PHENOMENA Blu-ray Review

Contributor; London
PHENOMENA Blu-ray Review
Dario Argento's no stranger to frightening animal-human interactions. Throughout his lengthy career there's been everything from the lunar-crazed rats of Inferno, to the eye-pecking ravens in Terror At The Opera (aka Opera), not to mention his extraordinary obsession with maggots. I think it's safe to say that it all comes to a head in Phenomena, with poor little Jennifer Connelly stuck in the middle.

Jennifer Corvino is the daughter of a famous musician sent away to an exclusive boarding school in the Swiss countryside. Prone to sleepwalking she unwittingly witnesses a murder whilst roaming the school, and comes into contact with friendly entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). Wheelchair-bound and accompanied by his helpful chimp he warns of a series of murders that have taken place in the area, all targeting young girls. The two quickly form a bond over their shared affection for insects - you see, Jennifer has the uncanny ability to tap into the telekinetic power insects use to communicate. As she struggles to fit in at school, the killer continues to terrify the locals and pretty much everyone gets more than they bargained for.

 If that all sounds just a little bit weird, it is. Even for Argento the final 20 minutes is perhaps his most downright bizarre, the culmination of a terribly twisted fairy-tale. Phenomena isn't usually held in the same regard as the likes of Suspiria and Deep Red, which is a shame as it's a huge amount of fun with some startling imagery and arguably his most distinctive heroine. Connelly anchors the action with a compelling performance and a memorable Alice Through The Looking Glass sense of wonderment.

The downside for Argento non-fans is that it's also less accessible than some of his more famed work, with idiosyncrasies more prominent than ever. Goblin's heavy rock score is incredibly loud and used in some particularly obtuse segments - when a victim is wheeled out to a waiting ambulance sticks in the mind. His pre-disposition for revealing whole, previously unchartered plot strands two thirds of the way in, and largely discarding others, is here too. I love these quirks, but I can also see them frustrating those who don't wholly buy into his oeuvre already.

 A fusing of many themes he's previously explored, Phenomena straddles the straight giallo films of early Argento and the outright fantasy of the Suspiria/Inferno era. With more ambitious special effects than just gore make-up (especially where the insects are concerned) there's an inevitable dating of some visuals. That said, the magical, ethereal nature of the whole thing means it doesn't distract from what's actually a remarkably well-paced film that somehow navigates its indulgences with a deftness that avoids the clunky, exploratory dialogue seen in his gialli.

 The ultimate in animal hysteria, this may be late period Argento but, as with Terror At The Opera, it's vintage rather than mouldy. Phenomena even features the first on screen death of his offspring - his eldest daughter's demise marks the start to a series of controversial cinematic uses for his daughters. A fascinating, innovative, transitional film that's essential Argento.

The Disc

 I'll start with a couple of caveats. Firstly this is the only time I've seen Phenomena on any format, so comparing it with other editions isn't something I can do. Secondly the review is from a pre-production screener so I haven't got access to Arrow's typically excellent packaging or accompanying booklets/posters etc.

The most noticeable problem with the transfer is some occasionally heavy grain in some of the darker scenes. The first slow-motion murder stands out in particular, as the shots that surround it are impressively sharp for the age. I suspect it's a result of poor quality source material, with the choice being to either clean it up and lose the integrity, or stay true to the original. There are other instances of similar grain but none quite so severe, and in general it's a great image.

As mentioned already the special effects have dated but Arrow seem to have done a good job in not exposing their flaws further through the high def picture. The score is bombastic and very loud, but the dialogue is always clear and there's no need to be fiddling with the volume between scenes. Though your neighbours may wonder what's going on during the murders...

As with Deep Red, there are sections without English language dialogue (it was either never recorded or lost) which return the Italian dub (this being the Italian cut of the film).

Extras Dario's Monkey Business: The Making of Phenomena (50 mins)

If you're familiar with Arrow's other discs you'll be in your comfort zone here. Interviews with Argento, Daria Nicolodi and underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia amongst others are entertaining and largely have some decent tales to tell. Nicolodi is particularly funny this time round. Phenomena was filmed at the end of her marriage to Argento, and she wastes no time in revealing the tensions between them, with not a trace of bitterness in her voice...

Another visit to the poorly lit Profondo Rosso shop in Rome sees the amiable Luigi Cozzi describe many of the optical effects employed to showcase the insect swarms.

Music for Maggots - An Interview with composer with Claudio Simonetti

Simonetti discusses the score but seems uncomfortable when discussing the film itself - it clocks in at a brief 6 mins. He also seems confused as to Jennifer Connelly's real age whilst filming.

Creepers for Creatures - Sergio Stivaletti live Q&A sessions from Dublin and Edinburgh (17 mins)

Special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti talks enthusiastically at a couple of Q&As about Phenomena and effects in general.

 It's not the most comprehensive disc Arrow have produced and the absence of any input from Connelly is a shame, but it's still a very nice package.

Phenomena will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 7th March 2011

Full Blu-ray specs

- 4 panel reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
- Two sided fold out poster with new art work
- Exclusive collector's booklet featuring brand new writing on Phenomena by Alan Jones, author of Profondo Argento
- High Definition transfer of the Italian cut of the film
- Original English* & Italian Stereo Audio
- Brand new subtitle translation of the Italian and optional English subtitles of the English audio

- Introduction by special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti (1080p)
- Dario's Monkey Business: The Making of Phenomena - A 50 minute long documentary featuring interviews with key talent behind the film including director Dario Argento, star Daria Nicolodi, underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia and more! (1080p)
- Music for Maggots - An Interview with composer with Claudio Simonetti (1080p)
- Creepers for Creatures - Sergio Stivaletti lives Q&A sessions from Dublin and Edinburgh (1080p)

Original art by Rick Melton

Presented in original 1.66:1 (16x9) Aspect Ratio with English & Italian Stereo Audio options

*The English Audio track has some portions of English audio missing. This was either never recorded or has been lost. Scenes without English audio automatically revert to the Italian audio with English subtitles.

Blu-ray Region ABC

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