PHENOMENA (1984) Blu-ray
Director: Dario Argento
Arrow Video

"Jennifer has a million close friends and she's going to need them all" on Arrow Video's Region B scaled-down standard Blu-ray edition 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).

Earlier in the year as Synapse's steelbook was making the rounds, Arrow Video announced a new 4K restoration of the film and their own Region B four-disc special edition (three Blu-rays and one soundtrack CD) featuring the full Italian version (115:53) and reconstructions of the export version (110:06) and CREEPERS cut (83:03) which was released in the UK on the Palace video label. This year, Arrow issued a standard single-disc edition of the Italian cut. For those who did not pick up the four-disc edition and actually prefer the longest cut, the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen transfer of the Italian version would make a good companion piece to the Synapse. The image is slightly darker but more vibrant – calling attention to some of Albani's subtler lighting accents in the interiors – and finer grained with spectacular macro close-ups. Details less apparent on DVD (unless one knew to look for them) are more evident from the reflected water shot of Vera's headless body being dragged through the frame to the killer's face seen by Jennifer in the window glass when once our focus was solely on the face of his victim. Four soundtrack options include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Italian and Italian/English hybrid tracks as well as LPCM 2.0 versions of both tracks restored from the original four-channel Dolby Stereo elements which were always quite aggressive in terms of music, atmosphere, and directional effects. A trio of optional English subtitles tracks are included for 1) the Italian-only scenes on the hybrid track, 2) the full Italian track, and 3) SDH subtitles for the hybrid track.

The extras on the disc reveal that this is not a port of the first disc from the Arrow set, featuring the Italian cut with commentary by film historian Troy Howarth but also the "Of Flies and Maggots" (120:13) featurette that was featured on the limited edition's third disc with the film's shortest cut. The track is a mixed bag, finding him fully up to date on the film's history and production anecdotes – the film's autobiographical aspects, wanting Isabella Rossellini for the headmistress role and Peter Ustinov for the Pleasance role, the breaking down of Nicolodi's relationship with Argento, and cameo appearances of Fulvio Mingozzi (SUSPIRIA) and Soavi – but he spends an inordinate amount of time pointing out the film's faults of which the film's fans are already aware and have probably fully embraced. While he does make a bewildering observation about the killer's identity, he also does point out less obvious tidbit: the muffled music cue that accompanies the ethnographic footage on Sophie's television set before Jennifer's first sleepwalking episode is the same track heard during the ammo store scene in DAWN OF THE DEAD.

The aforementioned two-hour "Of Flies and Maggots" features interviews with most of the surviving Italian cast and crew. Argento discusses the origins of the story in a radio story he heard while on vacation with his mother, researching forensic entomology in France, and scripting with Franco Ferrini (OPERA) who recalls the shoot and his friendship with Daria Nicolodi (SHOCK) who was convinced that the film would be the last time they worked together (although she would also appear prominently in Argento's OPERA). Nicolodi recalls being sent to America for casting and meeting with volatile reactions to the script's violence from Liv Ullmann among others as well as befriending Connelly. Fiore Argento and Fiorenza Tessari recall their friendships with Connelly and shooting their death scenes (in both cases, sugar glass is apparently harder than one imagines). Executive producer Angelo Iacono recalls stepping up from production manager due to disagreements Argento had with his father Salvatore and brother Claudio on TENEBRAE as well as helping them reconcile. He also recalls with great joy securing Orson Welles for the Pleasance role only for the actor to fall ill and have to withdraw. Other collaborators interviewed include cinematographer Albani – who makes some bad taste comments about the questionable treatment of the chimp – underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia (DEMONS), make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci (CONTAMINATION), optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH), dwarf actor Davide Marotta (DEMONS 2), as well as composers Simon Boswell (STAGEFRIGHT) and Claudio Simonetti (DIAL: HELP). The disc also includes the original disc one contents: the Italian theatrical trailer (2:36), English theatrical trailer (2:36), the "Jennifer" music video directed by Dario Argento (4:11) – although not the Bill Wyman "Valley" video included on the Anchor Bay DVD – as well as the Japanese vintage pressbook and a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp. (Eric Cotenas)