The Dario Argento Blu-ray train keeps right on rolling over in the UK thanks to the fine folks at ArrowVideo, and their latest release just so happens to be my favorite feature from the Italian director. Common perception would argue that Suspiria is Argento’s finest hour while purists might point to his earlier giallo work with Deep Red or The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (and those of you with a predilection for wild women may claim that Asia Argento is the man’s greatest creation), but none of these are correct.

No, Argento’s most entertaining movie is Phenomena, aka Creepers, aka the one where Jennifer Connelly fends off a maniacal killer thanks in large part to her ability to communicate telepathically with insects.

The Movie:

“And so Jennifer arrives in Switzerland from the New World to pass her first memorable night at the Richard Wagner International School For Girls.”

Phenomena opens with a young girl who misses her bus after a school trip and ends up trapped in the beautiful but remote Swiss mountains. She approaches a house looking for assistance but instead ends up disturbing one of the residents… who’s been chained to a wall… for good reason. The unseen but very angry individual breaks free after a tense and frightening buildup, and the schoolgirl soon loses her head.

Which brings us to Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) and the opening quote above. (Oddly, it’s the only narration in the entire film.) Being the new girl at school is bad enough, but Jennifer also has to contend with being the presumably spoiled daughter of a famous American actor as well being prone to sleepwalking. Oh, and she really, really likes insects. Combine it all and the result is bullying, harassment, and a group taunt by other students comprising of a chorus of “We worship you!” Her first night at school finds her sleepwalking down a long tunnel in skimpy pajamas accompanied by a heavy metal soundtrack, and it ends with a murder. So that doesn’t help her newly acquired label of “freak.” Among the few friends she does make is a retired, wheelchair-bound teacher from Scotland (Donald Pleasance) and his support animal, a chimpanzee named Inga. The doc is an expert in forensic entomology, the use of bugs to help determine details of a death, and the pair team up to try and find the killer using their collective love of the buggy little bastards.

This is Argento at his most absurd, but it’s lovably so in the way it mixes plot-turns straight out of a traditional giallo alongside more surreal and unnatural happenings including sudden bug swarms, a pit filled with maggoty dead bodies, a maniacal chimp, and even a subtitled conversation between two insects. But that doesn’t mean Argento leaves his usual calling cards behind. There are still elaborate murder set-pieces and scenes of gory violence throughout (one featuring a character forced to break his own thumbs is especially gruesome), and while the soundtrack has a few hard rock tunes it’s filled out with a strong score by Goblin.

Part and parcel with the ridiculous nature of events is a plot that doesn’t always coalesce, but that’s never really been Argento’s strong-suit anyway. The pieces are all there, but the moves from graphic murders to bug adventures to the big left-field revelation are never as fluid as they probably should be. Still, the movie is never boring because there’s always something gory, strange, or absolutely nuts just minutes away.

The film also boasts a more recognizable cast than most of Argento’s films have had, including a very young Connelly one year before she’d be seduced by David Bowie in Labyrinth. Her acting here straddles the line between okay and less than but she brings an innocence and open-minded spirit to the character that benefits the film as a whole. Frequent Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi is typically menacing as the school’s house frau ostensibly responsible for Jennifer’s care. Pleasance is the film’s real soul though (in a role originally meant for Peter Ustinov apparently). He’s a supporting character, but the man’s charm and fantastic resumé (both genre work and beyond) carries with him and you can’t help but enjoy every minute he’s onscreen.

The movie builds to a wonderfully grim, bloody, and over-the-top conclusion that’s fitting of everything that came before. It (along with the film’s opening) is also a little bit frightening which is an element not often found in the director’s work. Jennifer proves herself to be one of Argento’s strongest and most interesting heroines along the way too. He followed up Phenomena two years later with the pretty good Opera, but it’s been a downhill trip ever since culminating in the stinking piles of dung that are his latest, Mother of Tears and Giallo. Luckily we can avoid his last two decades worth of work and return to his classics whenever we want.

The Blu-ray:

This is Arrow Video’s third Argento Blu-ray after Inferno and Deep Red, and they have more in the pipeline for later this year. It’s a region-free release which means it’s playable on US Blu-ray players and televisions. As is often the case with Arrow’s Blus the transfer is superior to previous releases of the film while still allowing further room for improvement. The disc offers a brightly colored and fairly sharp image, but some viewers may take issue with the excessive application of DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction) used to reduce grain from the picture. It’s noticeable to my eyes, but it’s far from distracting. Your mileage may vary though.

This is the extended cut which means, as was the case with Arrow’s release of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, there are minor stretches of the film without English audio. In those instances the audio cuts to Italian (accompanied by English subtitles) then back again. The disc’s special features aren’t as numerous as past Arrow releases, but the multiple interviews included in the making-of featurette offer up some interesting recollections from cast and crew. The physical extras include a small poster, a booklet with essay, and as always a four-panel reversible cover sleeve featuring new and original art.

The disc features the Italian cut (127 min) and the following special features:

  • Introduction by Sergio Stivaletti
  • Dario’s Monkey Business: The Making of Phenomena
  • Music for Maggots – An Interview with composer with Claudio Simonetti
  • Creepers for Creatures – Sergio Stivaletti Q&A sessions from Dublin and Edinburgh

Bottom Line:

Phenomena is probably Argento’s oddest and most absurd film for several reasons. From the protagonist with psychic powers to the razor-wielding chimpanzee to a Scottish Donald Pleasance, this is a fun but nutty classic. It may be a bit too goofy at times for some viewers, but the mix of terror, gore, and WTF insanity makes for a movie that never fails to entertain.

- Buy Phenomena on Blu-ray from AmazonUK


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