When it comes to Dario Argento, the highs are high and the lows are cavernous pits leading straight to hell. The Italian filmmaker, known for helping further define the later era of the giallo film, has made some of the most influential films of all time, including one of my favorite films, and arguably his most prolific, 1977’s Suspiria (though, it’s the 2018 remake that really suits my fancy). A supernatural slasher trekking through a prestigious German ballet boarding school, following a young girl with a strange gift as she solves the mystery of brutal murders surrounding the school. One of Argento’s other fan favorites is 1985’s Phenomena (of which I can never not pronounce like “Mah-na Mah-na” from Sesame Street), a supernatural slasher trekking through a prestigious Swiss boarding school, following a young girl with a strange gift as she solves the mystery of brutal murders surrounding the school. Sound familiar? Argento certainly had a noted structure he liked, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Advice that Argento would then promptly ignore heading into his later career, creating films even hardcore fans can’t even defend. Synapse Films has put together an impressively robust 4K Blu-ray for Phenomena, giving the release mass production following last year’s collector’s edition limited to 6,000 copies, and the results, even in the standard packaging, are stunning.
Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), daughter of famous American actor Paul Corvino, is sent to a prestigious Swiss boarding school outside of Basel. Jennifer has a strange, but friendly relationship with insects, finding gentility and mutual respect with them as the world swats them away as frightening inconveniences. As the surrounding village of the school is racked with the brutal murders of several young girls, Jennifer finds her relationship with insects put to the test when forensic entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) enlists her help to utilize her power to help solve the murders. Her involvement soon takes her and McGregor right into the heart of madness, with a revelation almost too crazy to believe.
When it comes down to it, Phenomena is far closer in quality to Suspiria than it is Dracula 3D, though I admittedly came to struggle with much of what Phenomena was looking to achieve just by how long the film drags its feet for. The opening kill is as satisfying as any good slasher film should be, but following that, the film takes a slow, brooding turn that isn’t particularly as interesting or as wild as an Argento film about a girl, played by Jennifer Connelly, no less, who can communicate with insects to solve murders should be. Luckily, the film does return for its third act that brings all the chaos and violence that the film should’ve pervasive with either with a tighter cut, or a bigger scale. It brings it to something I wish to return to in the future, and had fun with, even if it took too long to get there.
Whatever issues I might’ve had with the film not fully living up to my expectations pacing-wise completely melted away in the sun of this absolutely stupendous 4K Blu-ray release from Synapse Films. Mega-fans of Phenomena (of which I know exist) are in for an absolute treasure trove of new, impressive supplemental material, and one of the better 4K transfers of any 1980s horror film to date. Not least of which in that this release includes three separate cuts of Phenomena, all lovingly remastered into 4K Dolby Vision. There’s the original 116-minute Italian cut (generally regarded as the “true” cut of the film), the 110-minute international cut (mostly cut dialogue scenes, though some cut violence, too), and the Creepers cut, the version of the film released in America by New Line Cinema, retitling the film to Creepers and cutting the film by over 30 minutes to 83 minutes. Regardless of your feelings on which cut is the superior one, this is absolutely grounds for major commendation on behalf of Synapse Films for not only including the alternate cuts of the film, but restoring them with the same love that the cut that will go most watched by viewers had. This is that kind of cinematic love that I wish I could expect from all studios releasing physical media.
Phenomena isn’t as colorfully gaudy as something like Suspiria is, but rather, is a richer, more neutral-toned affair, bringing in the natural beauty of the Swiss alps and the uncanny, almost liminal feel of the wide, bland spaces of the boarding school Jennifer attends, all contrasted beautifully with the vibrant reds of the fake blood that is so synonymous with the giallo sub-genre. Film grain is present and accounted for, without much of the overzealous DNR scrubbing of that texture we’ve seen so often in 4K remasters of films older than 20 years old, and with parity across all cuts, aside from a few shots, particularly in the different opening credits of each film, and this is a bonafide beauty.
Complementing that, Phenomena also features a plethora of great audio tracks for each cut of the film. The Italian cut includes Italian soundtracks in both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0, respectively, as well as a “hybrid” English/Italian track in DTS-HD MA 5.1 also (which I used as my metric). The international version includes similar DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. Both cuts are derived from the four-channel Dolby Stereo elements from its original releases. Meanwhile, the Creepers cut includes DTS-HD MA 1.0 and 2.0 “stereo music” tracks derived from the original three-track DME magnetic mix from the U.S. release. All of these tracks have their uses in certain audio setups, and each one, tested on my Dolby Atmos sound bar, sound genuinely incredible, even the most basic mono mix included in the Creepers cut still is crisp, rich, and fills the space with Goblin/Claudio Simonetti/Simon Boswell’s (among others) wonderfully atmospheric score, as well as included licensed music from the likes of Iron Maiden and Sex Gang Children that add the aggression during the film’s heightened mania.
And we haven’t even gotten to the supplemental material included with the film, of which there are hours and hours to dig through, should you so care to, and in a world of critically acclaimed films coming to physical media without a speck of any special features (looking at you, TÁR), you should.
Disc One: Italian Version
- Audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento
- Of Flies and Maggots, a feature length 2017 documentary produced for Arrow Films, including interviews with cowriter/producer/director Dario Argento, actors Fiore Argento, Davide Marotta, Daria Nicolodi and Fiorenza Tessari, cowriter Franco Ferrini, cinematographer Romano Albani, production manager Angelo Iacono, special optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi, special makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, makeup artist Pier Antonio Mecacci, underwater camera operator Gianlorenzo Battaglia, and composers Claudio Simonetti and Simon Boswell
- Archival interview with Andi Sex Gang musician Simon Boswell
- Original Italian and international theatrical trailers
- “Jennifer” music video, directed by Dario Argento
Disc Two: International Version and Creepers cut.
- Audio commentary on the international version by Argento scholar and author Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist and radio/television commentator David Del Valle
- The Three Sarcophagi, a visual essay by Arrow producer Michael Mackenzie comparing the different cuts of Phenomena
- US theatrical trailer
- US radio spots
I promise, I actually quite like Phenomena, but there is something to be said about the film not always moving at the pace a film this batshit crazy should. The International Version slightly improves this, but barely, and the Creepers cut arguably cuts far too much, leaving the film feeling more incomplete than thoughtfully trimmed. There is an exceptional 95-minute cut in this film, and I want to see it, because I want to love it, but as is, it’s still one of Argento’s best, if only because the bar isn’t set too terribly high post-1987, the film inspired one of my favorite video game series, Clock Tower, and because one of the heroes of the film is a crime-fighting chimp with his bare ass out at all times. However, Synapse Films’s 4K Blu-ray release of Phenomena (and Creepers, if we want to get technical [Synapse did]) is a pitch-perfect celebration of the film and its legacy, one that I hope will fulfill every fan’s wishes for the film’s home media life in 4K. Beautiful restorations of all cuts, wonderful audio design, and so many special features that it’s almost overwhelming, this is the standard I look for in physical media, and I now see plainly why Synapse charges a premium for their 4K releases, they put the effort into it, and we should be so lucky to have them around in the streaming age.
But really, what was up with the chimp? That thing ripped the tip of Jennifer Connelly’s finger off. It’s giving Gordy’s Home!
Available on 4K UHD 2-Disc Special Edition from Synapse Films March 14th, 2023.
For more information or to purchase, head to MVD Entertainment Group.
Film Score: 3 out of 5.
4K UHD Release Score: 5 out of 5.
Categories: Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews
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