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Phenomena (1985)

Synapse Films
Blu-ray Disc Released: 9/12/2017

All Ratings out of




Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/8/2017

I feel certain that there was a time that when filmgoers watched a movie, they thought that they were watching the only and definitive version of the film. Why would there be another version? Wouldn't the public see the movie in the form which the filmmaker intended? However, as time when on, and audiences members became more savvy about the film industry, and with the birth of home video, we began to learn about things called "Director's Cut" or "Alternate Cut". It soon became clear that movies could take on many forms and that we weren't always seeing what the director had envisioned. For example, when many foreign films made their way to America, they were cut for content and sometimes even for length. Dario Argento's 1985 effort Phenomena is a great example of this, as the movie reached these shores missing almost 1/4 of its content.

Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) arrives at a boarding school in Switzerland, just as the area is under a reign of terror by a serial killer. Although Jennifer quickly befriends her roommate, Sophie (Federica Mastroianni), she is scrutinized by the other girls because her father is a famous movie star, and then shunned by them due to her odd behavior. It begins with sleepwalking and then worsens when it's revealed that Jennifer can communicate with insects. Fortunately for her, she meets Professor McGregor (Donald Pleasance), a local entomologist who is fascinated by Jennifer’s gift. When one of her schoolmates is killed, Jennifer decides to use her power to solve the crime.

People love to ask “Do you remember where you were...?” questions concerning historic events, so, “Do you remember where you were when Dario Argento began to lose his mojo?” Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Argento made a name for himself creating colorful, violent, unique movies which were decidedly Italian, and yet, had worldwide appeal. His films weren't necessarily known for their cohesive narratives though. This changed in 1982 with the release of Tenebrae. That film, unlike Argento’s other gialli almost followed a traditional mystery narrative by presenting suspects, and screwing with the audience by killing off everyone who seemed guilty. Thus, when 1985’s Phenomena appeared, it’s understandable that audiences would have hoped to see Argento continue to grow in this department.

Well, he didn’t. If anything, Phenomena is one of Argento’s most scattered movies, and at times, plays like some sort of Dario Argento fan-fiction. It certainly has all of the hallmarks. There is a black-gloved killer running loose who kills several people, which, of course, makes us think of all of Argento‘s gialli. The fact that Jennifer is an American female who has come to a European boarding school harkens back to Suspiria. Like that film, and 1980’s Inferno, Phenomena dabbles in the supernatural with Jennifer’s insect-related powers. All of those things fall into line and we aren’t necessarily surprised to see them in this movie.

Phenomena also has some things which don't necessarily fit the Argento mold. The inclusion of Professor McGregor as somewhat of a mentor for Jennifer is interesting, and not the sort of character which we've seen before in an Argento film. As for McGregor's monkey...well, the less said about that, the better. The problem is that these disparate ideas and themes never blend. Phenomena isn't really a gialli, as the murder stay in the background for a good portion of the film. Neither is it a horror movie, as Jennifer's powers are only featured in a few scenes. Again, logical stories have never been Argento's strong suit and his gialli fly in the face of the standard mystery story of the Western world, but the revelation of the killer here comes out of nowhere, and I'm still not sure if I understand who the murderer was. Phenomena is also marred by some unnecessary hijinks from the schoolgirls which come across as silly and don't fit the mold of the film. Did you see that girl in the big-ass Barry Gibb shirt?

Even Argento's wackiest early works were often save by creative cinematography, but we don't even get much of that here. (Although the shot of the hands reaching out to grab Jennifer is a classic.) From the film's opening, where the movie just suddenly begins, making you wonder if you've missed something, to the abrupt ending, Phenomena is all over the place and it shows an artist who is either trying too hard or simply playing his greatest hits. The most tell-tale thing here is that the set includes a 116-minute cut of the film and an 83-minute cut, and storywise, they aren't all that different.

Phenomena makes you wonder what is wrong with that monkey's butt on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Synapse Films. The film has been windowboxed at 1.66:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 35 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing no notable grain and no defects from the source materials. As usual, Don May and company have done a great job with the restoration here. The colors look very good, most notably the greens, and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is very good, and the picture is rarely soft. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.1 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects aren't necessarily abundant, but they work well for the exterior scenes, especially when the wind is howling by. The score sounds fine and it never overpowers the dialogue.

The extras for Phenomena are found Disc 2. With the 110-minute cut of the film, we get an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Author Derek Botelho & Film Historian David Del Valle. 1985's "Dario Argento's World of Horror" (71 minutes) is an excellent documentary from Director Michele Soavi (Stagefright) which focuses on the first (and best) half of Argento's career. Complete with film clips, on-set footage, and interviews, this gives us an intimate look at Argento's work and it's very cool that Synapse has included it here. "Interview with Andi Sex Gang" (4 minutes) allows the musician to talk about his work. We get a THEATRICAL TRAILER for Phenomena, a THEATRICAL TRAILER for "Creepers" and two RADIO SPOTS for "Creepers".

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long