Here’s a morbid little game for all you cinéastes. Think of a movie director then choose the exact moment in their career when a freak bolt of lightning (or other tragic event) would have frozen their reputation at its highest point, safe from that downhill plunge into ‘the recent stuff’. Would The Untouchables, for example, have made a great full stop for Brian De Palma? Or how about Scarface? Did They Live seal John Carpenter’s legacy? Or did it all go downhill after The Thing? When did Tarantino’s Oscar-baiting formula tip into self-parody? When exactly did George Lucas jump the Ewok? Loads of fun.
Few filmographies have a patchier ‘late period’ than Dario Argento’s. Though still massively revered, he’s effectively spent the last 30 years in competition with himself. The insanely inventive sequence of supernaturally charged gialli he directed between The Bird with The Crystal Plumage in 1970 and – we’d argue - Phenomena in 1985, certainly looks a fine body of work from this distance. Now that Phenomena has been lavished with the multi-disc 4K treatment by Arrow Video, how does Argento’s golden age bookend shape up in 2017?
In her first leading role, a young Jennifer Connelly plays a movie star’s daughter (also called Jennifer) who is packed off to an exclusive finishing school for bitchy teenage girls in ‘Swiss Transylvania’. While out one night doing a spot of sleepwalking, Jennifer witnesses a cloaked figure murdering a fellow student. It transpires this character is working his or her (OK his) way through the school population. Vowing not to be the next victim, Jennifer joins forces with a lovable old Scottish entomologist (Donald Pleasance) and his pet chimpanzee and is soon on the trail of the school slasher aided by her unique ability to telepathically communicate with insects, who assist her like little multi-legged Columbos and fly to her rescue whenever required.
Does that sound a bit insane? Spot on, it is. Made at a career crossroads when Argento was breaking away from the family production ‘firm’ of father Salvatore and brother Claudio, Phenomena sees the high-fringed Italian fear master off the leash and having a ball. A passion project that saw him immersed in the study of insect behaviour before decamping his trusty wind and rain machines to picturesque Switzerland, it effortlessly radiates his signature, otherworldly aura of stylised dread. While it lacks the bedazzling nightmare logic and baroque interiors of Suspiria and Inferno, you’re not short-changed on all the other stuff you expect from prime-period Argento. Tautly choreographed terror set-ups, extraordinary camera angles, operatic lighting and old musical muckers Goblin are all present and correct but this one also gives you an intelligent bluebottle detective, a hideous mutant dwarf and additional music from a range of incongruous 80s metal bands who pop up when you least expect them, but in a good way.
The casting also helps no end. Connelly was just 14 when she made this yet throws herself into the bee-stroking insect queen routine with fearless gusto - not least when she finds herself neck-deep a vat of rotting corpse-sludge. Argento’s former muse and lucky charm Daria Nicolodi has a ball as a progressively unhinged teacher and Donald Pleasance positively twinkles benign intelligence as he rattles about in his wheelchair. Just writing this makes us want to watch it again.
And we can do just that because this box set has three different versions of the film, the highlight being the 116-minute Italian cut now available in almost-English for first time. As they did with the longest cut of Deep Red, Arrow has applied some clever reconstructive boffinry to the soundtrack but there are still a few sections in Italian. We also get the slightly shorter 110-minute international release and the oddity that is Creepers, an 83-minute drive-in version New Line released in the USA for people with very short attention spans. Even if you don’t know the back history, Creepers feels like what it is - a butchered version of something longer and more atmospheric. This being Arrow, there’s loads of other cool extras including Claudio Simonetti’s peerless soundtrack on a separate disc, an exhaustive 2-hour retrospective, publicity materials, a life-size rotting human head infested with real maggots and a ‘visual essay’ which points out the differences in the various cuts of the film (watch this bit first – it’s very handy). OK, maybe not the rotting head.
A delirious three-course horror feast with pudding, then, and a strong contender for the last of Argento’s true classics. Or are we unjustly overlooking his next film, Opera (1987)? Almost probably.
PHENOMENA – LIMITED EDITION / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: DARIO ARGENTO / SCREENPLAY: DARIO ARGENTO, FRANCO FERRINI / STARRING: JENNIFER CONNELLY, DARIA NICOLODI, DONALD PLEASANCE, DALILA DI LAZZARO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW