Our review of Dario Argento: Anchor Bay Collection, published May 27th, 2008, is also available.
A new breedof terror!
Once again we delve into the weirdly Italian world of Dario Argento. You remember Dario, he's the guy behind such foreign shockers as Inferno, Suspiria and Opera. In 1984 Argento directed the eepy-creepy Phenomena, also known to U.S. audiences as Creepers. For Phenomena Dario assembled a halfway known cast that included Donald Pleasense (the Halloween series, Shadows and Fog), Jennifer Connelly (Career Opportunities, Requiem For A Dream), and a bunch of icky insects, such as our friends the housefly, the spider and the scorpion (I hear the spider constantly demanded a low-fat latte on the set). Anchor Bay infests DVD players everywhere with this widescreen edition of Phenomena featuring 28 minutes of originally cut footage!
Facts of the Case
Poor Jennifer (Connelly) is having a hard life. She's just transferred to a new all girls school in Switzerland. Unfortunately, not all the girls there like Jennifer. She's considered something of a freak because she tends to sleep walk during the middle of the night. Add to this the fact that she's able to telepathically talk to insects, and you've got a social life that borders on nada.
At the same time, a deranged killer is on the loose, and he has a nasty habit of picking up cute, young schoolgirls and chopping off their heads. One night Jennifer stumbles onto one of the murders in progress while she is sleepwalking. After being picked up by two drunken locals and tossed out of the car when she won't "give it up," Jennifer ends up running into a monkey (I kid you not) that belongs to entomologist Dr. John McGregor (Pleasence). Dr. McGregor's specialty is bugs and things that go "buzz" in the night. He's also trying to help the police find this fiendish mass murderer. Dr. McGregor discovers Jennifer is no ordinary girl and urges her to use her telepathic bug powers to help locate the killer before he strikes again.
Jennifer is scared. Time is running out. The bugs are on the loose. Let the hunt begin.
I'm going to just come out and say that I am not a huge fan of Dario Argento's work. At this point, I've seen a few of his films and have been none too impressed with the results. That aside, Phenomena becomes a decently done horror film during the last half of the movie. Unfortunately, the audience has to sit through over an hour of boring exposition before they get to the good stuff.
Phenomena does have some good things going for it. Its saving grace is that it includes some genuinely creepy moments, including an end sequence that's so bizarre that it defies explanation—think of a gross pool of sludge, a midget that's definitely not circus-friendly, and bugs. Some of the special effects are visceral, especially when a swarm of flies takes over the front of the school. It will make you think twice about skipping class again.
It's always nice to see the late Donald Pleasence show up in different horror films, a genre that he tended to get stuck in by the end of his career. Pleasence plays a Scottish doctor whose accent seems to come and go as fast as the flies zipping around outside his office. I often wonder if Pleasense really enjoyed working in horror films, or if he just got pegged and it became the only work he could find. Connelly is good as Jennifer, though it's fairly obvious that this is only her second film (she was cast in Once Upon A Time In America in 1984).
Phenomena is presented in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. This film was Anchor Bay's first dual layered disc, and unfortunately was not given an anamorphic transfer. The image quality is good, if a bit flawed. There were a few shots that were fuzzy and a bit grainy, though I suspect that might be more the filmmakers' fault than the transfer's. Overall, the image was clear with only a slight bit of edge enhancement. Colors were bright and crisp with blacks being solid.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English. This is a newly mixed track and sounds better than one would expect. The effects of bugs are often used in all speakers, supplying a nice feeling of dread for the viewer. Dialogue was clean and clear with effects and music mixed well. A Dolby Surround 2.0 track in English and a French Mono track are also included. No optional subtitles are included.
Phenomena can easily be considered a special edition, as it features much supplemental material. First up is a commentary track by director Dario Argento, special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, music composer Claudio Simonetti, and journalist Loris Curci. The track is very informative, featuring what seemed to be equal discussion by each person. Curci tends to ask questions to each participant with them feeding back answers. The track is a bit dry, though I am happy to report via Argento that Jennifer Connelly never had to actually swim with worms in the end sequence.
Next up is an interview with Dario Argento that was featured August 29th, 1985 on "The Joe Franklin Show." Yes, I have no idea who he is either. This is an archival treat, featuring Franklin praising Argento as "the modern day Alfred Hitchcock." Umm…okay, whatever you say, Joe. Franklin shows he really knows his guests when he quips, "We're going to talk about the movie called 'Creepers,' which I haven't seen, but I guess it's creepy." This whole segment is pretty funny to see, and I just have to say that Argento is the strangest looking director this side of Hitchcock (so, maybe the two of them do have something in common).
A short "Behind-the-scenes" featurette includes some rough footage from the making of Phenomena. It's sort of like an old time documentary from 1985. A narrator helps with the Italian languages. Some of the effects are impressive, while others are downright gross. For instance, I don't care what the pay is, no one is slopping me with glucose and letting a butt load of flies attack me. Period. End of discussion.
Two "music videos" are included, one by Claudio Simonetti and another by Bill Wyman. Both of these are strange mixes of behind the scenes shots and odd scenes from Phenomena. Playing over all this stuff are themes and songs from the movie. The first features Simonetti's annoying song (with rock themes), with the second by Bill Wyman. Neither are very good, and unless you're a big fan of this music score (which I can't believe anyone is), then it will make little difference to you that they are included on the disc.
Finally a non-anamorphic theatrical trailer is included, as well as a few talent bios on Donald Pleasense, Jennifer Connelly, Dario Argento and other principle cast and crew.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, can I just say that it's downright creepy how many cute schoolgirls there are in this film? Director Argento is quoted as doting on the girls in the commentary. That's nice and all, but some of the indulgence in his shots border on being a wee bit suspicious. It's called jailbait, Dario. Look into it.
As for the rest of the movie, the first half is just too darn dull. Anchor Bay has put in 28 extra minutes of footage, though I'm siding with keeping it out. At almost two hours, Phenomena quickly wears out its welcome. How many times do I have to watch a girl walking down a white hallway with that crappy music playing the background? Or of classmates taunting Jennifer for what seems like an eternity? If any movie was in need of some serious editing, it's Phenomena.
While we're at it, how 'bout we talk about the music score? I've read that many fans praise Argento for his wonderfully placed music in his movies. Frankly, I haven't a clue what the hell they're talking about. The main theme by Claudio Simonetti is atrocious. The theme features a woman singing at the top of her lungs in long-winded syllables. Let me give you an example:
A creepy rock beat starts to play:
Aesthetically I am sure it is hard to see my point. Just believe me when I say that you'll know what I am talking about when you see Phenomena. I am dead serious when I say the music borders on comedic parody.
Phenomena's main troubles come in the form of, not surprisingly, the dubbing. I've complained about this before. What were these people thinking? The dubbing in this film is horrid! Why did they do it? It's not as if Phenomena was filmed in Italian! If anyone knows why most of these Italian shockers are dubbed so poorly, please get in touch with me, I'd love to know.
I know there are fans out there that will love to have this widescreen version on DVD with all these extra features. I, however, am not one of them. Though it's an interesting movie to see, I'm not sure I need to have it on display in my DVD case. Anchor Bay has done a fine job (save for the non-anamorphic transfer) of putting out one of Argento's most famous films. The supplemental features make the package all the more tantalizing.
Hmmm…this time I am letting Dario slip by me. I am going to let Phenomena go, though the first half is in need of a major overhaul.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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