What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice, and everything nice, except for Jennifer, who’s made of sterner stuff that allows her to be besties with all kinds of creepy crawlies, so much so that she can call on them at a moment’s notice to do her bidding. Now that’s girl power.
Jennifer is the protagonist of Dario Argento‘s Phenomena, known originally in the UK as Creepers; horror fans may remember the VHS art with the chimpanzee menacingly wielding a cutthroat razor. Released in 1985, Phenomena stars Jennifer Connelly in one of her earliest roles as Jennifer – she had previously appeared in Sergio Leone’s crime epic Once Upon A Time in America – along with Argento regular Daria Nicolodi and the great Donald Pleasance. Now released as a 4K UHD, it’s a twisty-turny supernatural experience as only Argento can do them.
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Jennifer is the daughter of a famous American actor who, in shades of Suspiria, is sent to a prestigious boarding school in Switzerland. Life is not hunky-dory, however; there’s a killer on the loose, and Jennifer happens to witness one of the murders while sleepwalking. The bad thing is she can’t remember what happened, although when she happens to find herself in the home of entomologist Dr McGregor (Pleasance) thanks to his helper chimp Inga, he recognises something extra-sensory in her – her ability to be able to communicate with insects. From then on, we’re introduced to flesh-eating flies, a monstrously deformed child, and a horrific watery pit of maggots and body parts.
Phenomena is a ride, and I mean that as an absolute compliment. It’s a cracking film that may not be as good as Argento classics such as Deep Red, Suspiria, and Tenebrae (to be fair, it’s hard to match any of those) but is still a hell of a lot of fun, taking cues from the giallo playbook and mixing them up with a Carrie-esque main character and some disparate elements to produce something unique. It’s thrilling, it’s wholly predictable and yet keeps you on the edge of your seat, and contains what must be the only cinematic case of Chekhov’s straight razor.
One of the best things about the film is the mesmerising performance of Jennifer Connelly, who even at the age of 14 has a wonderfully ethereal and commanding presence that provides an emotional centre for the film. Pleasance is wonderful as McGregor, even with a slightly dodgy Scottish accent, and it’s great to see a disabled character that isn’t defined by their disability. Nicolodi is great as always as the school chaperone Frau Brückner, who has a kind warmth before her sinister side is unveiled. Also worth mentioning is the wonderful Tanga the ape as Inga, who is great in the film, despite allegedly biting Connelly during filming.
There are lots of animals in the film, most of them insects, along with scorpions and a few spiders, and the scenes where they acquiesce to Jennifer are quite spectacular, especially one at the school where she scares the hell out of her classmates who have been bullying her for her sleepwalking. It’s all done very well, and these supernatural scenes – phenomena if you will – are heightened by the excellent music in the film. The score is performed, as usual, by the amazing Goblin, who include this wild cue with wailing voices and virtuoso synth work and a solo voice by soprano Pina Magri that turns into an absolute banger. There is additional music by composer Simon Boswell, as well as rock tracks from the likes of Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and Andi Sex Gang, some of which seem hilariously incongruous at times.
The cinematography by Romano Albani helps emphasise the fairytale feel of the film, and the idea that Jennifer is a stranger in a strange land, which is also helped by Giorgio Armani’s costume design. This is of course a Dario Argento joint, so if you’re looking for solid logic, you’re better off looking somewhere else. But if you stick with the path, you get an incredibly creative, fun, and gory horror ride with a fantastic soundtrack. Who can ask for more?
Arrow has brought Phenomena in a special two-disc limited edition that includes three versions of the film in 4K in a deluxe box set with a poster and six special artcards. There are actually three different versions of these; one with new artwork by design agency Obviously Creative, one with the original Italian poster art, and one with art based on the original “Creepers” Palace Pictures VHS. There’s also a booklet with new writing on the film that was not included for review.
The 4K presentation of the film is pretty great. The film stock was obviously not the greatest, but it nevertheless shows off Albani’s shots well, including a lot of footage of the stunning Swiss countryside. The lossless soundtrack sounds thrilling and is especially great when it comes to the musical side of things, and on the whole, Phenomena has maybe one of Argento’s best-produced audio tracks.
The three versions of the film included are the 116m Italian version, the 110m International version, and the 83m US “Creepers” cut. For the Italian version, you can either choose to watch it with the Italian audio track or a hybrid with English and Italian similar to their Deep Red disc, where scenes are included that they couldn’t find the English audio for. The Italian version is easily the best version of the film.
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The extras provided are quite excellent, starting with the legacy features from the 2017 Blu-ray, with a full-length documentary on the film called ‘Of Flies and Maggots’ and an audio commentary by critic Troy Howarth. New features include a commentary on the International cut by Argento expert Derek Botelho and journalist David Del Valle, along with the excellent ‘The Three Sarcophagi’, which is a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie that looks at the three different cuts of the films.
Phenomena is another Dario Argento belter. It may not be as beloved as Deep Red and Suspiria, but it’s still a fantastic ride with a memorable protagonist and an excellent soundtrack that deserves to not be cast out as one of his lesser pictures. And this release is, well, phenomenal. Sorry.
Phenomena is out now on 4K UHD Blu-ray from Arrow Video.