Phenomena (1985) Blu-ray Review: Argento at His Most Bewildering

One of Dario Argento’s most eclectic contributions to the European horror movie boom of the 1980s, Phenomena is something like an Italian cinematic variation of paella with just a dash of LSD to enhance the flavor. Equal parts giallo, horror, and a lot of other interesting juicy bits of meat, the very strange story finds young Jennifer Connelly as Jennifer Corvino, daughter of an (unseen) American movie star. Sent to a prestigious Swiss boarding school whilst daddy dearest is off shooting a flick in the Philippines (presumably with Bruno Mattei), Jennifer soon discovers she has picked a rather cumbersome time to visit the otherwise beautiful countryside, since there’s a serial killer on the loose with a penchant for offing young ladies such as herself.

The upside to her visit, however, is that it enables her to come to grips with her secret gift: she can communicate telepathically with insects! In fact, her unique power could very well be the only way local police inspector Patrick Bauchau ‒ whom I always forget is in the movie for some reason, possibly due to the fact that he really doesn’t do much ‒ will ever find the killer. Providing he gets enough screen time to make it look like he’s actually investigating, that is. Fortunately for Jennifer (and viewers), she makes two very good friends as her classmates meet untimely demises. One is a wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasence, who co-stars as a forensic entomologist. The other is a cheeky monkey, who serves as Prof. Pleasence’s assistant.

Did I mention Phenomena is a little weird already, kids?

Replete with all of Dario’s classic horror movie motifs ‒ a pounding rock/metal/synth score (from everyone to Iron Maiden and Goblin), plenty of gore, stunning visuals, and the required appearance by Daria Nicolodi ‒ Phenomena might give the unprepared viewer a bad case of whiplash (along with a good case of the heebie-jeebies, be it from the bugs, the gore, or some of the supporting teenage players’ performances). Actually, it may even do so to regular admirers of Argento’s work, but that’s just one of the reasons fans of Italian horror flicks love this bizarre dish. While somewhat akin to having ADD, there’s one thing the movie ultimately does throughout, and that’s entertain. Oh, and Patrick Bauchau is in too, somewhere.

Released in the U.S. the following year (as Creepers) with 20 minutes excised and a wonderfully deceptive advertising campaign added, Phenomena returns to terrorize and bewilder once more thanks to Synapse Films, who worked meticulously to present the cult classic in three different cuts. The first (on the first of two-discs) presents what may be a first for many American viewers: the original 116-minute “Integral cut” of the film, featuring a few short bits in Italian not seen in any other version. Disc Two sports two other cuts: the first is the more commonly-seen English-language International edit running at 110min, and the last is the heavily-trimmed (but still fun) Creepers cut, which clocks in at a brisk 83 minutes.

Each version of the film has its own differences when it comes to the audio and video aspects, including (sadly) a bit of Digital Noise Reduction on Disc One. All editions are presented in 1.66:1 with an English 2.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack as the default. The Integral edit features a secondary Italian 2.0 DTS-HD MA track, while the International version includes a rarer alternate English audio option containing a few different sound effects and music cues (which drown out the dialogue in some instances!), and an audio commentary with Derek Botelho and David Del Valle.

Disc Two is also where you will find a bundle of supplements, beginning with Michele (Dellamorte, Dellamore) Soavi’ excellent documentary about his mentor, Dario Argento’s World of Horror. As a longtime admirer of the marvelous voicework used in the English-language versions of Italian horror movies (OK, so maybe I’m a little weird, too), seeing this previously uncommon rarity for the first time was aurally orgasmic, as it is narrated by two of the most awesomest voiceover actors who ever roamed a recording booth: Nick Alexander and Anthony La Penna (aka Leslie Daniel). The doc features many clips from Argento’s earlier work, and is highly recommended by itself.

Lastly on Disc Two is an interview with Andi Sex Gang (who provides one of my favorite songs on the soundtrack, which I rocked out regularly to on cassette during my teenage years), trailers for Phenomena and Creepers, and two radio spots for the latter version of the film. A previous (and pricier) Steelbook release from Synapse included a collector’s booklet, a CD soundtrack (truly, this is one of the best ’80s horror movie soundtracks ever, and should be on every fan’s shelf next to the OST from Lamberto Bava’s Demons, which Argento produced). Sure, those extras are missed here, but the inclusion of two entirely alternate (and painstakingly restored) versions of the film more than makes up for it, don’t you think?

Highly Recommended. Even if there isn’t much Patrick Bauchau to be seen in either cut.

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Luigi Bastardo

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