Thursday 22 June 2017
Doo Doooo, Be Doo Doo
Italy 1985 Directed by Dario Argento
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
“I chose Switzerland as it's somewhere nothing much happens.”
Back in the misty days known as the ‘Dawn of DVD’, a new chapter of European cinema of all shapes and sizes was opened up to me. I’d always been a big watcher of movies at home but VHS tapes were not releasing enough stuff in the correct aspect ratio and I refused, and still do to this day, to watch things in anything other than the ratio it was meant for... except in very rare cases where the original prints are no longer in existence and have never been made commercially available. Not only that... loads of the films available over here in the UK were shamefully censored by the BBFC, who even to this day are somehow allowed to be perpetrators of one of the most inexcusable crimes against filmanity ever... censorship.
So my ‘video junkie’ habit kinda slowed down to a ‘not quite stand still’ after a while. Then, however, DVDs were upon us and with them came the relative ease of ‘multiregion players’. You could literally walk into your local TESCO, buy a player and then look up the appropriate remote control button combination hack for the player you bought to make it ‘region free’. It’s not quite so easy with Blu Ray these days but it’s still not that hard to get a proper multizone player... thank goodness. Otherwise cineastes in Britain would be suffering even more due to the greed of the companies who want to jack up the prices to foreign countries. Not to mention the censorship and ‘time of release’ issues. Back in the day, you could buy the US edition of the DVD months ahead of the UK theatrical release for cheaper than the price of a cinema ticket and then, if you liked it, wait for it to come out on general release in the cinema in the UK and watch it like that too.
Long story short... not only were most of the DVDs finally being put out in the correct aspect ratio but you could get away from the drag of Victorian era censorship practices by just buying the uncut version from whatever country that was putting them out. There were even a load of shops selling the foreign discs in London, if you were worried about making transactions on the internet, at that time (pretty much all gone now).
And so, with the easy bypassing of censorship laws coupled with the quality transfer of the print (in most cases... don’t get me started on companies like ArtsMagic) and the correct frame size, a whole new vein of cinematic treasure was opened up to me which I’d previously ignored because I knew certain director’s films would be snipped by the censors in the UK editions (and still are, in many cases). So, of course, one of the first director’s films I went to take a proper look at... along with the likes of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin and Mario Bava... was the great Dario Argento. After years of admiring the soundtrack ads on the back of American magazines like Starlog.
This film, Phenomena, which has just come out in a ‘most but not quite all of the bells and whistles’ limited edition from Arrow, was the first Argento that, on my first watch, left me a little disappointed. I’d recently seen The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Deep Red (reviewed here), Suspiria, Tenebre (reviewed here) and Inferno (films like Four Flies On Grey Velvet were still not readily available on DVD in any other way than poor bootlegs still, at that time... now I have something like six different prints of that one) so I was being really spoiled with quality Argento. Phenomena, while still pretty good, has quite a different feel, in some ways, to those classic Argento films I just mentioned.
A fair amount of people seem to somehow, class this as a horror picture but, although there’s a strong supernatural presence in the film, this isn’t something the villain(s) of the piece, such as they are, can access and it really is another one of Argento’s trademark pictures... the Italian giallo. The supernatural element is similarly discounted in favour of true giallo leanings in such films as his aforementioned Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) and the modern giallo Tulpa (aka Perdizioni Mortali - reviewed here). When I first watched this one years ago (on the old Anchor Bay Region 1 double bill DVD with Argento’s Inferno) I remember thinking that, of all the Argento films I’d managed to see by that point, it was a bit of a dud. However, I’ve began to warm up to the unconventional feeling generated by the movie (it’s not really a whodunnit style giallo in that there aren’t a gazillion suspects and one of the main killers is not introduced properly into the text of this film until he is more or less revealed) and since then, I’ve seen a fewArgento movies which, believe me, are far worse than this one (Phantom Of The Opera, anybody?). Although, it has to be said, I’m much more tolerant of his later stuff than a lot of his fan base seem to be these days. So yeah, watching this in the new Blu Ray transfer from Arrow was a pretty good experience (and also had its downsides... which I’ll get to in a while).
Set in Switzerland, the film follows a teenage girl played by Jennifer Connolly (called Jennifer) who has a psychic link with insects and an affliction where she sleepwalks (sometimes with an insect’s eyes’ view of a killing being committed). She befriends a wheelchair bound, Scottish forensic entomologist played by the late, great Donald Pleasance who, naturally, has a trained chimpanzee to help him get stuff done. Actually, the chimpanzee is used at one point as almost Argento’s only concession to the whodunnit style of the traditional giallo in this, when he uses the creature holding a razor blade early on in the film to put the idea in the viewers mind that, just maybe, the monkey is going to turn out to be the killer!
Monkey magic aside, though, he film is actually full of those beautiful compositions and swooping camera shots which are a bit of an Argento trademark but some viewers (myself included, first time around... about 17 years ago) may miss them because of the muted tones employed... cold whites, grays and blues... but not used as starkly contrasting against strong blacks or textures as those kinds of tones are in the director’s amazing movie Tenebrae (aka Tenebre), where they absolutely pop. Actually, there is one moment which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the movie towards the end of the film, where we cut to a shot of an airport, which is all the acidic, primary colours reminiscent of Argento’s more usual palette (which is a colour palette Bavaesque in style, to say the least). This scene is completely at odds with the visual tone of the rest of the movie, as far as I'm concerned. If you want to find out more about the whites, greys and blues and the way they are manifested then read Rachael Nisbet’s excellent essay on the fashions of the film which is the absolute highlight of the printed booklet in this limited edition set (and check out her blog too if you like excellent writing on Italian exploitation cinema... just click here).
Regardless of the visual style, the film is, however, a visual feast of strong composition and the movement through those compositions.
For example, there’s a beautiful shot through an elliptical glass window taking up approximately the left hand two thirds of a shot with Jennifer making a phone call in one half of the window which is artifically split in half by the back of the booth behind her, framing two other characters in the near distance in the right hand half of the split outside the booth. Then the camera pans slightly right as these two go to what was, until now, the last third of the frame and stops with the dead, right hand half of the window split in the now remaining first third of the screen. We cut to a quick insert of Jennifer in the booth reacting to their comments before we cut back to that same, original master shot. Then Jennifer leaves via that half split of the window and the other two girls leave as the camera follows Jennifer into the next part of the shot... as the window goes out of frame. Beautiful stuff.
Another interesting moment comes after a bus drops Jeniffer off while she's busy being the film’s Nancy Drew character. The camera movements directly after the bus unloads Jennifer kind of swoop into framing her at the same kind of speed and movement it used with the filming of the departing bus and everything kind of follows through in the same kind of motion. It’s moments like this which make Argento one of the great directors, as far as I’m concerned.
I also noticed, this time around, a kind of visual obsession (probably in this one film only but I’ll be on the lookout for it more now) of downward movement as objects are dropped, falling to the bottom of the screen. Argento does this at least three times here... once in the opening of the first murder of a girl played by his own daughter, Fiore Argento, when we get a beautiful detail shot of a pair of scissors dropping and sticking into the floor, accompanied by a nice audible clamor. These scissors will soon find themselves embedded in the girls hand. The second use of this strange dropping motif is of the girl’s head itself. As she is pushed back through a window, a little reminiscent of violence found in both Argento’s Suspiria and Tenebrae, we cut to the other side of the window above a waterfall as Fiore is decapitated by the glass and the camera follows the course of her head as it drops into the swirling, white waters below.
A third ‘drop’ shot takes place during a suspense scene in the last fifth of the movie, where Jennifer is trying to disentangle herself from an intravenous drip and leave a room before her guarding nurse wakes up and catches her. The nurse has fallen asleep while she is knitting and at one point, while Jennifer is making her escape, the kitting needle drops to the floor and we fear the sound of it may wake the nurse. However, instead of clanging to the ground, the needle drops perfectly into a waiting ball of wool in a shot very reminiscent, at least to these eyes, of the shot much earlier in the film of the dropping scissors. So I need to be revisiting all his work again now to see if he used this kind of visual echo in any of his other films (like I needed an excuse to revisit Argento with all these nice Blu Ray editions coming out).
One of the things about the movie which is kinda all over the place is the music. There were a lot of different composers working on this one, including Goblin’s former head honcho Claudio Simonetti and British composer Simon Boswell. The music is mostly pretty fantastic and a lot of it is included in a new, remastered CD presentation which has a few more tracks than previous editions, as a fourth disc in this Arrow limited edition set (alas, it still doesn’t contain Bill Wyman’s lovely, atmospheric track The Valley on the CD but, well, you can’t have everything I guess). Simonetti’s stuff is absolutely brilliant but, like a lot of the music in the film, quite often seems inappropriate to the imagery. There are some nice tranquil shots going on in a movie comprising, mostly, a laid back sense of pacing but, for the most part, the music is speeding along and doing its own thing for a lot of the time. It seems to me it works much more successfully as a stand alone listen but I know a lot of both Italian horror movies and gialli were being scored in this manner then so, you know, sign of the times and all that. It doesn’t deter from the beautiful visuals too much and it’s still a great score (I’ll admit, the remastered CD was the primary reason I pre-ordered this set).
The film marks the last shoot that Argento and Daria Nicolodi (mother of Asia Argento) worked on while they were still together as a couple (although not the last film they both worked on). Here we have Nicolodi killed in a hideous manner and also Argento’s other daughter Fiore meets an equally terrible fate. Daria is killed in an even more spectacular manner in the director’s excellent movie Opera, two years later and, one wonders whether that says anything about Argento’s character and attitude to his partner at the time. Probably not but I did find the interviews with him on the Arrow documentary a lot scarier and less benign than the usual ones.
It’s a pretty good documentary too... where I learned things such as the front view of a scene set in a car was shot in Italy while Daria Nicolodi and Jennifer Connelly’s part of the same scene involving a bee in the back of the car was shot in Switzerland. And I honesty would probably never had noticed it if it hadn’t been for this documentary but, now that I know it, I can see that the background whizzing by past the windows of the car doesn’t really match when the camera is pointing at either the front or back. So... don’t think I knew that before so much appreciation there to Arrow as they have commissioned quite a good documentary from the guys at www.freakorama.org. It’s interesting that nobody mentions the fact that Jennifer Connelly got the top of her finger bitten off by the chimpanzee and it had to be reattached in hospital, though. A bite is mentioned but it's somewhat downplayed here. However, there are a few things about this top notch Blu Ray that left me a little disappointed, to be honest.
First up, there’s the case of the elusive footage from the Japanese laserdisc version of the movie. The film is presented three times in this set... one in the International cut, one in the horrible US release Creepers cut and the obvious winner here, a hybrid version which is the longest to date and includes the extra footage from the Italian cut. However, the footage from the Japanese laserdisc, where Jennifer apparently levitates above the other children, doesn’t seem to be present. What’s more, nobody seems to be saying anything about it either. I asked Arrow directly a few times on Twitter if they were going to include the scene in their new cut but they seemed reluctant to even reply to me on this issue. What’s more, although the documentary doesn’t mention this footage, there’s plainly a sequence of archival footage in this very same extra which shows Argento and his crew shooting that missing scene. Talk about winding up the fans! It’s a shame that, if this footage couldn’t be found in something the producers of this disc thought salvageable for a high quality Blu Ray presentation, even as an extra, they didn’t at least acknowledge its existence. Oh well.
Also, for a package with an abundance of extras on every disc, why couldn’t they get the clearance for some of the old Anchor Bay bonuses to be included too? The Bill Wyman video of his musical contribution to the film, The Valley, is not on this one (and neither, as I mentioned above, is it on the CD soundtrack) and it’s a shame because, although it’s a bit of a slow burn the very first time you hear it, it’s actually quite a nice bit of scoring.
Another thing which annoyed me intensely was the fact that this disc is region locked and, not only region locked but it doesn’t have a screen to tell you about it. Now my Blu Ray player often defaults back to Zone A after it’s been on stand by for a while and so, when I put the first disc in, the machine tried to read it and then it just went black. It took me a few tries because Arrow didn’t see fit to include an apology screen for this horrible practice, before I realised I had to reset my machine to Zone B to be able to play it rather than send the thing back to Arrow as a faulty disc. I got there in the end but, honestly, for a company who are such a boon the UK home video market like Arrow are at the moment, you would expect at least the courtesy of a screen clarifying that you are trying to play it on the wrong region setting. This is something that companies like, for example, Shameless, do really well with.
Other than those few of points though... it’s well done again to Arrow for giving us a great package and especially for including the remastered score on CD. This is probably the absolute best version you could possibly get of Phenomena anywhere in the world, as far as I know (to date). If you are a fan of Argento’s work you will seriously want to make sure you have this new Blu Ray version of the film and, if you aren’t, make sure that if this is the first time you see this film that this is the version you watch. It's a movie which has grown on me over the years and it’s certainly a film like no other Argento’s done... quite unique in its atmosphere and flawless in its visual execution, at the very least. Watching this movie reminds me that I’d really like to retire to Switzerland some day. Who knows? One day that might even come to pass.