Phenomena (Integral Cut) ***/****
Phenomena (International Cut) ***/****
Image A Sound B+ Extras A+
starring Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Donald Pleasence
written by Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini
directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. There's an extraordinary quality of dreams attached to Dario Argento's Phenomena. It's the mist that diffuses the light, the sudden foehn windstorms that whip up the trees at night, the logic that links scenes together by theme as opposed to narrative. It's a naturally beautiful film, its photography of "Swiss Transylvania" almost aggressively lush and somewhat at odds with Argento's reputation for extreme, some would say forced, artificiality. I would argue that the way nature is shot in this film is so hyperreal it's actually as surreal as the constructed mindscapes of his more obviously surreal work. Whatever the case, that's not the only expectation Phenomena upends, as, continuing from Tenebrae, the auteur seems to be working out what he's described as a terrible experience (the production of Inferno) and dealing with the fallout and expectations afterwards. Indeed, by all reports, Argento was unusually energized and enthusiastic about this project, and that invention, lawless and largely lacking in any sort of guardrails, is obvious and bracing--even as he, at this point in his career, relies perhaps overmuch on recycling his greatest hits. Still, early on, he has a young woman stand in a classroom to declare "screw the past," which plays as something of a punk mission statement for the singular Phenomena.
The movie itself plays like other dark fantasies such as Konstantin Yershov's Viy and Jim Henson's Labyrinth, with which Phenomena shares star Jennifer Connelly. It's an Alice in Wonderland structure in which a girl goes through various partitions and portals to encounter realms governed by megalomaniacs and other manifestations of the heroine's psychoses and anxieties. It is, like all of Argento's films are to some extent, a working through of its creator's personal grievances and, consciously or not, prejudices and fears. It's possible to view Phenomena entirely through the lens of Argento's worry that he's maybe not a great dad, that his daughters are growing up in unnatural surroundings away from traditional family environments, that his then-disintegrating relationship with wife Daria Nicolodi is harsh commentary on his own unexamined attitudes about women. Casting her in this film as first something of a ninny who reacts hysterically to a bee, then as an over-weaning mother figure, an alpha Stella Dallas, who gets her comeuppance at the hands of a razor-wielding chimp on a mission to disfigure her face, is, even for Argento, a bit on the nose. Backstory? She was raped at some point by an inmate at an asylum, leaving her impregnated with a monster. Not surprisingly, Nicolodi has terrible memories of the shoot. She and Argento separated as soon as it was over, though their professional relationship continued. Phenomena was produced during a period of personal upheaval and transition. It's the first film made under Argento's own production company (DAC, later ADC) after his father and long-time producer, Salvatore, had to drop out due to illness and his uncle, Claudio, declined to step in due to lingering resentments towards Salvatore collected during the making of Tenebrae. Chaos is Phenomena's primary colour.
As in Tenebrae, there are two murderers in Phenomena, speaking to a psychic split for Argento, who made it a practice to always play the black-gloved, disembodied hands of his killers. Multiple murderers or not, in practice and theory there is always only Argento. Here, he's not split between an over-intellectualized television critic and a put-upon Great Artist (the latter killing the former, fascinatingly), but rather a disfigured maniac child and his overprotective mother. Argento, the great director as freak and the foster parent of freaks. Through this lens, it's meaningful that the picture's first kill (an echo of Mimsy Farmer's ethereal, gruesome end in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, from camera speed to resolution) is a young woman played by Argento's eldest child, fourteen-year-old Fiore. She goes through a pane of glass, and then it's off with her head. His later collaborations with daughter Asia are ripe for a similar excavation. I like that the film's conclusion reveals a monstrous mother who has covered up the mirrors in her home so that her son can't look at himself. There's a skewed dream-logic to this (why not just get rid of the mirrors?!?!), as well as a certain poetry that touches on Cocteau. It's Amor hiding from Psyche. The ramifications of knowledge of the self and the other is the foundation of the human tragedy. Just as meaningful, heroine Jennifer (Connelly) is, for a director of misogynistic films, unusually powerful, indomitable, stubborn, brave, and unfailingly resourceful. Hitchcock had supernaturally powerful women heroes, too. Should one push the comparison and force Phenomena through the filter of Argento's reliance on the themes and images of Alfred Hitchcock, you'd end up at Vertigo, with its troubled doubling, aborted ratiocination, and disturbed dreams and dream states.
Jennifer's relationship with her never-seen father echoes Argento's experience of growing up without a mother in the care of his famous dad. Consider that Jennifer has a rolled-up poster of her famous-actor dad among her possessions to be unpacked and how later, in the course of her investigation into what's become of a missing schoolmate, she finds three rolled posters on the top shelf of an otherwise-empty gingerbread chalet in the Swiss Alps. It's a little like Bluebeard's wife opening the closet door, or Ozma revealing to Dorothy her collection of severed heads. Jennifer has in essence discovered a trio of other-fathers, alternate opportunities for succour, but is prevented from looking upon them as well. Eventually, a hole opens beneath her into a Jungian basement. A scene that makes no sense to the narrative makes a lot of sense as dream language. Jennifer's dynamic with the wheelchair-using entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) is the more traditional example of a Freudian transference. There's a real paternal warmth in their conversations: Professor McGregor believes Jennifer when she tells him she can talk to insects and, after he notes a beetle secreting a mating pheromone out of season at her touch, counsels her on how best to control her budding powers. It's even significant to note that Jennifer first meets McGregor upon escaping what she thinks is a rape attempt by two German samaritans. She falls into the woods, where two bugs and McGregor's chimp, Inga, lead her to safety. Jennifer, Inga, and McGregor become family, in a way, mirroring the dark household of Frau Bruckner (Nicolodi), the unnamed, frigid headmistress of the Richard Wagner school (Dalila Di Lazzaro), and Bruckner's deformed child (Davide Marotta). It's the Id, Ego, and Superego from Freud's structure of the unconscious given a Jungian shadow trinity in opposition: two crippled egos (who both try to guide their monstrous children away from sharp objects, to no avail)--two Calibans held neither at arm's length nor at bay, leaving Jennifer paired with the Headmistress as Superego masters of their own private menageries.
If Jennifer is placed almost outside the events of the film, it explains her curious lack of agency in the real world, as well as her repeated immersions into the dream world, where she works out the tension between the civilization of the self and uncontrolled desire. The main criticism of Phenomena, one that I shared when I first rented it as Creepers on VHS, not knowing it had been carved down to a lean 83 minutes from "Integral" and "International" cuts running 116 minutes and 110 minutes, respectively, is that it's incomprehensible. It jumps from scene to scene without much connective tissue, it doesn't really bother to explain who the characters are or what they're doing at any given moment (reason, perhaps, for the latter two cuts' weird "introductory" voice-over narration that doesn't begin until about 10 minutes into the film), and it wallows luxuriantly in its uncanny nonsense. The acting is objectively terrible, as the reactions to things are wholly out of proportion to said things, while the dialogue seems secondary and alien, as is often the case with Argento. What's overlooked in this dismissiveness, though, is that dreams are also nonsense, yet for all their chaos do make perfect sense to the dreamer. When you get to the end of explaining a nightmare, you often find yourself saying, yes, this sounds ridiculous, but the feeling of it was terrible. Phenomena is gibberish, but it feels terrible. It's about a young girl left alone at a boarding school with girls who hate her because she's beautiful and has a rich-and-famous dad. A young girl who loses her surrogate father when McGregor is murdered, who is misdiagnosed multiple times for various mental illnesses, and who finally finds herself in a hole beneath an asylum (another strong Alice in Wonderland image), trying to make a phone call to her dad and only reaching his lawyer. Analyzing it as a personal Argento nightmare--and, lest we forget, in dreams the opposite sex are generally manifestations of a reflected ego--and even the layperson can pick out what Phenomena is actually about.
Back to that classroom scene where the girl invites everyone to "screw the past." The lesson for the day is to analyze and discuss a poem by Abraham Cowley called "Davideis". The overhead is projecting line 360 from Book I: "Nothing is there to come, and nothing past, But an eternal Now does always last," and the girl, with Jennifer's help, is interpreting it when she issues Argento's mission statement. The poem itself is an unfinished piece that set out to analyze the Bible and use notes and annotations to invite the devout to look outside of scripture in order to decry false religiosity. It was an attempt to engage in a larger world of ideas beyond the existing text. No accident it pops up in something like Phenomena that, likewise, challenges viewers to step outside their expectations of Argento, the genre to which he's attached, even the foundational rules of seeing and cinema. Phenomena is a violation of those terms in almost every way. It's an experimental film. It has more in common with the Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer--indeed, stop-motion animation was considered at one point for the insect scenes--than with any other filmmakers. When McGregor tells Jennifer how she can wake herself from sleepwalking, his deliberate delivery recalls the work of Konstantin Raudive, a disciple of Jung, on Electronic Voice Phenomena, i.e., the study of white noise for snippets and shards of speech possibly from a supernatural source. The ham radio as ouija board. The whole of Phenomena is listening for patterns in dreams. It's an incredibly ambitious project, and it grows in the rearview like few others in Argento's catalogue of sticky pictures.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Synapse Films have outdone themselves with their Blu-ray release of Phenomena, spreading the three cuts of the film across two discs in remastered versions sourced from original materials. The 110-minute "International" version comes complete with a commentary by critics David Del Valle and Derrick Botello (author of The Argento Syndrome, a must-read) that is at once scholarly and conversational. Love Phenomena or hate it--and most tend towards the latter--Synapse does right by this title. Every effort appears to have been made to keep the transfers on par with each other, with both Creepers and the two Phenomenas presented at 1.66:1 in 1080p. While the latter does boast a slightly cooler palette, as well as a more prominent grain structure and a few more filmic artifacts (print flecks, mostly), cumulatively the difference is negligible. Synapse's Tenebrae release is sharper overall but perhaps aggressively so in retrospect; fine detail here is no less impressive. Look to the sequence where Jennifer summons a swarm of flies to her school and note that it's possible to count the six million flies harvested/grown for the occasion, whether you've elected to watch Creepers or Phenomena.
Both incarnations carry matrixed surround mixes in two-channel DTS-HD MA that exploit the rear soundstage with gusts of wind and a near constant buzzing of insects. Safe to say that Creepers/Phenomena hasn't looked or sounded this good in decades. Since it only came out in English markets, Creepers features an English soundtrack exclusively; Phenomena offers a choice between English and Italian dubs. Because the "Integral" version was never finished for English markets, select scenes revert to Italian when the English option is selected, effectively annotating the extra footage. The commentary on the second disc is, as I was saying, worth the price of admission. There's a ton of background information on supporting players, the shoot, and Dario and Daria's disintegrating relationship, plus reams of interpretation with regards to the movie's imagery and motifs. Bring a notebook, as David and Derrick cite other films to check out, so many of which I confess I'd never heard of before. (The House of the Yellow Carpet, anyone?) For all the behind-the-scenes lore, the track never takes on a dishy tone, and the two distinguish themselves by lightly taking issue with each other's conclusions now and again. I appreciate Derrick admitting he doesn't love this film, especially Pleasence's weird Scottish accent, while still calling out moments that work for him, Connelly's interactions with Pleasence among them. I was similarly grateful when they touched on how truly odd it is that Argento has repeatedly tormented his daughters on screen.
The second Creepers disc additionally contains "Dario Argento's World of Horror" (71 mins., SD), a vintage documentary directed by the great Michele Soavi. Soavi, who has a cameo in the film (and had one in Tenebrae before it), was Argento's First AD on the production. Deliberately paced in an idiosyncratic way, it's a weird piece that indulges in excerpts from Argento's work through to 1985, sometimes pulling back to show Argento at the helm. Cineastes and gorehounds will be rewarded with vital information on how various special effects were achieved, and Argento, looking young and inspired, talks at length about how ultimately, he does what he does because he'd really like to be liked. It's pleasant. Rounding out the bonus material is a quick vintage interview with musician Andi Sex Gang (4 mins.), an irascible contributor to the film's soundtrack, who starts out by saying he never discusses his career then proceeds to do so for four breathless minutes. He recalls getting arrested for something ("Such is life") and hitting on Argento's "hot" girlfriend, but, yeah--a great time had by all. A supplemental trailer for Phenomena (3 mins., HD) is awesome for its austerity. Ominous music and McGregor's speech on the madness of winds adorn a fairly dada montage of clips from the film. It's the perfect trailer for the film and entirely accurate. The Creepers trailer (1:25) is heavily narrated, presenting it as a boarding-school slasher with maybe a dash of Carrie or something. The movie it's advertising looks cool, but it's not this movie. Two radio spots for Creepers first promise that gnarly stuff happens when you "mix metal with murder!", leaning heavily on the Iron Maiden and Motörhead songs that appear in the film before recycling the boilerplate from the misleading American trailer. A nifty extra and no wonder the movie flopped.
One last note that for all its truncation and discarded footage, Creepers is the best version of this film. It's economical--fleet, even--and complaints that it makes the movie hard to follow are stupid, because it would be hard to follow at Out 1's runtime. Cutting out the Exorcist medical exams and endless expository dialogues, plus shortening sequences that just drag on too long, helps focus the film on its interiority, forcing the audience to engage a different part of its attention to unpacking the picture. The difference between the 116-minute and 110-minute cuts is negligible, however--the main elision being some details of the roommate's murder in the woods, which, as author C. Robert Cargill points out, is essentially a repeat of an earlier kill. What remains in all three versions is a genuinely stunning flash of the deformed child during Jennifer's first sleepwalk. Like Deep Red, Argento has shown you the identity of the killer (at least one of them) in the early going; if only you knew at the beginning what you know at the end. It happens in the first murder that Jennifer witnesses, just after a shot of Jennifer reacting to the victim getting impaled through her mouth: as lightning strikes, an exterior view reveals a reflection in the window of a terrifying puppet opening its mouth to scream. Awesome. So is this package, which Synapse simultaneously released in a now-OOP steelbook that included the soundtrack CD.