Phenomena (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Mar 29, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Phenomena (4K UHD Review)

Director

Dario Argento

Release Date(s)

1985 (March 8, 2022)

Studio(s)

Titanus Distribuzione/New Line Cinema (Synapse Films)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A
  • Overall Grade: A

Phenomena (4K UHD Disc)

Buy it Here!

Review

Phenomena is an offbeat but slick 1985 film from horror maestro Dario Argento. Argento had worked with either his father Salvatore or his brother Claudio on all of his previous features, but this time, he produced the film himself, and that may be one reason why he indulged in so many different flights of fancy. The screenplay by Argento and Franco Ferrini freely mixes genres and story elements, and while not all of them come together in the final product, it’s still a fascinating melange.

Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is the daughter of a famous American actor, who sends her to a Swiss girl’s school while he’s working on location, where she’s placed under the care of the school chaperone Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi). One evening, Jennifer goes sleepwalking and witnesses a student being murdered, after which she escapes to the home of the forensic entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). McGregor is already involved in the investigation of a different murder, and when he observes the connection that Jennifer has with insects of all sorts, the two team up and try to track down the killer. Phenomena also stars Fiore Argento, Dalila Di Lazzaro, and Patrick Bauchau.

There’s no question that Phenomena is a bit of a strange film, even for Argento, and it includes a veritable kitchen sink of elements including a girl’s school, a gloved killer, a telepathic link with insects, police investigations, deformed children, heavy metal, a creepy dungeon, and even a whiff of the supernatural. Oh, all of that, plus a chimpanzee. It’s like Argento had a wish list of leftover ideas from previous films that he couldn’t bear to let go, so he mashed all of them together into one story. The most impressive thing about Phenomena is that it works despite the chaos. It isn’t particularly coherent, and it doesn’t necessarily make much sense, but if you’re looking for narrative coherency, then Dario Argento may not be the filmmaker for you. The single most important thing to Argento is creating a mood, and Phenomena does that in spades, from the first frame to the last. The disparate story elements may not always work and play well together, but they provide plenty of opportunity for Argento to stage memorable set pieces like the opening murder and the later confrontation in the dungeon.

It doesn’t help that there are three different versions of Phenomena, and while there’s little narrative difference between the Italian and the international cuts, the only version widely available in North America for many years was through New Line Cinema, which was hacked down to 83 minutes and retitled Creepers. That version retains much of the style, but loses what little logic that either of the originals had. These days, Creepers is more of a curio, as the other cuts are easily accessible on home video. Seen in either the Italian or international versions, Phenomena remains one of Argento’s most stylish and entertaining films, if perhaps not one of his most lucid.

Cinematographer Romano Albani shot Phenomena on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras and spherical Panavision lenses, framed at 1.66:1 for its theatrical release. For this version, the original camera negative was scanned at 4K resolution by L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, and graded for HDR at Silver Salt Restoration in London (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are included on the discs). The opening titles for Creepers were scanned from a 35 mm print by the American Genre Film Archive, and also graded by Silver Salt. The results are amazing. There’s a definite uptick in fine detail that’s especially noticeable in closeups such as Connelly’s eyes and lips; the shot of her petting the bee; Pleasance’s face when he examines the beetle; and in many shots of Connelly’s face, where she has some very fine stray black hairs floating to the side. The opening titles and any other shots with optical effects are naturally a bit softer, but outside of those, everything is sharp and detailed. (The opening titles for Creepers are definitely the softest of the lot.) The HDR grade offers beautifully dense greenery during the opening scene in the Swiss mountains, which contrasts nicely with the deep red of the trolley car later on. This is one case where the wide gamut offers more color detail, but without exaggerating anything—the colors never look oversaturated, like in some HDR grades. The color timing for Phenomena has varied on previous releases, so it’s difficult to judge what’s most accurate, but it looks good here. The contrast is also good, with deep black levels, and everything appears immaculately clean.

When comparing the different versions, the only real differences may come down to the encoding. The Italian cut runs at a consistently high bit rate throughout, while the international version and Creepers both run noticeably lower. In practice, the differences are negligible, and probably won’t even be visible on most displays. The grain always looks completely natural on the Italian cut, but it occasionally breaks up a bit in the other versions. For example, in the shot at 72:12 looking down on Connelly while she tries to jump up to the shelf in the closet, the grain on the rolls of paper looks a tiny bit noisier. Some of those stray hairs floating by Connelly’s head also seem not to resolve quite as well. Again, these differences are incredibly minor, and most people probably will never notice them.

Given the complexities involved with the three different versions of Phenomena, the sound is equally complicated for this release. Audio options on the Italian cut include English/Italian Hybrid 5.1, Italian 5.1, and Italian 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Subtitles are available for the Italian inserts in the hybrid version, and there are also full English subtitles, as well as English SDH subtitles. Audio options on the international cut include English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, and an alternate English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, with optional English SDH subtitles. Audio options for the Creepers cut include English 1.0 mono and 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio (with stereo music), with optional English SDH subtitles.

For both the Italian and the international versions, the 5.1 audio was derived from the original discrete 4-channel Dolby Stereo mag reels archived at L’Immagine Ritrovata. The hybrid track on the Italian cut is primarily taken from the international version, with inserts from the Italian audio for the shots that had been cut from it. The 2.0 audio for both is the original matrixed Dolby Stereo tracks (properly designated as “2.0 surround” on the menu, so kudos to Synapse and Arrow for that). The alternate 2.0 audio for the international version was derived from the CX analogue audio tracks of the original Japanese LaserDisc release of Phenomena. It’s a different mix with unique music cues, plus altered foley and effects. For Creepers, the 1.0 mono and 2.0 stereo audio were both remastered from the 3-track DME magnetic mix. The 1.0 replicates the mono theatrical experience, while the 2.0 retains the mono dialogue and effects, but allows the music tp play in full stereo.

Like most Argento films, the audio for Phenomena is really driven by the score, which features tracks from Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Andi Sex Gang, Simon Boswell, Bill Wyman, and more, plus the expected work from Claudio Simonetti and Goblin. It all sounds fine here, and it has a just enough deep bass to be satisfying. The surrounds are primarily used for ambience, both with the music and the effects, to give everything a little more presence. Otherwise, there isn’t much in the way of directionalized effects, save for a bit of panning up front. The dialogue in the English version made use of some of the production audio, so it often integrates better than in the Italian version, which was entirely post-synced. In both cases, the dialogue is clear, though it does have a touch of excessive sibilance.

116-MINUTE ENGLISH/ITALIAN HYBRID VERSION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/A+/B+
110-MINUTE INTERNATIONAL VERSION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/A/B+
83-MINUTE US VERSION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/A/B-

Synapse’s 4K Ultra HD release for Phenomena is 2-disc set that includes both discs in a single amaray case; a fold-out poster featuring a reproduction of the Creepers poster on one side, and the Japanese Phenomena poster on the reverse; eight lobby cards; and a 60-page booklet with essays by Mikel J. Koven, Rachael Nisbet, and Leonard Jacobs, as well as restoration notes. The insert is reversible, with Phenomena artwork on one side, and Creepers artwork on the other. Everything is housed within a hard slipcase featuring new artwork designed by Wes Benscoter. Arrow has their own UHD release in the UK, which has identical content on the discs as well as similar swag, but with different cover artwork designed by Obviously Creative. Either way, the following extras are included:

DISC ONE: ITALIAN VERSION

  • Audio Commentary by Troy Howarth
  • Of Flies and Maggots (HD – 120:13)
  • Jennifer Music Video (Upscaled HD – 4:11)
  • Italian Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:36)
  • International Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:36)
  • Japanese Pressbook (HD – 14 pages in all)

Troy Howarth’s commentary was originally recorded for Arrow’s 2017 Blu-ray release of Phenomena. Howarth is the author of Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento, and he opens his commentary by describing the differences between the three versions, explaining that he prefers the editing in the shorter international cut. He even thinks that some scenes were wisely deleted for the Creepers cut, like the EEG sequence. He gives a brief filmography for Argento, including thoughts about each film, as well as a look at each of the actors. He’s harsh toward Nicolodi, whose performance he describes as “inept,” though he blames Argento for that fact, saying that Argento hung her out to dry. Howarth actually spends a large percentage of the commentary nitpicking parts of the film that don’t work for him, including much of the dialogue and many of the scenes. Even when he calls out positives, he sounds like he’s damning them with faint praise. It’s always good to acknowledge a film’s failings, but in this case, the balance of the whole track tilts a bit too far that direction. There’s still plenty of great information to be had here, but fans may need to be patient to get to all of it.

Of Flies and Maggots is a feature-length documentary on Phenomena that was also produced for Arrow’s 2017 Blu-ray. Written, directed, and edited by Federico Caddeo, it includes interviews with the cast and crew, behind the scenes footage, and vintage promotional material. Unsurprisingly, Jennifer Connelly is absent, and some of the other participants in the production are no longer with us, but Of Flies and Maggots still contains a pretty impressive collection of interviews. Argento himself makes an appearance, as does Franco Ferrini, Romano Albani, Michele Soavi, Simon Boswell, Claudio Simonetti, and other members of the production including makeup artists, effects technicians, and camera operators. Actors Daria Nicolodi, Fiore Argento, Davide Marietta, and Fiorenza Tessari give their thoughts as well. It’s pretty comprehensive, too, covering everything from Argento’s inspiration for the story to the eventual theatrical release. There are some interesting stories, like the unexpected way that the conflict between Argento and his original set designer ended, and some surprising tidbits, like Boswell admitting that he has never cared for prog rock. (Needless to say, he didn’t get along with Goblin.)

The Jennifer music video for Claudio Simonetti’s memorable track was directed by Argento, starring Jennifer Connelly, Simonetti, and Elena Pompei. It doesn’t use any clips from Phenomena, but instead tells its own story—or at least it has its own visuals, anyway. It’s interesting, but as indecipherable as any other Eighties music video. The Japanese Pressbook has some nice photographs, but no translations for any of the text.

DISC TWO: INTERNATIONAL VERSION AND CREEPERS

  • Audio Commentary by Derek Botelho and David Del Valle
  • The Three Sarcophagi (HD – 31:02)
  • US Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:27)
  • US Radio Spots (HD – 1:03)

The commentary with Derek Botelho and David Del Valle was originally recorded for the Synapse’s 2017 Blu-ray release of Phenomena. Botelho is the author of The Argento Syndrome, while Del Valle has written for magazines and websites such as Video Watchdog, Cinefantastique, and Films in Review. They discuss the whole Argento family, as well as the familial themes in films like Phenomena. They also cover Argento’s use of music, the cinematography, and the dream logic in some of Argento’s films, as well as production stories like the handling of the insects and the chimpanzee. (For anyone who may be wondering, the real-world attack that they talk about involving a renegade chimp was the 2009 incident involving Travis in Stamford, CT.) They’re pretty laid back compared to Howarth, who is much more focused, but they’re a bit more positive overall—though they still criticize some things, such as Pleasance’s performance.

The Three Sarcophagi is a 2017 featurette by Arrow producer Michael Mackenzie that compares the three different versions of Phenomena, and examines the hybrid English/Italian audio track that Arrow created. He opens by offering his own critique of the film(s), before diving into the comparisons. The international version tightened up the Italian version without losing entire scenes; just shots here and there—the longest full cut from the Italian version was only 26 seconds. As a result, Mackenzie thinks that those who praise the international version as superior slightly overstate the case, since the differences are so minor. The Creepers cut was done by Jack Sholder for New Line’s North American release, and is stripped to the bare essentials, with shots moved around and even one entire scene moved. In contrast to the minor changes in the international version, Mackenzie notes that Creepers is so different that the longest unaltered stretch in the film is just two minutes and 28 seconds. After looking at the three versions, Mackenzie spends time explaining his process in creating the hybrid English and Italian track—which was far more difficult than you may imagine.

Note that the hybrid tracks on this UHD are different than the ones that Synapse created for their 2017 Blu-ray. That 2.0 track was created by Vincent Pereira, Don May, Jr., and Spencer Hall. It handled some things differently, like looping in English dialogue where possible instead of reverting to Italian, and it also smoothed out some of the transitions a bit more actively. For some reason, it’s not included here. Also missing from their 2017 release is the vintage Dario Argento’s World of Horror documentary directed by Michael Soavi; a brief vintage interview with songwriter and composer Andi Sex Gang; the essays from the booklet; and the CD soundtrack of the Goblin score. All of the extras from the 2017 Arrow version are reproduced here, including the essays from their booklet, though once again the CD soundtrack is missing. On the other hand, most of the extras from Arrow’s original 2011 Blu-ray release have never been carried forward, including Dario Argento’s Monkey Business, Music for Maggots, and Creeper and Creatures. Nearly all of the extras from the old Anchor Bay DVDs are not included here, with the only exception being the Jennifer music video. (There are also a myriad international releases with unique extras, but too many to go into here.) Needless to say, if you have any of the previous editions, you’ll probably want to hang onto them.

The extras that are included here may not be definitive, but for a film with so many previous releases, that’s an unavoidable fact of life. It’s still a great package, and this gorgeous 4K video presentation is unquestionably the definitive home video version of Phenomena. You can’t go wrong with either the Synapse or Arrow releases (or both, if you’re a truly obsessive collector.) These are must-owns for any Argento fan.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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