Coffin Corner: PHENOMENA, Dario Argento's Dark Fairy Tale

Welcome to The Coffin Corner! Every week I’ll be delving into some of the best and latest Blu-ray releases, as well as focusing on the brilliant labels that keep the home video market alive and well! Covering Classics, new releases and unknown gems from Scream Factory, Arrow, Code Red and more! We got ya covered. Stay Spooky!

I never liked bugs. They creep me out. The first time I watched Phenomena was in the mid ‘90s on VHS: it was the heavily edited, 83 minute version known as Creepers here in the United States. The VHS box art featured a young Jennifer Connelly (in her first starring role) holding a handful of insects and it made my skin crawl, but at the same time it peaked my interest. I was familiar with Connelly from 1986s Labyrinth, and when I saw said box art at the video store, I thought Creepers could be a sequel to Labyrinth. Well, it turns out I was wrong, and instead I was introduced to my first Dario Argento film—and what many people believe is his last great masterpiece, in a career boasting many. I finally saw the 110 minute international cut aground 1999 or 2000, I was in high school and had a job so I’d blow all my money on DVD releases by Anchor Bay when they were in their prime, releasing tons of titles that were fully remastered and easily accessible for the first time in the United States. That’s how I was introduced to the majority of films by both Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.

For years I preferred the Creepers cut (probably due to nostalgia), but I was finally able to see the 116 minute integral cut late last year, when the fine folks at Synapse Films released a limited edition steel book containing all three versions of the film. I was riveted by the complete representation of the film, and it was wonderful to finally see it remastered with the utmost precision and care. There is an Arrow region B set as well, but I’m not region free player equipped, and for my money (and no disrespect to Arrow, whom I also love) nobody does restoration transfers as well as Synapse.

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Phenomena opens in the beautiful, remote surroundings of the Swiss countryside, with a young girl trying to flag down her bus that abruptly departed without her. Stranded, she begins to wander about in search of help, eventually discovering a cottage. As her plea for help goes unanswered, she enters the home, and in the process disturbs its only inhabitant… who’s chained up to a wall. The unknown assailant breaks free and violently attacks her. Desperate for survival and unsure of her whereabouts, she flees, but to no avail as the maniacal lunatic is in hot pursuit. This thrilling set piece closes in grand fashion with our murderer carrying away the headless body of the girl, as our Argento fairy tale ends its first chapter.

Our next scene begins with two police detectives investigating the murder, and consulting with wheelchair bound entomologist, John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) and his chimpanzee, Nurse Inga. Due to the insect cycles on the severed head, McGregor comes to the conclusion that our opening scene murder victim was killed eight months prior, which the police say matches a missing person's report from around the same time. The plot thickens!

We are then introduced to Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi) who is chaperoning our main character, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) to an all girls private school, after being sent there by her famous movie star father. After settling in on her first night, Jennifer begins to sleepwalk and witnesses a fellow student’s brutal murder. After escaping, she is found by the chimpanzee Inga, who brings her back to McGregor’s house where Jennifer and the professor immediately bond over bugs and form a friendship. As the murders continue, so does her sleepwalking excursions, eventually leading to her finding a clue accidentally left behind during the last murder–a maggot infested glove, that could help lead her to discover the ghastly killer’s identity.

Jennifer takes the glove to McGregor to analyze the insects found on the clue. He begins to take special note of how she interacts with his insects, soon discovering that she has gift of communicating with them through telepathy. Together they use this gift, along with the glove, to find the maggot-ridden bodies of the victims that the killer has been stashing away. This leads Jennifer to discover the murderer's lair, and a deadly fight for survival begins amidst the grotesque scenery of decaying bodies and a pool of maggots.

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Although the all girl school plot line echoes that of Suspiria, that’s where the similarities end. Phenomena is completely different from anything Argento has done before or since, it’s easily his strangest film and it’s fantastical elements mixed with supernatural and giallo sensibilities send Phenomena into a dark fairy tale territory, done Argento-style. I know how crazy that all sounds, none of that should work, but it does, making Phenomena one of the most original horror films of that decade. The usual sweeping cinematography found in Argento films is front and center as always, as well as wonderful musical contributions from Claudio Simonetti, Argento mainstays Goblin, Bill Wyman, Simon Boswell, Motörhead, and Iron Maiden, whose rousing “Flash of the Blade” is brilliantly utilized.

Phenomena’s stunningly insane, over the top climax easily ranks among the maestros best, and acts as the perfect bookend to the thrilling opening scene. In fact, the ending really sealed the deal for me on my last few viewings (as if a razor wielding chimpanzee, and a pool of maggots wasn’t enough!). It throws so much craziness at the viewer, the only reaction is absurdly appealing and I now consider this film - with its unique genre blending - one of Dario Argento’s finest directorial efforts and one of my favorite films of the 1980s.

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As mentioned earlier, there is a limited edition steelbook available through the Synapse website. It retails for $45, BUT this past September they released a 2 disc standard edition Blu-ray that will be a bit easier on the bank account, its features include:

THREE different cuts, all available in high-definition for the first time ever in one collector’s edition package!

  • Audio Commentary Track (110 Version) from Argento scholar and author, Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist and radio/television commentator, David Del Valle.

  • Two completely different sound mix options (110 Version), including the original 2.0 stereo mix, along with a rare alternate mix containing different sound effects and music cues.

  • English/Italian Hybrid Audio and Complete Italian Audio Options (116 Version)

  • Michele Soavi’s directorial debut, DARIO ARGENTO’S WORLD OF HORROR — Documentary. A fascinating look at the early films of director Dario Argento, including PHENOMENA, SUSPIRIA, DEMONS, DAWN OF THE DEAD, INFERNO and many more! Containing candid interviews and awesome behind-the-scenes footage, DARIO ARGENTO’S WORLD OF HORROR gives us a look into the mind of Italy’s Master of Horror and is an essential viewing experience for all Argento fans.

  • Multiple optional subtitle selections (116 Version), including one for just the foreign English language segments of the hybrid version, complete English subtitles for the entire feature, and complete English subtitles for the Italian version of the film.

  • US and International trailers and radio spots for both PHENOMENA and CREEPERS and optional English subtitles (both cuts) for the hard of hearing.

  • The limited edition steelbook and the 2 disc standard release can be purchased on the Synapse Films website or on Amazon.

Stay Ghastly, Stay Grinning!