Before gaining fame battling David Bowie’s bewigged King Jareth in 1986’s Labyrinth, a 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly starred in Dario Argento’s bizarre and eccentric horror Phenomena.
Sent to a posh Swiss boarding school by her absent film star dad, Jennifer Corvino (Connelly) learns of a serial killer targeting young girls in the area. With the help of Donald Pleasence’s wheelchair-bound entomologist, Jennifer discovers she has special psychic powers and a natural affinity with insects. She then uses these skills to track down the killer.
This being an Argento film, much mayhem ensues with lashings of grisly decapitations and stabbings, swarms of insects, a razor-wielding chimp and that classic horror staple – a monster in the basement.
Argento’s cameras really soar to great heights here. Taking his cameras out of Rome’s studios for a change, he really goes to town on the beautiful Swiss landscapes (the film was shot around Appenzell and Canton St Gallen). Watching Arrow’s new 4k restoration on blu-ray is a real treat watching on a big screen as you find yourself yourself flying high above the alpines, like one of the winged beasties buzzing about.
As with all Argento films, music plays a huge role, from the incongruous (Iron Maiden’s Flash of the Blade bellowing out during one death scene really spoils the atmosphere) to the sublime, courtesy of Goblin of course (the scene in which Jennifer is led to the killer’s glove by a firefly is truly haunting). After Profundo Rosso and Suspiria, this is one of band’s best-ever Argento scores.
To be honest, I was never a big fan of Phenomena when I first saw it on VHS back in the late-1980s, as it was such a big departure from Argento’s previous supernatural shockers. But it is actually much better than I remembered. In fact, I now ‘get’ what Argento was aiming for – a modern-day Grimm’s fairytale, with just a dash of surreal slash and gore. It’s not perfect, but it’s brutally beautiful work of cinematic art just the same – and probably Argento’s last truly great film.
Back in 2011 Arrow released a box-set containing a superb HD transfer of the Italian cut featuring some missing English audio sections, along with a ‘making of’ documentary, an interview with composer with Claudio Simonetti, and a Q&A with special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti. Now they have set their sights on creating the definitive home entertainment release – and if you look at what’s in the box, it just well maybe so.
• Brand new 4k restoration from the original camera negative (Arrow Video exclusive) of the 116-minute Italian version in High Definition Blu-ray (1080p)
• New hybrid English/Italian soundtrack 5.1 Surround/or Stereo with English subtitles
• New audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films
• Original Italian and English theatrical trailers
• Jennifer music video, directed by Dario Argento
• Rare Japanese vintage pressbook
• 110-minute international version in High Definition Blu-ray (1080p)
• The Three Sarcophagi: a new visual essay by Michael Mackenzie comparing the different cuts of Phenomena
• 83-minute Creepers cut on High Definition Blu-ray (1080p)
• Of Flies and Maggots: feature-length documentary (March 2017) including interviews with Dario Argento, actors Fiore Argento, Davide Marotta, Daria Nicolodi and Fiorenza Tessari, co-writer Franco Ferrini, cinematographer Romano Albani, production manager Angelo Jacono, assistant director Michele Soavi, special optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi, special makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti
• Remastered soundtrack CD featuring the complete Goblin instrumental soundtrack, plus four bonus tracks by Simon Boswell and Andi Sex Gang
• Limited edition 60-page booklet
Plagued with production problems, director Roman Polanski’s 1966 black comedy Cul-de-sac should never have worked – but it did and remains a critical high-point of his early career. Having won plaudits and good box-office receipts for his first British-backed film, the psychological horror Repulsion (starring France’s new star Catherine Deneuve), Polanski was given free reign for his follow-up which is now available in a restored HD transfer edition as part of The Criterion Collection.
Set on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coastline, Polanski fashioned a morbidly absurdist bourgeois-baiting tale with his long-time collaborator Gérard Brach.
Happening upon an castle on the coastline, wounded American gangster Richard (Lionel Stander) and his gravely ill accomplice Albert (Jack MacGowran) decide it an ideal hide and so take hostage its owners – retired businessman George (Donald Pleasence) and his restless French wife Teresa (Françoise Dorleac).
But the claustrophobic setting and long wait for help to arrive sets in motion increasingly disturbing games involving sexual and emotional humiliation between captor and couple that escalates into terrible violence…
When Cul-de-sac was released in the UK in 1966 (check out the premiere clip below), audiences really didn’t take to the film (probably on account it was too bleak and not the psychological horror that they had hoped). But when it then won the Golden Bear at the 16th Berlin International Film Festival, it quickly gained a new appreciation – and so it should.
From its outset, Polanski had faith in bringing his bleak comedy of manners to the big-screen and against the odds and by going rogue he achieved it.
A typically British summer (rain, snow and storms) and the wrong tides held up shooting, while method actors Stander and Pleasence caused ructions on set, and Polanski was accused of driving his cast and crew to exhaustion, hypothermia (MacGowran) and near death (Dorleac almost drowned) in order to finish the film to his exacting standards. Even the locals began to resent Polanski and co’s presence (especially in the local pubs).
Meanwhile, the film’s fed-up backers (Compton Films’ Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger) eventually shut down production after it overrun its budget– but not before Polanski had the film’s powerful 8-minute one-shot climax involving a Tiger Moth plane in the can.
Donald Pleasence is in his element as the dotty fed-up George, and his performance ranks as one of his best (alongside his alcoholic doctor in 1971’s Wake in Fright). Françoise Dorleac is also perfectly cast (also at the last minute) as the hippy-like Teresa – and her character is the total anti-thesis of her sister Catherine Deneuve’s sexually repressive character in Repulsion. Then there’s the gravel-voiced Lionel Stander (who’d go onto play Max in TV’s Hart to Hart), who is outstandingly repellent as the chief thug. Tragically, Dorleac died in a car accident a year after appearing in the film.
The other star of the film is Holy Island and the surrounding landscape, made luminous by Gilbert Taylor’s stark black-and-white photography – and the inclement weather (those skies are divine, especially when shot day for night).
And alongside the rich visuals is Krzysztof Komeda’s jaunty score that lends the film a sense of carnival and menace, two elements that are that the heart of this caustic satire (which would look terrific if it were adapted for the stage like Polanski’s follow-up film, Dance of the Vampires). Watch for Jacqueline (billed as Jackie) Bisset, briefly on screen in one of her earliest roles.
THE CRITERION COLLECTION RELEASE
• Restored high-definition digital transfer, approved by director Roman Polanski, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
• Two Gangsters and an Island: the 23-minute 2003 Blue Underground documentary (23min) about the making of the film, featuring interviews with Polanski, producers Gene Gutowski and Tony Tenser, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. Also participating are production designer Voyek, continuity Dee Vaughn and actor William Franklyn
• Archive TV interview with Polanski from 1967 (this is a fascinating insight into the young director’s cinematic vision about alienation, sex and his genuine dislike for the bourgeoisie)
• Theatrical trailers
• Plus, booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Thompson
Wake in Fright (1971) | The dark underbelly of Australian mateship is ripped open in the sick heat of Ted Kotcheff’s long lost Australian classic
NEW TO THE YABBA?
Stuck in a government-enforced teaching post in the stifling heat of the remote outback town of Tiboonda, cynical city schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) heads off on his six-week Christmas break to Sydney.
But while stopping off in the mining town of Bundanyabba, he downs a couple of free beers courtesy of a cocksure cop (Chips Rafferty) and heads into the two-up ring hoping to win his way back to ‘civilisation’ and his girlfriend.
But when this one bad decision leads to another, ‘the Yabba’ quickly turns into a nightmarish hellhole for John, whose booze-fuelled weekend bender with the locals rapidly descends into violence and degradation.
HAVE DRINK, MATE? HAVE A FIGHT, MATE?
Wake in Fright is adapted from Kenneth Cook’s ‘magnificent rough-and-tumble of a first novel’, which explores ‘the gargantuan flavour of the Australian outback, its sick heat and its people’. ‘Like quicksand their animal customs, their animal women, their perverts and their stupendous, overpowering hospitality drag innocent, city-bred John Grant down to his ruin – and beyond.’ (*)
Though little seen prior to its restoration (which was only made possible after a painstaking search for the missing negative), the 1971 drama based on Cook’s novel has achieved cult status for both its cinematic brilliance and its huge influence on both the Australian 1970s New Wave and the Ozploitation cycle that followed in its wake.
Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s unflinching film makes stunning visual and dramatic use of the scorching Australian outback and features some truly nightmarish characters played by Chips Rafferty (in his last role), Jack Thompson (in his first) and Donald Pleasence (in his lifetime best).
Nominated for the Palme d’Or in 1971 and selected again for Cannes Classics in 2009 following its digital restoration, Wake in Fright has garnered legions of fans, including director Martin Scorsese and Austalian muso extraordinaire Nick Cave, who calls it the ‘best and most terrifying film about Australia ever made’.
HAVE SOME DUST AND SWEAT, MATE?
On the surface, it’s about a Sydney bloke who gets pissed in a country town, loses his money gambling, drinks some more, throws up while having sex, goes roo shooting [the real-life scenes of animal slaughter made the film notorious both home and abroad], downs more booze, passes out, then gets the shock of his life when he wakes up next to a naked sweaty old drunk (Pleasence) in a baking hot tin shack in the middle of nowhere.
But beneath the blood, sweat and grime of Kotcheff’s testosterone and alcohol-fuelled drama there’s biting satirical comment on some cherished Aussie customs like mateship (which is, afterall, the foundation of the Australian character) and the drinking culture that goes with it; and the majesty of the Australian bush (paying particular attention to the yawning chasm that existed between city and country folk in the 1970s).
THERE’S NOTHING ELSE OUT THERE
Having myself been brought up in country Australia, and educated in the city, I can understand John’s resentment at being marooned in a cultural desert wasteland. But I also believe he deserves to be reduced to ‘a soiled miserable creature, stinking to high heaven, left with just seven pence, a rifle and no ammunition’. It’s his penance for daring to think himself better than his fellow man, which echoes another Australian phenomenon, the Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Much could be written about Wake in Fright’s brutal dissection of Aussie mores and masculinity and at how a non-Australian like Kotcheff (the Canadian would go on to direct the Sylvester Stallone cult action favourite First Blood) was able to prefectly capture Cook’s rugged prose in celluloid. Hopefully, now that the film has been saved and restored, this kind of discussion and debate can begin anew.
Heads, you’ll find yourself carried along this sun-baked existential journey into the Australian outback’s heart of darkness. Tails, you’ll be left shocked, provoked and very parched indeed. Hands down this is one of Australia’s true cinematic gems.
THE UK DUAL FORMAT RELEASE
The new digital restoration, which gets its UK dual format (Blu-ray/DVD) release from Eureka Entertainment‘s Masters of Cinema Series from 31 March 2014, does full justice to this forgotten film and is a crucial addition to your cult world cinema film library.
• 1080p high-definition restoration of the film on the Blu-ray and a progressive encode on the DVD.
• Optional English subtitles.
• Audio commentary with director Ted Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley.
• Video interview with Ted Kotcheff (2009).
• ABC 7:30 Report video piece on the the rediscovery and restoration of the film.
• Who Needs Art? vintage piece on Wake in Fright.
• Chips Rafferty obituary clip.
• Outback TV spot.
• UK theatrical trailer.
• Collector’s booklet featuring essays by Adrian Martin, Peter Galvin, Meg Labrum, Graham Shirley, Ted Kotcheff and Anthony Buckley, and archival imagery.
SOURCES: (*) Wake in Fright, Kenneth Cook