Review Date: May 24, 2008
Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: 05/27/2008
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: Yes
Children. It seems to happen to the best. You begin making great movies for the torments inside yourself, and then once you have kids, you get self-conscious and suddenly get the inclination to make films for them. M. Night Shyamalan had a pretty spotless track record until he decided to adapt a bedtime story he regularly developed with his children. Robert Rodriguez was quick on his way to becoming a man’s man director with El Mariachi
, From Dusk Till Dawn
under his belt and then BAM! Spy Kids
. Spy Kids II
. Spy Kids 3-D
. Shark Boy and Lava Girl
. Sure, he’s redeemed himself with Grindhouse
and Sin City
, but I doubt he’ll live down the Lava Girl
at movie nights with Tarantino and Roth.
Now we come to a true master of the arts, a man with a vision so deep-seededly dark and personal that it would seem impossible to derail: Dario Argento. It was 1984, and his children were finally coming of age. Asia was 9 and Fiore was 14, so naturally Dario finally decided to make a film that they could see. Thus was born Phenomena
, on the surface a Suspiria
for kids, taking a maggot infested ballet school and turning it into a maggot infested elementary boarding school. Had Dario finally sold out? Had that indiminishable flame of dark desires finally succumbed to the life of a family man? Anchor Bay gives us a second chance to find out with their brand new restoration.
Argento’s cred no doubt seems in limbo from the opening frames, when a young girl walks off a bus into a green hilly wilderness of the Von Trapp variety. That young girl is none other than his daughter, Fiore Argento, in what looks to be a kindhearted cameo. The bus leaves and she walks past animals, waterfalls and other cute clichés of nature. Then proving that he could never, would never, puss out, Argento stabs his daughter in the hand and the cuts her head off at 340 frames per second, having it tumble violently into a towering waterfall. This ain’t your typical kids movie.
The film picks up with Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly
), daughter of a famed American actor, on her way to her new Swiss boarding school. She had a rough time in America, witnessing her parents’ breakup, but looks to the mountainside for solace. Unfortunately for her, the murders do not stop, as an unidentified man continues to spear young women around the countryside. Helping the police track the killer is unorthodox scientist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence
), who looks to insects and animals for answers.
Jennifer also has an affinity for insects, although with that comes great power. She can mobilize bugs on cue, whether it’s having a firefly lead her to a bloody glove or a swarm of thousands of flies to seek revenge on her peers. It’s a good thing, because with a killer hot on her trail, she’ll need all the help she can get. She heads out to that same Von Trapp wilderness of the start, armed only with a single fly. Minutes later though, as the lush green grass makes way for the blue glow of moonlight, fantasy takes over and telepathically controlling bugs seems mundane by comparison. It’s Argento’s world, Argento’s fairy tale.
is a beautiful lark in the Argento canon – a film more enamored with the whimsy of the supernatural and the inexplicable wonder of the unknown, from adolescence to insects, than it is with violence. It is his testament to his children, but told in only a way Dario could tell it. Wall to wall with creepy crawlies, decapitations, deformities and heavy metal music, it’s probably the only kiddie movie made for twentysomething men.
Behind all the gore and Iron Maiden, though, there is a universal voice in the film that reaches further than any of Argento’s works prior. It does speak to kids. It does speak to seniors. It speaks to the marginalized. Jennifer’s great talent comes from a displacement of pain triggered by her parents’ divorce, just like McGregor’s discoveries seem a byproduct of his physical disability. Argento would lose his ailing father and split from longtime lover and mother to Asia, Daria Nicolodi a few years after Phenomena
, so having his two leads deal with the pains of family dysfunction and physical deterioration are far from coincidence. This was a movie for more than his kids, but his family at whole, which is no surprise considering Argento commonly calls the film his most personal.
Just like the fairy tales of the Brother’s Grimm could speak simultaneously to the children who heard them and the parents who read, Phenomena
is that rare work that seems to give everyone a voice at any given moment. Argento reaches for a childhood ideal with an insular look at Jennifer, complete with the cradling melodies of Claudio Simonetti’s synthetic sound. While this may seem like a nostalgic step backward, Argento takes a step forward in his own adult themes of science, vision and man’s search for eternal truth. Like his David Hemmings, McGregor seems infatuated with the truth behind the unknowable in life, this time embracing the eccentricities of insect and animal alike to solve the unsolvable. He also offers us numerous first person shots from McGregor’s bugs, a kaleidoscope of visions, proving that no truth is absolute. It varies in the eye of the beholder, like an adult who thinks he’s photographed a murder, or a little girl whose mind has run wild.
Young or old, murderer or not, in Phenomena
Argento strives to show how we’re all alike in our search for understanding. The otherwise incidental whodunit in the film only furthers the inseparability of young and old when the killer is finally revealed. Argento has tackled a lot of subjects in his time, be it the role of the artist in Tenebre
, the subjugation of women in The Stendhal Syndrome
, or notions of history in Inferno
. Yet, in Phenomena
, he seems to tackle everything in a beautiful, elegiac, meta-something. There’s usually something wrapped up by the resolution of Argento’s gialli, but in this film’s final shot and final embrace, one gets the sense that it is only the beginning. That behind the eyes of an insect, animal, man lie truths we are only beginning to comprehend.
If you already have the old 2000 Anchor Bay disc, then this is the reason why you’ll be upgrading. The 1.66:1 transfer has now been given anamorphic enhancement in addition to additional color tweaking. The dirt and debris (already minimal on the old release) remain virtually the same here, though. What you’ll immediately notice, outside the sharper, more detailed picture, are the more vibrant colors. Everything is saturated a touch more to red, and as a result a lot of the scenes really pop this time around. The older transfer went for more of a muted, realistic scheme, but we know with Argento that he strives for anything but! The final bonus is that this is a progressive transfer compared to the interlaced 2000 version, so really, there’s no question this is a worthy upgrade.
The film is available in both English Dolby Digital 5.1 and mono. The 5.1 track, although an older one from Chace Digital’s glory days with the Bay, doesn’t really have a personality of its own – sort of just the mono track sporadically expanded to the wider soundscape. There aren’t any noticeable directional effects, but at least the soundtrack does have some depth. There’s quite a bit going on, audibly, and things like the cracking of glass or the swarming of bugs, do have a fair bit of resonance. English is the proper language for the film, with its two stars English (and recorded sync sound) and the rest of the Italian cast miming it. Simonetti’s tracks and Bill Wyman’s atmospheric “Valley” have a beautiful sound on their own, so regardless of the lack of directionality to this track, it’s still a forceful and involving one.
What we get here is a direct port of the already lavish 2000 Anchor Bay special edition with a nice new featurette. “The Dark Fairy Tale” has new interviews with Dario, Daria, Fiore Argento, DOP Romano Albani, special optical effects artist (and director in his own right) Luigi Cozzi, writer Franco Ferrini and special effects master Sergio Stivaletti. That’s a fine cast of characters, and they are given a solid 17 minutes to speak. Nothing is really superfluous, as each one offers up an anecdote not heard much prior. My favorite was hearing Fiore, since she is often marginalized by her sister. She shares some nice stories about how her father was very hard on her during shooting in order to get the performance he wanted. The technical crew also share some nice stories about their craft, and Argento finishes it all up claiming it’s his favorite film. Directed by cult featurette maestro, David Gregory, this is wonderful addition to the set.
So what was on the previous disc? First off, an English commentary with Dario, Sergio Stivaletti, Claduio Simonetti and moderator Loris Curci. The commentary is not as good as it sounds on paper, one reason being that all participants were done separately, making for flatter discussion. The worst part though, is that the English really stifles what each participant is trying to say because of the language barrier. It would have been much better to have recorded it in Italian and offered up subtitles. Still, there are some nice nuggets of information – it just takes the commentators a lot more time, and a lot less eloquence to say it.
Next up is a very short subtitled behind-the-scenes talk with Luigi Cozzi discussing the making of the film and his effects work. He goes over the same things (and more) in the new doc, so this is unnecessary. A better vintage piece is the Joe Franklin interview with Dario Argento. Argento’s promoting the USA “Creepers” release, and while Franklin’s lack of knowledge about the maestro and the whole talk show format in general, trivializes any sort of meaningful discussion. It’s trifle, but interesting at the same time to see Argento of the time promoting the film.
The disc is rounded off with a couple cool music videos that combine behind-the-scenes footage with some newer footage shot by a couple big wig Italian directors. Bill Wyman’s awesome “Valley” track is given a moody trailer from Michele Soavi, and Argento himself handles Simonetti’s “Jennifer”, complete with alternate footage of Jennifer Connelly. A gory trailer and a informative director biography round off the bulk of the ported over features.
The old disc didn’t skimp on special features to begin with, and the addition of the new featurette here only makes it all better.
may be Argento’s kids film, but with gore, heavy metal and mature observations on the parameters of sight and the mysteries of nature, Argento proved that in his prime no genre was out of his reach. It’s a beautiful film on all accounts, and one of the glorious larks in his canon. The new image quality is a welcomed progressive and anamorphic improvement, and the new featurette helps pad an already stellar array of extras. This is another phenomena
l release worthy of the Anchor Bay Collection banner. If there’s anything to wipe away those Mother of Tears
, then this is it.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - A-
- Running time - 1 hour and 50 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English Dolby Surround 2.0
- French mono
- Audio commentary
- New "The Dark Fairy Tale" featurette
- Special effects featurette
- Argento on The Joe Franklin Show
- Music videos
- Argento Bio