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Friday, May 9, 2008

PHENOMENA -- DVD review by porfle

Italian horror master Dario Argento draws us into the supernatural again with PHENOMENA (1985), a dark, richly-atmospheric return to SUSPIRIA territory as opposed to the stark and brightly-lit realism of his previous film, TENEBRE.

Once again, a young American girl (Jennifer Connelly) finds herself attending a remote, Gothic-looking European girls' school with a stern headmistress, an ill-fated best friend among a bunch of bratty schoolgirls, and a maniacal killer on the loose.

This time, though, there aren't any witches or diabolical forces at work--the supernatural aspect comes from Jennifer's telepathic connection to insects and her ability to control their behavior. She makes friends with Prof. McGregor (a wonderfully restrained Donald Pleasance), a wheelchair-bound forensic scientist who specializes in discerning time of death by the rate of maggot growth on a corpse, who suggests that Jennifer use her special abilities to try and track down the murderer. This, of course, puts her in grave danger, and before long she finds herself face-to-face with the killer in a nightmare of grotesque horror.

From the very beginning, the Swiss locations with their overcast skies and trees writhing in the constantly blowing wind create an eerie, forboding atmosphere. When a young schoolgirl (Argento's daughter, Fiore) misses her bus and is left behind on a deserted mountain road, she makes her way to an isolated cottage for help, then finds herself being pursued by an unseen maniac until she's cornered in a glass-enclosed observation point over a raging waterfall.

There's a super-slow motion shot of her head crashing through the glass (a familiar Argento motif that will occur yet again later on), and then we see the same head falling into the swirling water below. It's a terrifically strange and moody sequence that gets the movie off to a great start.

The scenes at the girls' academy are perhaps closer to what Argento had in mind originally for SUSPIRIA, since that film was meant to feature younger characters such as these. There's a Grimm's fairytale quality as Jennifer feels imprisoned in this dark, oppressive place and soon finds herself sleepwalking through its shadowy corridors, her mind wracked by nightmares, until another gruesome killing occurs right before her eyes.

Argento indulges himself stylistically during these dazzling sequences, and the beautiful Jennifer Connelly is a terrific young actress who perfectly embodies the type of heroine Argento has in mind. Throughout the film, her skillful performance is fascinating to watch and entirely convincing, helping Argento to sell some incredibly over-the-top situations.

The last twenty minutes or so are just plain nuts. (Look for Mario Donatone, who played Mosca, the Sicilian hitman in THE GODFATHER PART III, in a brief role.) I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say that long-time Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi shines as Frau Br├╝ckner, one of the teachers from the school, who hides a really dark secret that comes into play in a big way.

Jennifer finds herself in the middle of some of the most grotesque situations imaginable before the fiery, bug-infested finale which features some great underwater scenes. There are about three successive endings, but each one is more startling than the last. And I haven't even mentioned the chimp with the straight-razor.

Anchor Bay's new DVD release features a new remastered widescreen (1:66:1) transfer, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. There's a commentary track featuring Argento along with makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, composer Claudio Simonetti, and journalist Loris Curci. "A Dark Fairy Tale" is an interesting 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. Goblin member Simonetti's music video "Jennifer", featuring himself along with Jennifer Connelly, is a fun example of 80s-style cheese, as is Bill Wyman's video for "Valley" (both excellent instrumentals feature prominently in the film, and to much better effect than the heavy metal songs that are also included). There's a trailer, an Argento biography, and, last but not least, Dario Argento's appearance on the legendary "Joe Franklin Show", which is a real treat.

My first experience with this film was a long-ago viewing of the drastically-cut version, retitled CREEPERS, which was released in the U.S. in the 80s, so it's a pleasure to finally be able to enjoy PHENOMENA in its original form and give it a long-overdue reappraisal. Argento himself rates it his most personal and perhaps best of all his films. I don't quite agree with the latter, but I do have a whole new opinion of this movie now. It's an exhilarating, bizarre, often mind-boggling excursion into Gothic horror, and a delightfully undiluted manifestation of Dario Argento's wildest imaginings.


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