bad set to the contradictory and in your face meatal music used that underscores any suspense or tension.
Still, any movie that climaxes with Jennifer Connelly and a swarm of flies fighting an evil midget with a metal spear in the middle of a fiery lake can’t be all bad. PHENOMENA has a whole lot of stuff going on, but in the end, it’s gory, spooky, and fun stuff especially the 116 minute version presented in this special edition. This release also has the 83 minute US theatrical version as well as another 110 minute international version. Other special features includes; an audio commentary track on from Argento scholar and author, Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist and radio/television commentator, David Del Valle, 2 completely different sound mix options including the original 2.0 stereo mix, along with a rare alternate mix containing different sound effects and music cues, English/Italian Hybrid Audio and Complete Italian Audio Options, DARIO ARGENTO’S WORLD OF HORROR – Documentary. A fascinating look at the early films of director Dario Argento, including PHENOMENA, SUSPIRIA, DEMONS, DAWN OF THE DEAD, INFERNO and many more–containing candid interviews and awesome behind-the-scenes footage, interview with Andi Sex Gang, international & US theatrical trailers, and multiple optional subtitle selections on PHENOMENA (116 Version), including one for just the foreign English language segments of the hybrid version, complete English subtitles for the entire feature, and complete English subtitles for the Italian version of the film. This is a fantastic presentation for a pretty amazing film.