Phenomena

Phenomena (1985)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Patrick Bauchau
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Music Videos, Trailer, Talent Bio
Rating:

Among both fans and critics of Italian director Dario Argento, "Phenomena" is perhaps his most divisive film, elating some viewers with its giddy audacity and confounding others with its mondo bizarre excesses that overstep even the director's unique standards. Released in 1985 after his brief return to the giallo subgenre with "Tenebre" (1982), "Phenomena" conjured up the supernatural elements of his horror films "Suspiria" (1977) and "Inferno" (1980). "Suspiria," in particular, with its vibrant color scheme and story of witchcraft, has often been described as a dark fairy tale or (more thematically indicative) a Disney horror film. For the sake of comprehension, it is convenient to approach "Phenomena" in light of this film as a continuation of its themes and structure rather than on its own terms, as it is made up of many plot threads that frequently do not seem to mesh together unless viewed in a much broader context.

Like "Suspiria," "Phenomena" centers on a young American girl's adventures in a new European school. The daughter of an American movie star, teenage Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) arrives at a strict boarding school in Switzerland, situated in the one-time home of Richard Wagner. On her first night there, she learns that a serial killer has murdered several young girls in the area in the last few months. The fear of danger seems to rekindle Jennifer's childhood sleepwalking, and during one of her spells, she witnesses a girl being murdered. Rumors of her sleepwalking spread around the school, making Jennifer an outcast among the students and an object of suspicion to the cold headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro).

Her only friend is a local professor, John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), who gives her shelter after one of her sleepwalking episodes leads her far from the school. With his trained chimpanzee assistant (!), the wheelchair-bound McGregor studies insects and their interaction with dead human flesh. His findings have brought about theories related to the local murder spree, as he believes he can determine how long a victim has been dead based on the development of the larvae on the corpse and locate the whereabouts of missing corpses with certain breeds of flies. Fascinated by insects, Jennifer discovers that she has a psychic connection with them and is able to summon swarms of insects in times of emotional stress. Under McGregor's guidance, she decides to utilize her power to find the missing murder victims' bodies in hopes of stopping the killer.

Simply stated, "Phenomena" works best when viewed as a contemporary fairy tale. The noticeable similarities to "Suspiria," including the intimidating school, devious faculty, supernatural phenomena, and the virginal heroine, are all ingredients in the overriding fairy tale framework. However, Argento goes even further this time in fashioning a story of complex imagination and more visual restraint. With consistent shades of blue in lighting and décor and more mundane locations, the film is less visually delirious than "Suspiria," but the story is taken to greater heights of absurdity, merging the timeless fantasy of Argento's horror and the contemporary urbanity of his giallo into one feverish nightmare.

One aspect that significantly pushes the boundaries of Argento's typical style is his more-relatable-than-usual heroine. In only her second film, Jennifer Connelly gives a quietly powerful performance. With her privileged and sophisticated background, Jennifer functions as the contemporary fairy tale princess, mature beyond her years and steadfast in even the direst circumstances. Her connection to nature is an integral part of the film. Instead of forest friends, insects provide her with assistance and companionship. The insects are made a harbinger and symbol of death in the movie, yet rotting corpses are their sustenance and source of life. Once again, Argento examines the dichotomy of life and death, and Jennifer ("the lady of the flies"), with her youthful beauty and glum detachment, embodies this dynamic.

Where elements of "Snow White" could be found within the visuals and narrative of "Suspiria," the story's underlying themes run rampant in "Phenomena." Absent or inadequate mothers, hidden jealousies, vanity, and physical repulsion are all interweaved throughout the film. Toward the end, mirrors — and a fear of what they reveal — become a significant motif. Upon first viewing, much of the story seems incoherent and artificially strung together, but when approached as the logical progression of the ideas presented in Argento's previous supernatural horror, the pieces begin to fall into place, and the film takes on a greater level of complexity than it is generally given credit for. The trained chimpanzee is perhaps the film's most unexpected and baffling element, but it has its share of meaning, tapping into Jennifer's relation to animals and establishing a connection to Edgar Allan Poe ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue"), one of Argento's acknowledged influences. Even outside of this pointed view, the sheer audacity of the film remains absolutely enthralling. As with so many of Argento's films, stopping to contemplate rhyme and reason detracts from the visceral and visual experience.

Finally, the violence of "Phenomena" is, by Argento's standards, somewhat restrained. While there are plenty of grisly bits, including a sensational opening sequence and an incredibly nasty finale, these scenes are not as drawn out or over the top as the director's most famous sequences. This adds to the overall effectiveness, as when the violence does occur, it is all the more shocking because there is less buildup to it. If there is one glaring problem, it is with the film's music. The score consists of contributions by a variety of composers and musicians, including former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti. His main theme is the most memorable and haunting piece, and Bill Wyman's opening music perfectly sets the tone for what is to come. The rest of the score is made up of heavy metal songs that are overpowering and numbing when they should be underscoring the film. Fortunately, there is enough at work here to make this a relatively minor complaint.

Anchor Bay has re-released "Phenomena" in a newly anamorphic widescreen transfer, retaining the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Like their 1999 release, this is Argento's approved 110-minute version (the film was severely butchered to 82 minutes in the United States and released under the title "Creepers"). The picture is a bit grainy and perhaps murky, but generally pleasing. Black levels are solid, and contrast is good. There is an intentionally bluish tint throughout, so colors are not always completely natural, but this goes with the intended look.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 English soundtrack distributes the sound nicely, particularly during the action scenes and moments involving swarms of buzzing insects. The audio does sound a bit aged, but dialogue is mostly clear, and the heavy metal score is given great force. An English stereo track and French mono track are also included, but there are no subtitles.

Carried over from Anchor Bay's original release is a commentary track featuring Dario Argento, makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, composer Claudio Simonetti, and moderator Loris Curci. It appears that Curci recorded his interviews with the three artists separately, which in this case is beneficial as their Italian accents are sometimes difficult to understand, and hearing them speak over each other would have been problematic. They provide some good information, though at times the interviewees don't seem to be quite on the same page as Curci, which leads to some awkward moments. There are also several long stretches of silence on the track that frequently make this somewhat tedious.

"A Dark Fairy Tale" is a new making-of featurette, running 17 minutes and featuring interviews with Argento, actress Daria Nicolodi, co-screenwriter Franco Ferrini, and others involved in the film. This is a generally interesting and informative supplement, repeating some of the information from the commentary but benefiting from the fact that everyone speaks their native Italian rather than struggling with English.

The rest of the features are carry-overs from the 1999 release, beginning with a five-minute featurette called "Luigi Cozzi and the Art of Macrophotography." Cozzi was the optical effects artist on the film, and this curious piece takes a look at his work with the insects, special effects, and props. Partially dubbed in English and partially subtitled, this feels a little sloppy, as if two different features were just spliced together.

Next is a nine-minute segment of Dario Argento's appearance on "The Joe Franklin Show" in the mid 80s to promote the film. Between Argento's uneasiness with the English language and the host's clear ignorance of Argento's career, this is certainly one of the most uncomfortably awkward interviews I have seen in a long while. Worse yet is that the host frequently draws attention back to his previous guest, a stuntman, even making joking attempts to get him hired for Argento's next movie. Crazy stuff!

A couple of music videos for the movie's two main themes are presented next. The first is for Claudio Simonetti's "Jennifer," directed by Argento and featuring Jennifer Connelly, Simonetti, and an attractive woman who spends the bulk of the video leering at the camera. The video is, how shall I put this…weird. The next video is for Bill Wyman's "Valley." Though it has its share of weirdness too, this one is made up mostly of clips from the film. Each video lasts about four minutes. A theatrical trailer and Argento bio finish things off.

As with Anchor Bay's concurrent re-release of Argento's "Tenebre," their new edition of "Phenomena" is good, but not greatly improved over the old release. Aside from the anamorphic transfer and new featurette, everything else is the same. Whether or not this is worth a double dip mainly depends on how satisfied owners of the original disc are with the old transfer. The film has been made available individually or as part of Anchor Bay's new "Dario Argento Collection," which includes the re-released "Tenebre" and the previously released "Do You Like Hitchcock?," "The Card Player," and "Trauma."

"Phenomena" will most likely continue to be one of Dario Argento's most frequently debated films. Its style and fantasy elements are among the most accomplished achievements of his early work (which most consider his best period), but the wild story and twists are often too outrageous even for Argento's most dedicated fans. When viewed with the proper mindset, the film actually makes more sense, although even on a surface level it can be incredibly exhilarating. With elements of fantasy and horror, the film succeeds as a twisted fairy tale vision. Even for those who rank it among Argento's worst movies, there is no denying the unique impact "Phenomena" has on viewers, whether they buy into the film or not.

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