Cult Movie: Phenomena takes its place at top table of mad supernatural thrillers

Jennifer Connolly in Dario Argento's Phenomena

A CLASSIC Dario Argento film has several key ingredients. In keeping with the great Italian Giallo tradition, there’s invariably a simple detective mystery at the film’s core. There’s usually an obsession with the supernatural that expresses itself in many ways but somehow entails humans having some odd ability to communicate with either animals or insects.

There are buckets of gore on hand to sate the appetite of the watching horror hounds and, last but certainly not least, there’s generally an ear drum-bursting soundtrack from his favoured musical collaborators Goblin or whatever Euro noise merchants he was able to rustle up at the time.

Phenomena (1985) ticks all those boxes and more, adding a wild sense of slightly crazed abandon that makes it stand out as one of the Italian director’s finest fantasy offerings.

There are razor-wielding chimps, maggots galore, an evil monster child and there’s even an appearance from the great Donald Pleasence. Add to that musical contributions from Iron Maiden and Motorhead and you can see why it’s perfect fodder for the cult closet.

Odd, then, that it rarely, if ever, gets the acclaim it deserves. While it doesn’t have the game-changing power of the director’s earlier Suspiria or even Deep Red, it’s still a fascinating slice of maverick movie making from a true master. Hopefully the new extras enhanced Blu-ray release from Arrow Video will help to change that.

The fairytale vibe is there from the start as we meet Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) an unhappy pupil at an exclusive Swiss all-girls boarding school. Girls have been murdered and dismembered by a mysterious serial killer and when it’s discovered that Jennifer can communicate with insects her telepathic powers are called into service as she works alongside a strange professor (Pleasence) and his chimpanzee assistant to find out who is behind the wave of bloody mayhem.

If that sounds utterly mad, that’s because it is but there’s a lot of fun to be had in this woozy dream world and Argento knows just how to milk the scenario for all it’s thrilling worth.

The film was hacked down from its original 110-minute running time to a miserable 84 minutes for American consumption in 1985 but Arrow have wisely restored this version to its original visual and audio glory. Romano Albani’s beautiful cinematography and that pounding score from Goblin and assorted noise merchants make this an essential purchase for anyone interested in wildly unhinged Italian cinema.

It may have arrived at the tail end of Argento’s reign as the undisputed King of Italian shock cinema and it may lack a little of the coherent punch of those earlier classics but it’s got a weird, almost hypnotising quality. Savage, gory and at times pretty tasteless, it’s not for the faint hearted, but it’s a hugely entertaining and madly over the top thrill ride all the same.

Beautifully presented and lovingly packaged, this release allows Phenomena to take its place at the top table of mad supernatural thrillers.

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