By Ray Schwetz
Anchor Bay Entertainment. Featurette, music videos, commentary, trailer.
"Phenomena" (aka "Creepers") is director Dario Argento's favorite and most personal film. This is evident in every frame. From his opening crane shot of a serine, yet ominous, tree-filled landscape to his simple matte shot of flies swallowing a building, Argento paints a sprawling, beautiful picture, which is his most visually arresting film since 1975's "Profondo Rosso" (aka "Deep Red").
Like Argento's best films, "Phenomena" is short on logic and long on visual and audio stimuli. The story is interesting enough. Jennifer Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous actor who possesses strange powers, which allow her to interact with insects. To put it bluntly, they love her and will do anything for her.
Jennifer is sent to a European boarding school, where she is immediately marked as an outsider to almost everyone, including an oddly tempered dorm matron (played with relish by Argento's former companion Daria Nicolodi). In a short time, Jennifer discovers that there's a killer stalking the students.
She befriends a wheelchair bound entymology professor (Donald Pleasence, in one of his best non-Loomis characters) and his monkey assistant. After he discovers her influence on insects, they decide that together they will investigate the murders and try to discover the killer's identity.
Argento layers the film with interesting characters, brilliant mise-en-scenes, and eclectic music selections (performed by artists ranging from Bill Wyman and Claudio Simonetti to Iron Maiden). While some of the effects are not very convincing (the scene of Jennifer following a firefly immediately comes to mind), the overall visual effect of the film is stunning.
Jennifer Connelly is convincing in an early role that she apparently disowns. I suppose I can understand why she'd rather be known for higher profile roles such as "Labyrinth" or "Dark City." And let's face it, "Phenomena" is no "Career Opportunities."
Fans of this film have had to make do with (now defunct) Media Home Enertainment's cropped and cut (by some 20 plus minutes) video or, if your were lucky, a rare Japanese import disc that included the deleted footage as well as a few extras. The import disc, however, had problems with the audio. The volume of the disc, aside from sound effects, was recorded very low.
I'm happy to report that Anchor Bay has provided fans the best possible version of "Phenomena." The DVD is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, for those who care, it is non-anamorphic. This DVD does provide slightly more visual information on the sides of the film. There's not much difference, but this seems the most accurate. The picture is sharp and the colors are very impressive, although in spots the film has an intentionally soft look. There is very slight evidence of artifacting. For the most part, you won't believe your eyes.
The newly remixed 5.1 audio is incredible! This is definitely the best the film has ever sounded. The rear channels are quite active, especially when the heavy metal music heats up. Bass level is very satisfying, but it lacks the punch of those made-for-DVD action flicks. Again, fans will be very satisfied.
There are quite a few extras on this disc. First, there is a screen specific audio commentary with Argento, makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, and journalist Louis Curci. The commentary is okay. Argento doesn't have much to say, but there are moments that make the track worth a one-time listen.
There's also behind the scenes footage that fans familiar with "The World of Horror" documentary will recognize. There's also an interview with Argento by none other than Joe Franklin. It's worth plunking down the suggested retail price of $29.95 just for this alone! Definitely a bizarre interview.
You also get 2 music videos and a trailer. The music videos, highlighting the Bill Wyman and Claudio Simonetti tracks, are very interesting. A budding Jennifer Connelly stars in the Simonetti piece.
It's great to see a previously ignored genre film with a cult following receive such stellar treatment. Anchor Bay continues to be a force to reckon with on DVD. Argento fans already own this, I'm sure. Others who are curious should give it a rent. I'm biased, but I do think this represents Argento at his best and it is definitely one of his most accessible films. Give it a try. Everyone's doing it.