Phenomena (1985) [Synapse Blu-ray]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-09-12 01:07

Phenomena (1985)
Studio: Synapse
Release date: September 12th, 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Few directors boasted the sort of confidence Dario Argento displayed at the height of his powers. Who else would even attempt a movie like Phenomena, a movie that sounds like an absolutely insane joke—much less pull it off with aplomb? After spending the previous 15 years subjecting audiences to violent fever dreams, the master seemed to approach Phenomena like a composer orchestrating his magnum opus: it’s a sweeping, epic that collects all of its director’s preoccupations—nightmare logic, murder, terrorized young girls, synthesizers—and cobbles them into a 116-minute odyssey that becomes increasingly unhinged as it unfolds. At times, it feels like Argento is pushing the limits to see just what he could get away with. Just how willing would audiences be to wander with him right into his psyche, where they’d find the usual assortment of razor blades and black gloves alongside telepathic insects and vengeful primates?

One of Argento’s most alluring prologues must surely set them at ease. We open on the rural Swiss countryside, where a tourist is left behind by her bus, forcing her to roam to a nearby house. She hears someone inside and implores them for help as the score rumbles ominously, hinting at the horrors lurking within. Someone—or something—tries to tear away from chains shackled to a wall, prompting the girl to flee for her life in a nearby shack overlooking a river. She does so to no avail, as her unseen stalker shoves her into a window, her head shattering the pane of glass in agonizing slow motion before the camera reveals she’s been decapitated. Her head unceremoniously plunges into the river below, where it’s carried away the raging waters, a cruel reminder of nature’s seeming indifference towards humanity.

That motif is reinforced in the next scene when that severed head reemerges 8 months later after being recovered by local authorities. Now horribly decomposed and crawling with insects and maggots, it rots away on the desk of entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), who helps the police pin down the timeframe of the girl’s grisly demise. Everyone present concludes it’s the work of a serial killer that’s been terrorizing the area for months now, befuddling the police every step of the way.

Eventually, the kindly, wheelchair-bound professor (and his chimpanzee assistant Inga) crosses paths with Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), an outcast from the local girl’s school who sleepwalks right through another murder and into his home. Something about her is strange and striking to McGregor, particularly the way she reminds him of a former assistant that was slain by the mysterious killer. In true Argento fashion, he’s not exactly interested in following the authorities’ investigation into this rash of slayings. Instead, he forms his most unlikely duo in McGregor and Jennifer as the pair discovers the latter has a psychic link with insects that will allow her to uncover the killer’s identity.

In a vacuum, that type of synopsis would invite giggles and leave you wondering just how anyone could pull this off, especially since the story somehow grows to be even more outrageous along the way. But in the hands of Argento, Phenomena becomes a wicked fantasia of violence, nightmares, and nonsense filtered through a dark fairy tale about a girl’s encounter with strange forces—some benign, some very much benevolent.

Argento dives into it all with an abundance of confidence, his audacity matched only by his considerable cinematic talents. Another one of his dream-like fugues, Phenomena is a film you feel, even if you can’t help but notice its nonsense. Like Jennifer, you sometimes feel as though you’re stuck in a waking dream, and no matter how aware you are all of the nonsense unfolding, you’re powerless against it. There’s no coming up for air, as Argento submerges you into this nightmare with dazzling camerawork, crafting evocative and operatic visuals as the script winds and wends through its madness. Some of the best sequences in his filmography are on display here, whether it’s Jennifer strolling into the rural countryside with the enormity of the landscape looming or a scene where she conjures up a swarm of locusts in response to a pack of bullying girls.

It’s a testament to Argento’s prowess that he actually doesn’t lean to heavily on violent outbursts here since Phenomena boasts a relatively meager body count following that stunning prologue. He’s aiming for something a bit more sublime in Phenomena, which often takes on the nightmarish tenor of his supernaturally-charged films. Every development pulls you more forcefully into this lunatic swirl, where maggots, madmen, fireflies, windswept trees, and pounding metal riffs collide into a delirious cacophony.

Only the weirdly sweet rapport between Connelly and Pleasence provides any shelter from the horrific events unfolding in a place the locals call “Swiss Transylvania,” and even it’s marked by the old man’s rambling theories about the young girl’s inexplicable ability to communicate with insects. However kooky he is, however, McGregor provides the only comfort for Jennifer, as both Pleasence and Argento play up the actor’s naturally soothing presence. While Argento and co-writer Franco Ferrini weave an impossibly sordid, twisting tale, you can at least take solace in this bond.

However, as is often the case with Argento’s oeuvre, just about everything else is suspect. Returning to the familiar scene of an all-girls school lorded over by shady head-mistresses preys upon the audience’s expectations and suspicions, and the screenplay weaves in more misdirection and red herrings. Argento only feels marginally compelled to follow the giallo template, though, as the eventual reveal arrives out of nowhere and is beholden to nothing that develops beforehand. Some might call it a cheat, but since when do dreams play by the rules?

Besides, who could really begrudge Argento when said reveal is in the service of the most satisfying climax of his career? Like so much of Phenomena, you just have to go with a wild conclusion that follows Jennifer into the bowels of what initially appears to be an unassuming home. When the kind woman who picks up Jennifer under the pretense of working for her father turns out to be a psychopath, the place is revealed to be a house of horrors, with Argento helming a quick, grungy “Old Dark House” riff, complete with a terrifying secret lurking in the basement. The entire ordeal is a total freakout, full of violent outbursts and grotesque imagery: at one point, Jennifer falls into what is easily the sickest, grimiest pool filled with human viscera and mud that’s ever been committed to the screen.

More shocks wait in the finale, including one that cements Phenomena’s place as one of cinema’s most singular experiences. There is nothing quite like this film, which feels like Argento’s unrepentantly screwy trip through his own psyche and some musings about leaving a daughter to face the horrors of life without his guidance. Jennifer is pointedly the daughter of an absentee horror film director, who is never seen nor heard from in the entire film, prompting one to wonder if Phenomena isn’t among the director’s most personal films. Here, he creates something of a fairy tale—complete with exactly one line of voice-over narration delivered by the director himself—that’s twisted and perverted into an absolute nightmare for a teenage daughter left largely to her own devices.

Many of Argento’s other movies—particularly Deep Red, Suspiria, and Tenebrae—have rightfully been heralded as his masterworks, though I’d argue Phenomena at least lurks somewhere in that conversation. If nothing else, it’s his most interesting film, a truly bizarre dispatch from the epoch of the Italian horror cycle that marries the non-logic of Suspiria with the grisly, winding narratives of his gialli efforts. If his later output is any indication, Argento put absolutely everything into it, as he never reached such delirious heights ever again; however, once you’ve seen—or, better yet, witnessedPhenomena, you’ll see what a tall task that is. Forget capturing lightning in a bottle twice—Argento captured the stuff of nightmares all over again, something few directors accomplish once, much less multiple times.

The disc:

After dropping a definitive steelbook Blu-ray edition for Phenomena late last year, Synapse has released a stripped-down (read: less expensive) version—which is not to say this release is exactly light on features. Far from it, in fact, as it boasts three different cuts of the film, including a rare integral version with a 116-minute runtime that hasn’t been released on home video since its Japanese laserdisc release. Also included is the familiar 110-minute international version and the truncated 83-minute U.S. release entitled Creepers, with all the cuts sporting various language and audio options (with one mix even featuring alternate sound effects and cues).

Further supplement include a commentary with Argento scholar Derek Botelho and journalist/historian David Del Valle, an interview with Andi Sex Gang, trailers and radio spots, and Dario Argento’s World of Horror, a 76-minute documentary (directed by Michele Soavi!) chronicling the director’s output up until that point in his career. Previously released as a standalone documentary by Synapse years ago, it’s an ideal special feature for this release, as fans are treated to an up-close look at its production. Only the spiffy packaging, collector’s booklet, and CD soundtrack are missing from Synapse’s previous effort, which should already be in your collection if you’re among the converted.

But those who (like myself) always considered Phenomena a notch below Argento’s classics, this release is a perfect chance to revisit and allow it to work its charms on you, which are even more potent in dazzling high definition. Having now watched the film twice in the past three months, I now confidently place it among the director’s best works. With October looming, now is the perfect time to snap this one up and give it another look, especially with Synapse's upcoming Blu-ray release of Suspiria also looming on the horizon.
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