Collins’ Crypt: Movies I Love - PHENOMENA

The Blu-ray of Argento's classic has three versions to choose from - which one's your favorite?

As with a number of other previous Crypt subjects, I have no idea why my mom rented Creepers for me when I was only like six or seven years old, instead of Transformers: The Movie or something more kid-friendly that would have been out at the time. Maybe she thought it would be similar to Labyrinth, as it also starred the young Jennifer Connelly, or maybe she thought it'd be about killer bugs, in the vein of something like Squirm or whatever. Or maybe, just maybe, she knew someday her young son would go on to write about horror movies all the time when he grew up and figured he'd need a good lead-in for a piece about the movie's true version, Phenomena. Both versions (and a third, even longer cut)  just got re-released on Blu-ray in a cheaper non-limited edition than the one that came out last year (the disc itself is the same, you just don't get the typically great Goblin soundtrack on a separate CD anymore). I won the disc at trivia last week and figured it'd be a good time to revisit, as I had fairly recently seen Creepers (at the Argento all-nighter) but hadn't watched the full uncut version in years.

Needless to say this was the first Argento movie I ever saw, though the Creepers version is shortened by so much that it almost shouldn't even count (and, obviously, when I was 7 I didn't know who he was anyway). When I started really digging into his filmography in my 20s, I watched it again and discovered that I inadvertently picked a good place to "start" - it remains one of my favorites of his, coming in only behind Suspiria and Opera, really. Argento has actually said that it's his favorite of all his films, and it's easy to see why - it's a terrific blend of both his traditional giallo films, as well as the more supernaturally charged tales that make up the rest of his career. A greatest hits, if you will, combining the all-girls' school setting of Suspiria with the "visiting American becomes integral to finding a serial killer" plot of a number of his gialli, including Tenebrae, his previous (non-supernatural) film that was then and arguably still is the most accessible film he's made, at least to US audiences.

Don't get me wrong, Phenomena isn't exactly the most straight-forward film ever made. In fact it has plenty of the weirdness that defines all of his films - just not so much that a normal audience member (i.e. my mom) would go running for the hills after ten minutes. I mean, even I have trouble with some of Inferno's narrative choices, so I can't imagine a casual horror fan trying to get through that one, but unlike say, Cat O'Nine Tails, this isn't likely to bore anyone looking for a standard horror film, either. Things kick off instantly (the movie doesn't even have a production company logo!) with a girl being murdered in the first sequence, and then we meet Donald Pleasence, an etymologist with an intermittent Scottish accent who is assisting the police with a string of murders, as the number of maggots on a corpse can determine how long it's been there (same sort of stuff William Petersen did on CSI). Pleasence is confined to a wheelchair, and thus he of course has a helper monkey who retrieves things for him and generally acts as his live-in nurse. It's awesome, and we get all of this in the first ten minutes.

After that whirlwind intro we meet Jennifer Connelly as the creatively named Jennifer, who is arriving at the school to stay there while her famous actor father shoots a new movie. She's there for about five minutes before she falls asleep and begins sleepwalking, witnessing another murder shortly thereafter. Then she meets Pleasence's character, bonding with him and the monkey, and then the two work together to piece together the mystery before someone else dies. If you haven't seen the film yet and are now wondering "How is this weird?", it's a good time to tell you that Jennifer has a connection to the bugs and can communicate with them and even have them act on her behalf, which isn't the sort of thing you'd see in Murder, She Wrote all that often. This unfortunately means the movie has some fairly weak optical effects for the bug swarm sequences, and it's not like "looking bad" is something you can say about most Argento films (even his weakest ones LOOK good, at least until digital came along), but that's really the only blemish on the film, as far as I'm concerned. The mystery is solid, there's a great double-shock ending, Connelly is charming as all hell, and as an added bonus, it's got a hard rock soundtrack that might be a bit ill-fitting at times, but come on - who doesn't want to hear an Iron Maiden song every now and then?

That said, if you love Maiden you should steer clear of the Creepers cut, as it reduces that scene and thus the song along with it, leaving only a few seconds of the intro. I've seen a lot of debate about the two versions of the film, and for good reason - there's close to a 30 minute difference between the two. Creepers is around 83 minutes and pared down to the bare essentials; most of the plot is intact (Pleasence's role is trimmed a lot, so a lot of the exposition and backstory is reduced) but it never has time to breathe, which accentuates the weirdness to some extent as Jennifer is constantly being raced from one sequence to the next, giving the movie a dream-like feel even when she's awake. The longer Phenomena (110 minutes) strengthens her friendship with Pleasence, increases the length of the chase scenes to allow more suspense, and restores a few minor bits with Dario Nicolodi in the third act, but also drags in spots, so I get why some would prefer the shorter one. Honestly, I think the best version of the movie is somewhere in the middle, which would include all of the character work but maybe trim down on Jennifer's walks through the woods, as it gets a bit repetitive even in the shorter one since the plot calls for at least three such sequences. I know fans have done their own cuts of certain films over the years; perhaps one can tackle Phenomena? Is Soderbergh an Argento fan?

Luckily, unlike some films where there is no real debate unless you're an asshole (who the hell prefers the theatrical cut of The Abyss to the director's one?), you can't go wrong with either version, and most releases offer both. But as I mentioned, Synapse's Blu actually offers THREE versions: the two described above and another cut that runs 116 minutes, which was never before available in North America. This restores a few scenes, some of which were originally removed by Argento himself - including one that explained one of the 110 minute version's odder moments, when Jennifer gets off the bus as she uses a fly to locate the murderer (go with it). In the 110 minute version, when she steps off and thanks the driver, a man sitting at the front of the bus walks to the back where she was sitting and shuts her window, giving her a dirty look - it was a moment that always delighted me for being so random. Turns out, it had a setup - there was a lady on the bus complaining about the open window and Jennifer refused to shut it, an argument that Argento excised for whatever reason. Why he left the "punchline" to the scene is a mystery, but like I said, it's always tickled me so I'm a bit sad that it now makes sense. 

Another extension occurs when Jennifer is arguing with Bruckner (Nicolodi's character), a scene that mostly exists in the other versions but goes on longer in the 116 minute version. What they're saying isn't particularly enlightening, but it's fun to see as the dialogue goes from English to Italian and then back to English - all in one unbroken shot! I guess they only had the dubbed Italian audio for the part in the middle that was originally cut, so it was either leave it out for good, or momentarily make certain audience members (i.e. me) wonder if they were having a stroke or something. The 116 minute version is also available in Italian throughout, if you ever wanted to hear an Italian's version of Donald Pleasence doing a Scottish accent, or the odd moment where Bruckner sells Jennifer on the school by explaining that they all speak English, which never actually happens in this version.

For my money, Argento only had one more great film in him (his next one, Opera), followed by a few decent ones like Trauma and Stendhal Syndrome, before hitting rock bottom with Phantom of the Opera, and then never fully recovering (though I liked Mother of Tears for the most part, and Dracula 3D is at least insane enough to entertain). Considering how much I love Opera, it's a shame he seemed to be really hitting his full potential during this mid-'80s period just as the Italian film industry was collapsing, forcing him to seek out other ways to continue to work (his next two, Two Evil Eyes and Trauma, were US productions) that perhaps weren't as accommodating to his sensibilities. I couldn't find much about Creepers' US release, so I'm not sure how well it performed (I assume not spectacularly, though it apparently opened on the same weekend as Fright Night, another one I was lucky to see at the age of 6 or 7), but giallo authority Troy Howarth noted in his book So Deadly, So Perverse that it was the last of Argento's films to have a "meaningful" release in the US, so I assume it wasn't like the releases his films get here nowadays, i.e. they play on one weird screen for a week with zero promotion.

But even if it somehow played on 1,000 screens, I'm guessing the Creepers cut is the version most people in the US are (still) familiar with, as the Phenomena DVDs and Blus tend to go in and out of print a lot (and usually cost a pretty penny to boot). Again, I prefer the longer one, but it's not like Creepers is an abomination like some hack jobs (i.e. Halloween 6, which also reduced Pleasence's role - but was also borderline incoherent in its theatrical form), and wouldn't seriously argue with anyone who preferred it. Either version is a delight, the rock songs don't get in the way of Goblin's score (I absolutely love Jennifer's theme) and it's also one of his most rewatchable movies as it's never far from another nutty plot point (the fly following scene is wonderful) or murder. I don't remember much about how 7 year old me felt about the film, but I can guarantee I was probably never bored. Thanks mom!