Whether fans and critics like it or not, Dario Argento is fond of two genres he revisits with predictable regularity: the giallo (Deep Red, Sleepless) and the supernatural thriller (Suspiria, Inferno), and it shouldn't surprise anyone that The Card Player (a giallo cum police procedural thriller) was followed by The Mother of Tears (the final installment in his Three Mothers trilogy), and is to be followed by Giallo (self-explanatory) in 2009, which may well be followed by a supernatural thriller (perhaps called Boo!) soon after.
Prior to Card Player (2004), Argento directed Sleepless (2001), a more formal revisitation (retread?) of the giallo, which Giallo may also be, although his use of American/British stars may in turn hark back to the director's seventies films like Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) or Deep Red (1975).
Tenebre (1982), which followed the supernatural thriller Inferno (1980), was another prior stab (whoops) at the giallo, with violent, primal urges virtually erupting like a buzz saw, so it was logical that Argento's subsequent film was a supernatural thriller – Phenomena – but with the exception of Mother of Tears (2007), Phenomena is probably the director's most divisive work because it's basic plotline is, frankly, quite nuts.
In the new interviews that comprised the bonus featurette on Anchor Bay's 2008 release, Argento describes Phenomena as a fairy tale, and while larded with the extreme cruelty inherent to a giallo, one could argue that such graphic cruelty – pioneered by Argento in his first film – is simply part of his style or excess, and if tempered to PG rating, Phenomena is a fairy tale with a giallo mystery.
So why is it a film that's so hated by some fans?
Part of the problem is getting past the premise that a girl named Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly, then thirteen) learns of a serial killer through her communication with bugs. Add a Bonobo monkey, a mutant child, and sequences that celebrate Jennifer's bug-love (like the giant swarm at the girl's school) and you have something quite wacky, particularly when revelations and plot twists and explanations are as obtuse or abrupt as Argento's own gialli, so while Phenomena may be a fairy tell about virginal characters preyed upon by demons from a very tactile hell, it's crippled by flaws usually forgiven or overlooked in Argento's gialli because the archetypes and elaborate sequences are often what fans expect to see.
Phenomena's violence is potent, but the murder tool is gimmicky and silly (all that chasing just to poke a porta-pike through a girl's mouth?), and when the murderer is eventually revealed, it's kinda hard to believe it's the same agile killer suggested through the film's montages.
Within the director's filmography, it's still an important film to watch because it also marked the point where Argento was beginning his efforts to export his horror persona to America, which in the end kind of floundered.
Like Steven Spielberg, Argento became a bit of an impresario and genre figurehead, and it began when he produced George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead / Zombi(1978), furthered Lamberto Bava's career with the Demons franchise, and launched Michele Soavi's directorial career by having the former actor (Caligula II The Untold Story) direct one of Phenomena's two music videos, Bill Wyman's “The Valley,” and the documentary Dario Argento's World of Horror (filmed by Soavi during the production of Phenomena). Argento was also involved with Soavi's The Church / La Chiesa (1989) and The Sect / La Setta (1991).
Like Anchor Bay's prior DVD from 1999, this new release has all of the extras (save the talent bios, replaced by an updated director bio), including Argento's appearance on The Joe Franklin Show, on August 29, 1985, where, branded as Italy's Hitchcock, he was promoting Phenomena under its U.S. title, Creepers.
Franklin asks cursory questions about Italy's film industry, Argento's fixations with violence, and he later points to some film stills to talk about Connelly, and Argento appears a bit uncomfortable as it's obvious he stuck doing publicity on a regional series (sharing the stage with David Copeland, a local stuntman), but it's unlikely the nervousness was all due to language issues and not knowing exactly who was watching the show.
Argento was hardly a novice to cries of outrage against his brand of screen violence, but 1985 was not a good time to make a fairy tale drawn in blood. As Daria Nicolodi explains, she was sent to the U.S. by Argento to cast the film, and most responses were severe rejections, largely due to the film's violent content, and what Nicolodi terms a conservative, ‘anti-splatter' atmosphere in the U.S. that probably should've signaled to her and Argento that Phenomena would not be a success.
Although Connolly would soon appear in the cult fantasy favourite Labyrinth (1986), the fantasy film Legend (1986) was a great big theatrical dud in all of its multiple international and ancillary edits, and Tobe Hooper's violent Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986) was heavily cut to appease cranky censors, so while released in 1985, Argento's supernatural horror-fairy tale hybrid seemed like the last thing audiences, let alone distributors, would've wanted to handle. Argento's position was made worse because like Tenebre (re-titled Unsane in America), he was stuck selling a film he clearly had not intended to make: the incoherent Creepers edit.
Phenomena was then followed by Opera (1987), after which Argento took a few more pokes at the American market by collaborating with Romero on the clunky Edgar Allan Poe diptych Two Evil Eyes (1990) and the tepid and dull Trauma (1993), after which three years would pass until The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), a serial killer thriller and another divisive work for fans.
Like Anchor Bay's new Tenebre DVD, it's the first anamorphic release of the 1999 transfer. The colours are a bit stronger and details sharper, but it's still a 9 year old transfer in need of replacement. On the plus side, unlike Tenebre, Phenomena is in true surround sound, so the Tangerine Dream-styled score by Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli is pretty bouncy (but less disco crazed than Tenebre).
Simonetti also appears on the DVD commentary track (recorded for the 1999 release) with Argento, special make-up effects artist Sergio Stivaleti, and moderator/journalist Loris Curci, and the composer discusses his music in addition to Argento's increasing interest in heavy metal music (hence the ‘guest musicians' proudly stated in the film's opening credits).
The commentary track offers a good array of production details, and compliments the contemporary recollections in David Gregory's 2008 featurette (which includes comments from co-writer Franco Ferrini, cinematographer Romano Albani on 340 fps camera used for the opening decapitation scene, special effects man Stivaletti, Luigi Cozzi (who handled the special optical effects and macro bug photography), and daughter Fiore Argento (who loses her head in said decapitation intro).
The extras also include the Wyman and Claudio Simonetti music videos in true stereo (the latter directed by Argento), plus excerpts from Luigi Cozzi's 1991 director profile, Dario Argento: Master of Horror where Cozzi explains the film's bug effects (which is a worthy inclusion, because in the 2008 featurette Argento offers a very funny anecdote after the final bug shot was done.)
This title is available separately, and as part of the 2008 tin boxed set, 5 Films by Dario Argento, which includes Tenebre, Phenomena (1985), Trauma, Il Cartaio / The Card Player (2004), and Do You Like Hitchcock? / Ti piace Hitchcock?
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan