Color, 1984, 111/116m.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi
Happinet (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan R0 HD/NTSC), Arrow Films (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Medusa (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Divid 2000 (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) / DD2.0, Dragon (Germany R0 PAL) / WS (1.66):1)
Often cited by critics upon its release as Dario Argento's worst film, this wild and woolly shocker has built up a fiercely loyal fan base over the years. These diverse responses are due to how willing the viewer is to enjoy a film with complete disregard for standard cinematic laws of narrative logic and linear plotting, and it didn't help for many years that the United States only had access to the butchered 82 minutes print, Creepers, which amazingly enough played in US theaters in 1985 under the auspices of New Line (though its gruesome ads were censored in many local papers). While the longer edition may not clarify much in the way of storyline, it does greatly aid the film's pacing and overall effect as the eye and mind are given more time to absorb the bizarre, shocking collision of images and storylines.
On the surface, Phenomena is a return to Suspiria territory with a virginal American girl, Jennifer (future Oscar winner Connelly), arriving at a boarding school for girls in Switzerland. Her awkward habit of sleepwalking gets her into trouble on her first night when she wanders out of her room and witnesses the murder of a schoolmate, and on top of that, it appears she has a telepathic connection to insects. A local Scottish entomologist, John McGregor (Pleasence) tells Jennifer about a string of bizarre serial killings in the area, and with the aid of Jennifer's uncanny powers, they set out to find the murderer. In many ways this film is the perfect stepping stone between the crystal-clear, razor-edged photography of Tenebrae and the baroque hyperactivity of Opera, delivering essentially two split narratives which finally converge in the amazing, excruciatingly violent final half hour.
The eclectic supporting cast also commands attention with appearances by Argento regular and ex-partner Daria Nicolodi (in an astonishingly unflattering, unhinged performance), the icy Dalila Di Lazzarro (Flesh for Frankenstein), and Patrick Bauchau (A View to a Kill) as a nosy police inspector. Add to that top notch make-up effects by Sergio Stivaletti (Demons) and an unsettling score featuring Goblin, Claudio Simonetti, and Simon Boswell, and the result is an undeniably unique and haunting experience. The film boasts a few strange quirks, such as a voiceover narrator inexplicably appearing 15 minutes into the film and a bizarre tendency to rely on heavy metal tunes by Iron Maiden and Motörhead to get the viewers' blood pumping. In many ways, though, these "flaws" can be almost as endearing as the film's good qualities; its sheer daffiness is almost beyond criticism. The off-kilter, dreamlike performances have also drawn critical fire, and again it's a matter of taste. Most unfairly, Phenomena has been termed a work of style over substance with no internal schematics to hold it up. On closer analysis, this simply isn't true. With ruthless precision, Argento dissects the notions of how families can fragment and become distorted-- Jennifer's celebrity father has abandoned her for a year's shooting on a film, her mother left without so much as a goodbye, and the bizarre genetic quirks that explain the identity of the killer(s) reflect Argento's own disintegrating domestic state at the time. Significantly, the film takes place at Passover, with Jennifer attaining a kind of virginal Zen state at the finale after her trial by blood and killing off the firstborn of her nemesis. The clash of languages and dialects (German, French, American) and the placement of the action at the "Richard Wagner School" also indicate that Argento was comparing the idealized notions of what a family should be and how easily it can crumble and destroy its children; Jennifer's early declaration, "Screw the past," quickly comes back to haunt her as the sins of the fathers (and mothers) stalk across the countryside. On a more visceral level, though, the film is also quite entertaining and boasts some of Argento's most delicious shocks, particularly the final scene.
Anchor Bay's 1999 DVD was the first out of the gate, with a nearly simultaneous laserdisc from the long defunct Roan Group. This print was a tremendous improvement over the Columbia laserdisc from Japan, a major factor in building the film's '80s fan base, which was well known and beloved by gore fans for ages but suffered from an horrendous sound mix with music blasting out ten times louder than the dialogue and drowning out entire scenes (such as Bauchau's asylum visit). This edition also has its share of idiosyncrasies carried over to almost all future releases; for example, early on when Pleasence unveils a maggot-covered severed head in a glass cage, the moment unfolds with a deafening blast of music on the Japanese disc but contains no music at all here. The commentary by Argento, Stivaletti, and Simonetti is enthusiastic and occasionally helpful but also has a tendency to become completely quiet for long stretches of the film. The feature is followed by a bizarre European trailer and the music video for the cue "Phenomena" (incorrectly identified onscreen as "Jennifer" and credited onscreen to Argento himself, though some sources actually cite Michele Soavi as the director). This odd little treat, also letterboxed, mostly features Connelly running down hallways while Simonetti jams away on his keyboard. The DVD also contains Soavi's video for "The Valley" and the infamous appearance by Argento on New York's The Joe Franklin Show.
A slightly longer Italian cut (116 mins.) first turned up on Japanese laserdisc as an "Integral Hard" edition, coupled with Luigi Cozzi's hit-and-miss Dario Argento's World of Horror 3, while DVD buyers were first offered the Dragon two-disc set from Germany, which packs most of the Anchor Bay extras with the longer cut in English (with Italian footage inserted) or, better, the full Italian dialogue track with optional English subtitles. Though not the original studio track, the Italian dialogue is much classier and easier on the ears than the English one and makes for a significantly different experience. On the other hand, the first UK disc from Divid features a fine transfer but maddeningly only includes a mono track and some very skimpy interviews. The Italian DVD from Medusa lacks the English track, but the reasonable Italian 5.1 audio has English subs and is one of Medusa's better efforts with some nice separation effects and generally solid use of ambient sound drifting among the speakers. This is also the "integral" version containing those extra bits of footage (Jennifer's extended bus ride, the longer telephone fight with Nicolodi) but some fleeting, minor snippets of Italian dialogue (such as a student asking Sophie to get off the phone) are inexplicably lacking subtitles. The only bonus is the Italian theatrical trailer. Anchor Bay eventually revisited the film in 2008 with an anamorphic upgrade (though it looks like the same master boosted up to 16:9), essentially the same package but with a couple of new extras: the 16-minute "A Dark Fairy Tale" featurette (with Argento, Nicolodi, co-writer Franco Ferrini, Stivaletti, Cozzi, and Fiore Argento), and a vintage 4-minute snippet, "Luigi Cozzi & The Art of Macrophotography."
In early 2011, Arrow Video unleashed the first Blu-ray of Argento's cult favorite as a region-free UK release along with a DVD reissue. The HD transfer is pretty solid, certainly better than any of its predecessors, though it's a bit soft and the compression could be improved in a few spots. The longest "integral" cut is presented here with the option to watch it in Italian with English subtitles or in English (both LPCM stereo) with subs popping up for the brief extra snippets; the transitions aren't always the smoothest, but again it's the best option so far. The packaging is typically elaborate with their trademark panel reversible sleeve options, a two-sided fold out poster, a liner notes booklet by Alan Jones,and an entirely different slate of extras: a video intro by Stivaletti, a 52-minute High Rising featurette called "Dario Argento's Monkey Business" (featuring Argento, Nicolodi, Stivaletti, and Luigi Cozzi, among others, not to mention the longest animated transitions you've ever seen), a 6-minute "Music for Maggots" interview with Simonetti, and a 19-minute "Creepers and Creatures" Q&A from 2010 with Stivaletti and moderator Calum Waddell.
Another Blu-ray option popped up from Japan in late 2015 courtesy of Happinet, which appears to be derived from the same master as the Arrow with identical color timing and framing but darker blacks (as seen in the frame grabs here). Audio is presented in English Dolby TruHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0, and Italian Dolby Digital 2.0, with the original audio commentary from the Anchor Bay DVD ported over. You don't get English subs this time for that tiny handful of Italian dialogue, but as everyone knows now, you're not missing much. Carried over from the Arrow release are the "Dario Argento's Monkey Business," "Music for Maggots," and "Creepers and Creatures" extras, plus the usual two music videos, the Italian and international English trailers, and the international English opening and closing titles and Creepers opening titles. Also added here exclusive to the release are the 7-minute Fiore Argento interview, "The First Victim," the 9-minute "The Look of Phenomena" with cinematographer Romano Albini, and the 12-minute "The Music of Phenomena" with composer Simon Boswell, though only the last one is English friendly (and well worth watching). The film is also slated for a future release on American Blu-ray from Synapse Films with the entire Italian, international, and American cuts included in the same package for the first time; in the meantime, anyone who wants to see almost every extra made for this film collected together in one place should find the Japanese option a good choice to seek out.