PHENOMENA (1984) Blu-ray
Director: Dario Argento
Synapse Films

"Jennifer has a million close friends and she's going to need them all" on Synapse Films releases their two-disc Blu-ray special edition set of Dario Argento's PHENOMENA.

Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly, LABYRINTH) is shipped off by her movie star father to the Richard Wagner Academy for Young Girls in the "Swiss Transylvania" where she learns from her French roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni, daughter of editor Ruggero Mastroianni and niece of actor Marcello) that a killer who decapitates young girls and takes their bodies and leaves behind their heads has made the area his hunting grounds. On her first night at the academy, Jennifer sleepwalks and unknowingly witnesses the brutal killing of a classmate (Fiorenza Tessari, daughter of filmmaker Duccio Tessari). Startled from her trance by a fall from one of the academy's parapets, she also makes the acquaintance of Inga, the personal helper chimpanzee for wheelchair-bound entomologist John MacGregor (Donald Pleasance, HALLOWEEN) who has been assisting police inspector Geiger (Patrick Bauchau, BLOOD TIES) in investigating the string of murders of which his own assistant Rita was one of the victims. Jennifer has long had a love for insects, but MacGregor realizes that her relationship with them may indeed be telepathic when a firefly draws her to a glove left behind by the killer and maggots inside them trigger flashes of Sophie's murder. The academy's headmistress (Dalila De Lazzaro, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN), head instructor Miss Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi, DEEP RED), and the catty classmates go from thinking that Jennifer is crazy to diabolic when she responds to their bullying by calling a swarm of flies to attack the school. Believing that Jennifer's abilities may help lead her to the killer, he gives her a corpse-eating sarcophagus fly to track the path of the killer starting in area of the first disappearance: that of a Danish tourist (Argento's oldest daughter Fiore) who missed her bus and stumbled upon an isolated chalet. Frightened off by the chalet's estate agent before she can discover anything, and before the arrival of Geiger who is also on a similar track in his investigation, Jennifer returns to MacGregor's only to discover that he has been murdered. Eager to escape Switzerland and return home, she reluctantly accepts the hospitality of someone who leads her right to the killer's lair.

Considered by some to be Argento's last great movie – others might pick OPERA (1987) or THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996) – and by some others as the start of his decline, PHENOMENA is a hybrid of both his gialli and horror films – emphasizing the latter over the former in an inverse of what he did with DEEP RED (in which a psychic's real vision sets off a chain of murders by a human culprit) – as well as the closest Argento has gotten to aping the American slasher film (although the girl's school setting has also been used as a setting for body counts with Narcisco Serrador's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED, Amando de Ossorio's THE LORELEY'S GRASP, and Argento's own SUSPIRIA). The plot is jam-packed with Argento weirdness from telepathy, insect swarm attacks, razor-wielding chimps, heavy metal-scored murders, severed heads, maggots galore, and high-tech security systems meant to trap victims in rather than keeping killers out that it is a miracle any of the cast makes an impression in the near two-hour running time unless they go completely over-the-top (character actor Bauchau certainly deserved better). Fresh-faced Connelly (whose only previous film role had been as the child version of Elizabeth McGovern's character in Sergio Leone's sprawling ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) anchors the film with a warm performance that gives the proceedings an emotional core (with her throwaway line "Screw the past" giving her journey a sense of a rite of passage). The film is gorgeously-lensed by Romano Albani (INFERNO) with a heavy use of the color blue – also an early credit for prolific Steadicam Operator Nicola Pecorini (TWO EVIL EYES) – with costumes designed by Giorgio Armani, early animatronic and special make-up effects by Sergio Stivaletti the year before he really got to strut his stuff in DEMONS, and Argento's first compilation score with score tracks by MOTHER OF TEARS' Claudio Simonetti, THE CHURCH's Fabio Pignatelli, and STAGE FRIGHT's Simon Boswell (in his first film scoring assignment) with songs by Iron Maiden ("Flash of the Blade"), Motorhead ("Locomotive"), and Andi Sex Gang ("The Quick and the Dead"). Argento's protégé Michele Soavi (DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE) served as assistant director and has a brief role as Geiger's partner.

One of the last Argento films to receive a wide theatrical release in the United States (apart from DEMONS the following year), PHENOMENA was released by New Line Cinema in a version that ran only eight-four minutes (consisting of MPAA cuts and nearly a half-hour of exposition) under the title CREEPERS (with Enigma Records putting out a soundtrack LP). This version has been readily accessible on Media Home Entertainment's SP-mode tape, Video Treasures' LP sell-through reissue, and New Line Cinema's own SP tape in the nineties. The film was released in its longer export version (110 minutes) in Japan in 1985 by Columbia on fullscreen tape and laserdisc in an edition featuring a few variations in music and sound effects, but this cut became more accessible to American viewers (outside of bootleg tapes) when The Roan Group put out a special edition laserdisc in the waning days of the format in 1999 (meanwhile the Japanese got the 116 minute Italian version in a letterboxed transfer on laserdisc in 1997 with a 110 minute documentary by Luigi Cozzi). The letterboxed Roan transfer with the Dolby Stereo track on analog tracks and a remixed Chase Surround Stereo AC3 5.1 track on the digital tracks, as well as an audio commentary by Argento. This transfer was carried over by Anchor Bay for their DVD and clamshell tape release in 1999 with the 5.1 and 2.0 surround downmix as well as French mono dub, the commentary, and a couple more extras including a vintage making-of, Argento's appearance on the Joe Franklin Show, and two music videos. While anamorphic transfers appeared overseas – albeit with a mono English track along with an Italian DVD of the 116 minute cut with English subtitles that unfortunately was warmer and less blue than the film was supposed to look – Anchor Bay's 2008 upgrade was a 16:9 upscale of the older 4:3 master.

The film's first Blu-ray release turned up in the UK from Arrow Video, but the HD master had issues and the synchronization of the English audio to the longer Italian version was also problematic. In France, the export version PHENOMENA was one of a handful of cinematographer-approved remasters of Argento titles by Wild Side, although it was the only one of these not to have been released by them on Blu-ray. Working with the same master, Synapse discovered that some footage had been upscaled from SD and accessing New Line's vault material of the shorter American version in order to replace that footage and reconstruct the US version for their 2016 three-disc (two Blu-rays, one soundtrack CD) steelbook edition. Their 2017 two-disc edition – which drops the soundtrack CD and booklet – features the Italian version (116:00) and the US version (83:06) on the first disc and the export version (110:06) on the second disc with extras. The export and US versions are derived from the same Albani-approved master and look the best while the Italian version was derived from a different master and has some DNR baked into it, and Synapse apparently elected not to do a reconstruction of this version using the Wild Side master due to the disparity in image quality (the footage derived from the New Line version include the alternate crane shot and opening credits with a different title card contain some white specks and bits of dirt but these are brief and not distracting). The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen transfer is a definite improvement over what came before, with the Swiss vistas finally taking on a depth and sense of texture to match the aggressiveness of the Dolby Stereo mix's sound design even before the murders and heavy metal. Details once less apparent unless one knew to look for them are more evident (the reflected water shot of Vera's headless body being dragged through the frame, the killer's face seen by Jennifer in the window glass when once our focus was solely on the face of his victim), and some throwaway details finally assert themselves (MacGregor's remark that Inga never forgets something once he points his laser at it). Some of the more subtly-mixed music cues are also have more presence (the lovely track "Jennifer" can be better heard during the sequence in which she recalls her mother walking out on her father). Fiore Argento's slow-motion death scene will always be grainy and softish since it was shot with a high-speed camera (at 340 frames per second) made for military purposes rather than cinematic ones. The Italian cut comes with either the Italian track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo with English subtitles or a hybrid English/Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo track with subtitles for the bits that were not dubbed into English while the export version comes with an two English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo tracks: the first being the track that appeared on previous laser and DVD releases, and the second being the version heard on the Japanese laserdisc with some variations (among them being the music sting when MacGregor pulls the tarp off of the severed head in the second scene and a different crash of thunder sound effect when Jennifer discovers the contents of the killer's glove). Optional English subtitles are also available for this version.

The export version is accompanied by a new audio commentary by film scholar David Del Valle and "The Argento Syndrome" author Derek Botelho. They discuss the origins of the project in a radio news story Argento heard about the police using insects to determine time of death in murder investigations, a visit to a Swiss asylum, as well as his first collaboration with co-writer Franco Ferrini (OPERA) and their initial treatment being titled "Killing Monkey" (although Botelho is not sure if the chimp actually was the killer or a red herring in the earlier incarnations). Factoids revealed include Argento initially offering the role of MacGregor to Peter Ustinov (DEATH ON THE NILE), Di Lazzaro's role to Isabella Rosselini (BLUE VELVET), and Nicolodi's role to Liv Ullman (PERSONA) who had also turned down Angie Dickinson's part in DRESSED TO KILL because she had a family and did not want to appear in a horror film. Topics of discussion include Argento's use of family members onscreen and off (he was grooming Fiore as an actress and offered her this small role before a more substantial one in DEMONS), his rocky relationship with Nicolodi, the themes of bad parents (whether distant or resorting to murder to protect their children), Connelly's fear of the chimp (pointing out shots in which she is obviously doubled), and the filmic and literary antecedents of the film (particularly Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"). Botelho is soft-spoken but not afraid to contradict Del Valle when he misremembers a plot point of the film or other Argento works, but often uses those corrections as a jumping off point to anecdotes from his interviews with Argento and his collaborators.

The major extra is Soavi's "Dario Argento's World of Horror" documentary (70:51) which had previously been released on cassette by Vidmark and laserdisc by Image Entertainment and then Synapse Films (who also released it on DVD). Rather loosely structured, it covers SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, TENEBRAE, PHENOMENA, and DEMONS largely in terms of their technological innovations intercut with vague remarks by Argento on his filmmaking philosophy with BIRD WITH THE CRSYTAL PLUMAGE, CAT O'NINE TAILS, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, DEEP RED, and DAWN OF THE DEAD represented mainly in terms of padding clips and outtakes. Less valuable now in light of the commentaries and DVD/Blu-ray extras from the last twenty or so years, it was at the time of its release on tape the only way some viewers could see the deleted gore and crane sequence from TENEBRAE (hacked to death by its American distributor when it was released as UNSANE) and see clips from anything from FOUR FLIES. Andi Sex Gang appears in an old camcorder interview (3:57) in which he recalls being contacted by Boswell to work on the film, flirting with Argento's girlfriend (Elena Pompei, who appeared in the music video for "Jennifer"), and Argento tracking him down when he was arrested in Bologna. Also included are the film's international theatrical trailer (2:35), the US Theatrical Trailer (1:25), and two US radio spots (1:03) that emphasize the metal soundtrack. Arrow Video has since released a four-disc (three Blu-rays and one soundtrack CD) Region B set with a new 4K master and different extras, but Synapse's steelbook and standard two-disc editions are certainly nothing to sniff at, and the Argentophile will want both anyway. (Eric Cotenas)