Saturday, July 4, 2020

Phenomena (1985)

... aka: Creepers
... aka: Dario Argento's Phenomena
... aka: Nadnaravni pojavi (Supernatural Phenomena)
... aka: Phenomenon
... aka: Satánica inocencia (Satanic Innocence)

Directed by:
Dario Argento

Controversial opinion: The heavily-cut U.S. version of this film is superior to the original version. There, I said it. Somebody needs to. And I completely understand this sounds like blasphemy or perhaps even a tad hypocritical on my part. I usually hate when censors or distributors alter a director's original vision... except when it actually benefits the film. While that's a very rare occurrence, it does occasionally happen. After New Line Cinema acquired the U.S. distribution rights to the film, they re-titled it Creepers and then cut it down to a brisker 83 minutes; an edit supervised by director Jack Sholder. That may not sound too bad until you realize the fullest version, the Italian release, runs a whopping 116 minutes. That's over 30 minutes removed. That's quite significant! Only in this case it's not nearly as bad as it sounds. Unlike with the butcher job committed on Argento's earlier DEEP RED (1975), which irreparably harmed that film, very little of what was removed here negatively effects the original cut's pacing, story, characterization or even the film's coherence. After recently comparing the two versions side by side, I completely understand why they removed most of what they did. The plot itself doesn't change in any significant way even shorn of 30+ minutes; only the amount of extraneous material does.

Unnecessary opening narration has been scrapped and several minutes from an overly-long detective scene at the beginning were removed, which is no big loss seeing how it's redundant, poorly scripted and kills momentum after the excellent opening sequence. An entire scene of our heroine, Jennifer, receiving an electroencephalogram has been taken out but the scene is awkward and pointless. In the uncut version, a large portion from Iron Maiden's "Flash of the Blade" plays two different times; once during an early scene where a victim walks around a room, finds a candle, lights it and walks around and, later, when our heroine is trying to find her way out of a locked room. In the cut version, the vocal portions of the song only figure during the later scene, which creates more of a surprise when it suddenly erupts on the soundtrack during one of the film's more suspenseful moment. That surprise is not there in the uncut version as we'd already heard a large chunk of the song used prior.

Most of the other snips are to tighten up the film and reduce the amount of time spent lingering on establishing shots, people standing around, cumbersome dialogue exchanges, needless exposition and the like. The only significant cut that does much damage is a nice character bit when Jennifer first arrives at the school and talks about her mother having an affair and abandoning the family, which should have been left entirely intact as it helps viewers sympathize with, and relate to, the lead character.

While some of the others edits made for Creepers are likewise not ideal, they're hardly crippling. The few jarring jumps in picture and sound bizarrely manage to only heighten the film's surreal qualities. Since it was released during a time when the slasher-hating MPAA demanded cuts to nearly every depiction of on-screen violence, most especially those in a horror context, New Line did trim some of the more violent moments. However, we still see most of the murders even in the cut version as only strategic frames were eliminated, not the kills themselves. For instance, in the uncut version we see a pair of scissors nailing a hand to a doorway and lingering for a few seconds while the victim screams and pulls the scissors out. In the cut version we only see the scissor impact before it cuts away. Personally, I'm willing to trade off that and a few shots of a razor sliding across a face for a viewing experience that glides along instead of one in a constant state of start-stop throughout the first half.

Phenomena casts future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, then just 14-years-old and with only a small but memorable role in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America under her celluloid belt, in her first leading role. It proved to be a pretty apt casting choice as Connelly emerges here as one of the most uncommonly well-rounded and appealing female leads in any Argento film. Hell, glancing back through his filmography, she probably IS the most well-rounded and appealing. Not saying her lack of experience isn't evident at times, but she at least manages to shade her strong-willing, determined heroine with vulnerabilities and insecurities to keep from coming off as one-dimensional. Connelly plays Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous movie star / heartthrob who's dumped off at an exclusive girl's boarding school, the Richard Wagner Academy, in Switzerland. There, a psycho killer is running around offing teenage girls with a steel spear and hiding their bodies. Sounds like your typical slasher movie plot, right? Well, not so fast...

Jennifer isn't really your normal final girl trope and is much more akin to a troubled protagonist like Carrie White. First, she's a sleepwalker who doesn't remember anything that occurs while she's under. Second, she's a young teenager set adrift in a foreign country surrounded by strangers thanks to the self-serving preoccupations of her negligent parents. Third, she has a bizarre relationship with insects that's both telepathic and telekinetic; meaning she can communicate with, control and even share visions with insects. While those qualities may make her an outcast at school and the target of bullying, have her being labeled an epileptic devil-worshiping schizophrenic drug addict by the school staff and put her in harm's way on more than one occasion, they eventually come in handy when she becomes the killer's primary target. Jennifer does manage to find a couple of non-bug allies in the area. She's befriended by wheelchair-bound Scottish entomology professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), who understands what it's like to be different ("People have the ability to almost make you hate yourself"), and his pet chimpanzee "nurse" Inga (Tanga).

With the cruel headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro) and most of her peers convinced she's evil incarnate, her roommate (Federica Mastroianni) failing to protect her and getting herself killed in the process, her mom busy with her new lover, her father busy on location shooting in the Philippines and impossible to get in contact with and the father's Jewish agent and attorney (Mario Donatone) busy during Passover, Jennifer is stuck in a situation where she must uncover who's responsible for the killings or potentially become the next victim. And she must rely on her own courage and (super) natural gifts to do so since her parents, short-term (human) friends and authority figures have all failed her. Even assistance from her mentor and kindred spirit Professor McGregor, who had a previous relationship (perhaps even a sexual one) with an underage schoolgirl who's been killed, comes with limits. He does at least first hook her up with one of the world's greatest detectives, "the great sarcophagus fly," which is drawn exclusively to decaying human flesh, to get the ball rolling on her investigation.

Whether one watches the longest or shortest cut, you're ultimately rewarded for enduring some uneven moments in the first half with the liveliest and most entertaining finales in the entire Argento oeuvre, which features one surprise after another in pretty rapid succession. Not that what's leading up to that is necessarily bad. A lot of it is splendid actually. The visual pallet here is essentially the same steely blue look as what was used in TENEBRAE , which is a bit odd considering this was shot by INFERNO's cinematographer Romano Albani and not Tenebrae's DOP Luciano Tovoli. Even lacking the ultra-colorful, superficially gratifying look of some of the earlier films, just as much style seeps through here and it's even more imaginative.

Unlike many of his previous films, which are rather set-bound, excellent use is made out of outdoor locations, including a lake, a patch of woods near the school (Argento has a neat way of photographing even trees to make them look ominous!) and a stretch of road leading to a secluded cottage with the Swiss Alps, rumored to put off wind that leads to madness, in the backdrop. The sleepwalking scenes are a mix of a camera traveling down a white corridor past black doors at various speeds, Vaseline smeared lens and overbearing lighting. There are even POV shots from not just the killer, but also kaleidoscopic visions from a ladybug and even a maggot! Oh, did I mention there are a LOT of maggots in this film? Yes. Indeed there are, including a large pit of them feasting on the remains of the killer's victims.

Many film historians, including a good number of genre aficionados who are otherwise big defenders of the director, were highly critical of the film when it was released. I find that bizarre seeing how every issue they complained about, from the poor dubbing of the supporting cast to the inconsistent plotting to the occasional senseless / idiotic character actions, is present in every single other Argento film they'd praised. Only those debits, to me, are far less pronounced here due to its melding of giallo / slasher with supernatural / fairy tale and just how weird, wild, gory, creative and unpredictable the whole thing is. The audacious soundtrack, featuring contributions from Bill Wyman, Simon Boswell, Goblin, Motörhead, Claudio Simonetti and others, also polarizes with its mix of classical, synth / electronica, heavy metal and even opera. It's a truly bizarre soundscape, yet it's in service of a truly bizarre film, so should it be anything but?

Regardless of the initial reception, Phenomena / Creepers became Argento's biggest international hit since SUSPIRIA almost ten years earlier. It was popular in Europe, the U.S., Asia (especially Japan) and elsewhere, was one of Argento's most widely distributed titles during the video era and remains one of his most viewed films. The fact it features future star Connelly has also helped ensure that it's kept in circulation. This film also provided Daria Nicolodi, then-girlfriend of the director, with her only memorable part in one of his films and she gives a gloriously over-the-top performance as a seemingly-reserved schoolteacher who figures prominently during the finale. Patrick Bauchau and Michele Soavi (also the assistant director) show up playing police inspectors and Argento's eldest daughter Fiore Argento plays the Danish schoolgirl killed in the opening scene. The gory makeups are from Sergio Stivaletti while Luigi Cozzi worked on optical effects.

There have been countless releases for this title over the years. Media was the initial U.S. VHS distributor in the States (of the heavily-cut version) while Anchor Bay introduced American audiences to most of the previously-unseen cut footage with their 1999 DVD release. The 2016 release from Synapse includes three different cuts of the film: the 83-minute Creepers cut, the 110 minute English-language international cut and the 116 minute Italian language version. One of the many extras on the 2 disc set is the feature-length documentary Dario Argento's World of Horror (1985). It also comes with a soundtrack CD. Perhaps the definitive version to be released is the UK Arrow 4 DISC release, which contains the various cuts of the film, loads of extras and a brand new 2 hour documentary on the film titled Of Flies and Maggots.

Aside from the usually-lauded Deep Red and Suspiria, everyone seems to have their own opinion about which other Argento film(s) are the strongest in his filmography. For me, this one is right at the very top. It includes pretty much everything I want out of this particular director... plus a few things I didn't even realize I wanted until I saw them here. A straight-razor-armed chimp with a vendetta is just the tip of the iceberg.

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