Phenomena (1985)



About 15 years ago I discovered Dario Argento. I remember I was hanging out at my girlfriend’s house (she’s now my wife), and I was watching one of her cable channels I didn’t have. It was a horror marathon hosted by Tom Savini. He was showing Suspiria and had interviews with Argento and trivia each time the commercial break was over. I was riveted. I had never seen a film like Suspiria before. The colors, the style, the music, the dream-like plot. I was hooked. I sought out his films wherever I went and somewhere along that Argento odyssey I watched Phenomena. At the time, I was underwelmed. I didn’t bother re-watching the film and moved on. Since that time, I had only seen the film once and I was excited to give the film another try.

Phenomena stars Jennifer Connely plays Jennifer, the daughter of a famous actor that has been put in a Swiss school. Teenage girls in the area are going missing and the remains of one’s decapitated head have been found. There’s a murderer on the loose with a hunger for girls, including those that attend the fancy school. Already it sounds a bit like Susperia. A local etymologist, played by Donald Pleasance (Halloween, Escape from New York), is helping the police by using his expertise on flies and their love of decayed flesh. Jennifer has a strange connection to insects. They love her and are attracted to her. She meets the bug specialist and they strike up a friendship. You see, he’s paralyzed and can’t leave his home. He also has a helper chimpanzee, which is odd but hey, it’s an Italian flick. They work together to try to expose the killer. Then things get really weird.

Phenomena is spiritually similar to Susperia. It has a dreamlike quality where anything can happen, everything isn’t as it seems. Some questions go unanswered and some answers are totally bizarre in the context of the film. The film feels a bit more like a giallo than Suspiria does. Personally, I don’t consider Suspiria a giallo because of it’s supernatural components. Phenomena is more focused on the murder mystery and the killer doesn’t have supernatural powers (though Jennifer does). Stylistically, the film is more restrained than Argento’s previous work but it still has his love for graphic violence and unique camera setups. The music was supplied by Goblin, and though it isn’t one of their best, it still has a bit of the Goblin magic. Oddly the film also features Iron Maiden (Flash of the Blade) and Motorhead (Locomotive) in the film. I remember Argento saying something about how metal fit the chaos of the scene and that he wanted really aggressive music for the scenes the songs feature in. For a metalhead like me, it’s odd, distracting (how can I not sing along with Maiden?), but welcome. The version on this release is the full 116 minute extended cut. Phenomena was released in the states back in ’85 as Creepers and was heavily cut. Internationally the cut was 110 minutes. The extra six minutes come from footage included in Creepers but excised from the international cut. I believe this is the first time I’ve seen this cut and I have to say that I enjoyed it.

Phenomena is not an entry level Argento flick. It’s a film that should be watched after seeing a handful of his films and preferably a handful of other Eurohorror movies. It’s dreamy vibe can feel slippery and frustrating for a fan looking for a cohesive, logical, plot-driven film. It can be better appreciated after being more familiar with Eurohorror. My opinion of Phenomena has changed in the intervening decade and a half. While it’s still far from my favorite, I better understand the vibe of the film and can appreciate it’s aesthetic. Phenomena was made right between Tenebre and Opera, which for my money are two of his best films. Opera being the last major film he ever made before the Italian film industry collapsed, forcing him to make far lower-budgeted movies.

Once again Synapse has done a fantastic job with this release. The image is pristine. I can’t imagine the film ever looking better than this. The package includes the extended cut as well as the Creepers cut and the international cut. So us fans get to choose which cut we like the best because they’re all there. The audio is great and the extra features are solid as well with a commentary track and a documentary about Argento called Dario Argento’s World of Horror. This release is well worth picking up for Argento fans, Eurohorror fans, 80’s horror fans, or those curious about foreign horror.