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September 05, 2017


phenomena big poster.jpg

Dario Argento - 1985
Synapse Films BD Region A two-disc set

In Phenomena, an entomologist played by Donald Pleasance spends a good part of his screen time explaining the interactions between flies and corpses, and how a certain type of fly has acted as a detective, discovering dead bodies. It's interesting stuff, and would indicate some kind of attention to detail, or at least the kind of detail to convince an audience that this is more than pseudo-science. And yet, when it comes to how his characters act in real life situations, some things don't make any sense at all.

Taking place in an area described as the Swiss Transylvania, young Jennifer Corvino is dumped by her never seen movie star father at the Richard Wagner International School for Not Very Bright Heiresses Girls. Finding out that there's a killer on the loose who's victims are within her age range, and about to be institutionalized for her sleepwalking habits, Jennifer tries to reach her father. She finds out he's away on a three day holiday. "What holiday", she asks. Passover is the answer. It's a minor part of the narrative, but I have to wonder because 13 year old Jennifer Connelly's line reading makes it sound like she just found out she's Jewish. And if you know something about Richard Wagner, an observant father would probably have second thought about sending his daughter to school named after an alleged anti-Semite.

Phenomena is admittedly not one of my favorite Dario Argento films, but I appreciate Synapse Films making available all three versions, the original Italian cut, the "International" cut, and the U.S. version released as Creepers. Having seen Deep Red and Suspiria theatrically, I have resisted seeing Creepers as I knew that it was significantly cut, down to 83 minutes from the original 116 minute running time. Aside from a cut scene with Jennifer getting a brain scan, referred to in a later bit of dialogue, Argento's film is essentially still there, but with a more literal cut to the chase, rather than build up of mood. The 110 minute version is the almost the same as the 116 minute version, with tighter editing.

What is lost with the two shorter versions are shots of the trees weaving and waving in the wind, a wind referred to in the dialogue. Argento milks those shots for all they are worth. Otherwise, a good part of Phenomena appears to be the recycling of past films - the boarding school for girls with the strict teachers from Suspiria, the underwater swim with the corpse from Inferno, and thousands of flies with no grey velvet. The images that stick include Jennifer following a firefly to discover an incriminating glove, and the massive swarm of flies, a special effect done with coffee grounds in water. There is also a nice traveling shot taken of the floor of the house where the first murder takes place, with the camera moving past the feet of a real estate agent to a small hole in the floor, which cuts to a shot of maggots feasting on what's left of someone's arm.

The one misstep for me was the choice of music. As they had disbanded, Argento could not use Goblin except for a couple of tracks. I'm not sure why Moorhead's "Locomotive" was used as it seems out of place in a scene with police investigating a murder, and Iron Maiden's "Flash of the Blade" seems chosen simply for its title. I almost wish that Argento would just give in to his own predilections and include Nick Lowe's "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass".

The 110 minute version also has a commentary track by seemingly ubiquitous David Del Valle and Derek Botelho, author of The Argento Syndrome. Some of the discussion is on how Argento "discovered" Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, after a small role in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. One of the more interesting bits is pointing out that in addition to Dario Argento's daughter, Fiore, playing the first on-screen victim, the two other girls to meet grisly ends are the niece of Marcello Mastroianni and the daughter of director Duccio Tessari, another Sergio Leone collaborator. Botelho discusses the evolution of Phenomena from script to film, with anecdotes on the casting of this film. Also included in Michele Soavi's documentary on Argento which is of interest in showing the filming of scenes from Suspiria, Tenebrae and Phenomena.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 5, 2017 06:57 AM