My favorite Dario Argento flick is Phenomena (aka Creepers in the U.S.). Interestingly, I was unaware for a long time that I was a huge fan of Argento from such a young age. I was in my mid-20’s when I first saw his revered Suspiria, and then followed that up immediately with Inferno, Tenebre, and Deep Red. I immediately loved them, but these movies seemed strangely nostalgic for me. It was not until I went back to watch my VHS copy of Creepers that I realized why I felt that way. The title credits began, I saw that Dario Argento was the director, and it was all clear. I had been in love with his work since I was 14-years-old and was completely oblivious.
I was staying at my mom’s house one weekend, and we stopped by Blockbuster. As always, I ventured into the horror section and saw this intriguing cover art on a VHS tape (the Creepers version with a girl in front of a moon with her face half eaten). My eyes shifted to seeing Jennifer Connelly’s name, and I knew I had to pick it up. I was a major fan of Labyrinth growing up and any film of Jennifer’s I had to watch. But Jennifer in a horror movie? This pulled at the strings of my horror youth in combination with my Labyrinth love.
From the moment I popped in the tape, I was mesmerized. The music, the style, the bizarre images all seemed very different than the countless horror movies I watched growing up. The feeling of entering a dream-like world enthralled me, as I was of course unfamiliar with Argento’s signature style. This version, which was the 83-minute version known as Creepers (and included in this set) felt choppy, but I presumed that was just a part of the low-budget 80s feel that was a regular occurrence in the genre at the time. As the years passed, I would revisit my VHS copy; however, it was not until I started watching other Argento movies that I realized Creepers was really Phenomena. I purchased a DVD copy of Phenomena and was amazed.
The DVD was the 110-minute international version (also included on this set), and I realized how mistaken I was about the film being choppy. This was a complete version that was smooth, and all the moments that I believed were low budget were unveiled to be part of a greater, incredibly well-made movie. A movie that encapsulates all the best of what we love about Dario Argento: part giallo, part supernatural, part dream (or nightmare). Yet, there are also elements related to American cinema, as Phenomena also feels a bit like Carrie as a detective in an ‘80s slasher. Suspiria and Deep Red tend to make the top of most “Best of” Argento lists, but Phenomena certainly holds its own. I believe that it is Argento still at his prime.
Spoilers ahead. The story follows Jennifer (Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor sent to a Swiss boarding school. There is an unidentified killer in the town, and Jennifer’s tendency to sleepwalk leads her to be an accidental witness to one of the murders. Jennifer, however, is no ordinary schoolgirl, as she can telepathically communicate with insects. Confiding in the local forensic entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), the two devise a plan to find the killer by using the nature of insects to guide them. Each has lost someone important to the killer and fear that Jennifer might be next. Unfortunately, Jennifer is being bullied by her schoolmates and the headmistress of her school. With soon nowhere else to turn, Jennifer must rely on her unusual abilities to survive.
Instead of leaning on the vivid technicolor inspired images from Suspiria and Inferno, Argento maintains a certain bluish quality for Phenomena. This works to emphasize Jennifer’s loneliness. Still, Phenomena shares certain themes with the earlier Suspiria. A young woman travels abroad to a school in which her friends are being targeted by a mysterious force. Phenomena deviates by leaning more into slasher territory, which was the center of horror pop culture at the time. At the same time, the audience feels as if they have fallen into a dark, bizarre fairytale. These elements are only enhanced by this new 4K Ultra HD edition from Synapse Films which looks absolutely stunning on the screen.
Additionally, the sound is also superbly done on this new edition. This is incredibly important, as Phenomena was Argento’s experiment with incorporating Heavy Metal in conjunction with the haunting, twinkling melodies that were expected in horror films at this time. Personally, I think that Argento’s use of Heavy Metal in this flick was genius. He utilizes the main soundtrack of eerie operatic crooning to set a dreamy tone which is bluntly interrupted by the screeching Iron Maiden and Motor Head. Somehow, the two very different styles are complimentary to each other, or at least, make sense in the context of this strange (in the best ways) movie. One is like a chilling lullaby drawing in the audience while the other is an excellent accompaniment to the terror Jennifer must feel as she has entered this dark fairytale.
Argento’s Phenomena is an amalgamation of what the director truly did well in this time period. Not just the look and style, but also his way of making horror unique. The gore is more about art than realism. To capture something horrifying that can be beautiful at the same time. Phenomena exemplifies what fans want from Argento. One example is the opening sequence in which a girl (played by the director’s daughter Fiore Argento) is decapitated in a spectacular slow-motion sequence. What makes the scene more terrifying is the slow-motion effect is abruptly switched in the next shot to a blunt image of the head falling into the river below. This is effectively jarring to the audience, and the killer’s act becomes an exercise in desensitization. From the victim’s point of view, this event is a poignant culmination of her all-too-short life. From the killer’s perspective, the experience is mundane.
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These contradictions are what Argento excelled at doing when they worked. The unexpected qualities are a part of his charm. Just like the unexpected moments that occur during his films. One such attribute is Argento’s use of hidden passageways. In Suspiria, a blue iris opened a hidden corridor for Suzie (Jessica Harper) that led to a coven of witches. The central building in Inferno was designed with secret passageways below each apartment that Mark (Leigh McCloskey) utilized to solve the mystery. Opera found Betty (Christina Marsillach) sneaking out of her room into a vent that connected all the apartments. Phenomena is no exception. Jennifer follows a phone cord down into a cavern below the house leading her straight into the pit of decomposing bodies, which is also one of the most brilliantly sick moments in all of horror. This sequence is jaw dropping and will delightfully gross out any newcomers.
The overall film really does contain all the elements fans of Argento love and expect to see. Jennifer Connelly delivers a lovely performance of a girl that is shyly proud of her father, willful against unreasonable authority figures, and appropriately terrified as the climatic events unfold. Donald Pleasance offers a paternal comfort to Jennifer’s character. The always welcome Daria Nicolodi effortlessly struts her chameleon skills as a maniacal mother. Perhaps not as celebrated as other works such as Suspiria or Deep Red, Phenomena is a beautifully bizarre film that will take viewers on a ride that is complete and unique. Not to mention including a devoted chimpanzee out for revenge. This release by Synapse Films offers a stunning presentation of this entry from Argento’s catalogue.
A main draw for fans of this 2-Disc Special Edition (4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray) is the inclusion of all three versions of Phenomena in 4K. There is the original Italian version (116 mins.), the International cut (110 mins.), and the U.S. cut (83 mins.), released under the alternate title of Creepers. The Creepers version was the last of Argento’s films to receive any kind of meaningful release in the United States. This is unfortunate, as the Creepers cut has removed essential scenes and dialogue that makes the plot virtually incoherent. I was lucky that I fell in love with the feeling this movie gave me, as this was the first version I viewed; however, this cut would easily allow any cynical viewer or so-called film buff to dismiss the film as a confusing and senseless movie.
Although the Creepers edition is sorely incomplete and inferior to the others, I think “Creepers” is the better title over “Phenomena.” I am probably in the minority here, but I vote that “Creepers” over “Phenomena” instantly evokes in the audience’s mind the notion that they are watching something from the horror genre. Certainly, Jennifer’s ability and experience are aptly captured with the word “Phenomena,” but “Creepers” as a title covers every aspect of this Argento feature. Flies, maggots, a pit of dead bodies, and the creepy feeling that enters the body of the audience as they see each scene play out. That being said, the Phenomena cuts (the International and Italian) are, of course, hands down the better films. The Creepers cut is still watchable, but the brutal cuts, which occur primarily in the first half of the film, ultimately change the overall pacing and narrative structure.
Between the two, I prefer the international cut over the Italian. The Italian cut is six minutes longer and removes only tiny bits of dialogue, of which no spoken English is available. Otherwise, the six minutes is just a few tiny cuts within larger sections, unlike the brutal cuts in the Creepers edition. Even if these moments were available in English, I do not think they are needed. Included in this set is The Three Sarcophagi, a visual essay from Arrow Films producer Michael Mackenzie comparing the different cuts. This visual essay points out the exact differences, and while purists will obviously want the Italian cut, the international edition effectively trims unnoticeable bits. At the same time, the international version amps up some of the scares.
This is particularly true for one scene in which Jennifer and Daria Nicolodi’s character are having their first standoff about taking pills. The Italian version adds in a take that makes the overall exchange less scary. In the International cut, Nicolodi’s character strikes Jennifer abruptly, leaving the audience momentarily shocked. Meanwhile, the Italian version shows Nicolodi beforehand whining at Jennifer for using the phone leading the younger girl to push down Nicolodi. It is no surprise at all that she would jump up to strike back at Jennifer for roughly shoving her down. The lack of Nicolodi’s motivation in the international cut is what makes this scene silently terrifying before leading into the Heavy Metal intensity to follow.
As for special features, the Synapse Films release is wonderfully packed. Along with the visual essay and three versions, there is a commentary by Argento scholar Derek Botelho and film historian David Del Valle. There is also a commentary here from Troy Howarth, author of Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Daria Argento. Previously included on the Arrow Films release, the older commentary is frustrating for fans of Phenomena. Howarth is knowledgeable but seems disappointed that this is the film being discussed. Admitting he is “not crazy” about the film, he makes unnecessary excuses for Phenomena while condescendingly nudging listeners towards other works from the director. The bulk of his commentary aligns with someone distancing themselves from potential embarrassment. There is no need to be ashamed of discussing Phenomena. I would be more than happy to at any time (hint to those making the next release).
On the other hand, the new commentary by Botelho and Del Valle is, thankfully, more enthusiastic in tone. Botelho is not a big fan of Donald Pleasence’s performance in Phenomena, but otherwise fun tidbits are shared such as his experiences with Fiore Argento, discussions about Argento’s first use of Heavy Metal in this film, the wind effects, and how the writing development was influenced by Connelly’s performance in an earlier feature. One feels bad for the moderator at times due to Botelho’s opinionated passion; however, this feature deserves a passionate commentary. Especially for fans, like me, that live for audio commentaries by those with extra bits of insight. And, you know, enjoy the film.
Remaining special features include reversible cover art, “Jennifer” music video directed by Argento, theatrical trailers, 4K restorations of all three versions of the film, rare alternate DTS-HD master Audio 2.0 stereo mix on the international version, featuring different sound effects and music cues, as well as Of Flies and Maggots, a fabulous feature-length documentary produced (and previously released) by Arrow Films. Of Flies and Maggots features interviews with Dario Argento, Fiore Argento, Davide Marotta, and Daria Nicolodi.
Synapse Films has released an edition of Phenomena worthy for fans of this strange tale. Phenomena has never looked or sounded better. One should be able to experience the quality of this presentation for all of Argento’s work, in order to truly capture the spirit from any of his films of this period. The style, the sound, and the terror are all elevated in this horror fairytale. I am delighted to add this one to my collection.
Phenomena will be released March 14, 2023, on 4K UHD format in Dolby Vision from Synapse Films.