Dario Argento never needs to be introduced—along with Mario Bava, he is Italy’s greatest horror export. Phenomena is arguably the last great film in the run that gave Argento his auteur status, which spans all the way from his directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, through Deep Red and, of course, his witchy psychedelic masterpiece Suspiria.
Phenomena is kind of the odd one out, because for most of the running time Argento decides not to score the film with the ridiculous (but kind of awesome in a cheesy way) heavy metal of the time instead of Goblin. The main song used is Iron Maiden’s ‘Flash of the Blade.’ which is played a few times in the film’s nearly two-hour running time. The set up is fairly similar to Suspiria: a young woman, Jennifer, who is played by a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connolly, arrives in a European city to attend an exclusive girls school. However, very soon strange happenings are going on, she has a connection to insects, and there is a murderer on the loose. She is aided by Donald Pleasence’s John McGregor, who is a paraplegic entomologist whom she meets after she sleepwalks.
Argento’s narratives are usually all over the place, and this is no exception. However, it’s an insane descent into his always distinctive Gothic wonderland. The colour palette is not quite as extreme as in Suspiria, but it’s not far off. With the exception of Pleasence and Connolly, the performances are pretty much uniformly atrocious, and even they are not on their best form—both get upstaged by a badass chimp who is handy with a razor. Connolly actually had some of her finger bitten off by the chimp, but it was reattached at the nearby hospital. There is even a homicidal dwarf for good measure, but of course you really shouldn’t do a supernatural horror film without one. It also has an absolutely disgusting scene of a pool full of rotting bones and maggots, which was almost too much even for me.
Phenomena is one of Argento’s most endlessly enjoyable films, one of his most accessible and perhaps his most fantastical as well. It’s reportedly Argento’s favourite of his own films, and it’s certainly my second favourite after Suspiria. Over the years the film’s reputation has grown. Kim Newman at the time was very dismissive of the film, even though he is as hardcore of an Argento fan as you can get, but he was reviewing the much shortened Creepers cut.
The Arrow release is the 116-minute cut and for about six minutes of the running time it’s subtitled in Italian because no English audio exists. The film was shot in English and then dubbed into Italian and English. Most of the Italian cast did their own English dubbing, so there it’s less noticeably “dubbed” than many Italian films. The two main features are a commentary by Troy Howard, who wrote a book on the Giallo, and a feature-length documentary on the making of the film, which includes interviews with Argento and others. It’s rounded off with the English and Italian trailers, the Jennifer music video and a gallery of the Japanese pressbook.