Color, 1970, 98m. / Directed by Dario Argento / Starring Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall
Blue Underground (US R0 HD - Blu-Ray, R0 NTSC - DVD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DTS/DD5.1, Medusa (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1, VCI (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD2.0, TFI (France R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Platinum Media Corporation (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

The streets of Rome first ran red with blood for many viewers with Dario Argento's directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Cannily featuring a vulnerable American hero and a British female love interest, the film was designed to appeal to an international audience while showcasing Argento's seemingly endless reservoir of visual and storytelling abilities. For the uninitiated, the film concerns an American writer, Sam Musante), who has been staying in Rome with his girlfriend, scream queen Suzy Kendall. One night he witnesses a woman being attacked in an art gallery; the victim survives, and Sam is informed by the police that the assailant is a serial killer slashing his way through the city. Sam feels that he has witnessed something that could lead him to the killer's identity, but he just can't put his finger on it (a narrative device repeated in Argento's Deep Red and Trauma). Thus, with some mostly involuntary influence from the police, he decides to stay in Rome and do some amateur sleuthing, leading to the expected terrifying results.

Argento never had a stronger plot than this one, which anchors his trademark visual flourishes into a recognizable thematic and human fabric that would later be jettisoned for the candy-colored fantasias of Suspiria and Inferno. Ennio Morricone's groundbreaking, jittery score still manages to eke out every bit of suspense from the murder sequences, and the actors all do a fine job, partial dubbing notwithstanding. For once, the comic relief is actually pretty good, including an unforgettable encounter with an artist who keeps cats for a very unorthodox purpose. Significantly, the police procedural aspects are handled with surprising warmth and skill, never descending to the level of tedium which hobbles many other gialli from the same period. The film also firmly establishes the motifs which would continue throughout the rest of his major films, such as the deceptive nature of vision, a quirky gay supporting character who instills unease in the hero, and the distortion of characters' genders coupled with past traumas as a key to the mystery's solution.

To say the least, Bird's history in theatres and on video has been very tattered. After a reissue under the titles Phantom of Terror and The Gallery Murders, the film appeared on VHS in America from United/VCI and was concurrently issued by Columbia as a Japanese laserdisc. While the Japanese laserdisc looked more colorful and was uncut, it was only letterboxed at 1.85:1 and suffered from some distracting print damage. The washed out Image/VCI laserdisc of the US print featured a more accurately letterboxed credit sequence but then opened up to an unsatisfying 1.90:1 ratio. The Roan Group released Bird completely uncut (featuring a glimpse of one victim's underwear being ripped off and some extra splattery slashing during the stairwell razor murder), while VCI first secured the complete European cut for American DVD, correctly letterboxed in an anamorphically enhanced transfer. However, this version still displays source damage and fudges its matrixed surround sound mix, with bumpy music transitions and a partial loss of the line, "Right, bring in the perverts." The extra gore is spliced in (rather badly in the first pressing) from a slightly darker, blurrier print (this glitch was corrected in a second pressing), and on 4:3 televisions, the letterboxing displays that same odd two-tone effect that plagued Anchor Bay's first 2-disc set of Halloween. Extras include the Morricone score also isolated as a kind of jukebox feature with each track separately labeled (though without the alternate cues present on the 1998 Cinevox reissue), apparently yanked from the American vinyl release based on the track titles and mediocre sound quality, as well as the psychedelic US first run trailer. The pointless UK DVD features a more horizontally compromised transfer (similar to the Japanese laser) in Italian with English subtitles and is even more badly censored than the US prints, losing all of the underwear mayhem and most of the razor slashing with some very rough edits. Extras include the Italian trailers for Deep Red, Bird, and Cat o' Nine Tails, as well as English trailers for Demons and Demons 2, a stills gallery, and an odd overdubbed excerpt from the slapdash Dario Argento's World of Horror 3. Also available from France in an attractive anamorphic transfer, with French or Italian dialogue tracks.

Then we have the Italian DVD from Medusa, which presents an improved transfer with richer colors and more spacious widescreen compositions, retaining more information on the sides. The Italian soundtrack can be played in the original mono or with a surprisingly aggressive, directional 5.1 mix, with English or Italian subtitles. However, as with the Italian Tenebrae DVD, the 5.1 version also drops some crucial sound effects, such as a buzzing telephone that Mustante now answers for no apparent reason. The mono English soundtrack is included as well (and seems to be lifted from the VCI disc but without the stereo effects); note that on some players, the English track can only be played with English or Italian subtitles activated. No extras.

By far the best option of all is the Blue Underground transfer, first issued on DVD as a double-disc set and an obvious labor of love which goes all the way back to the original negative for a crystal-clear transfer that even bests the Italian release. While the Medusa disc shows some signs of digital noise reduction and pumped-up brightness to boost image clarity, the Blue Underground version is far more preferable thanks to its appealing film-like texture and incredible sense of depth. (You pervs out there should have no trouble spotting some additional, uh, female anatomical details during the first murder sequence.) The English soundtrack can be played in mono, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, 6.1 DTS-ES, or Dolby surround; the remix offers considerable more room among the speakers for Morricone's score but is noticeably more restrained than the Italian DVD, keeping dialogue and sound effects mostly grounded in the center channel. Fortunately this also means it's truer to the original mix and doesn't drop out anything crucial. The Italian soundtrack (which doesn't come close to matching the actors' lip movements but is quite well done otherwise) can be played in 5.1 or mono, with optional yellow English subtitles. The feature also contains an entertaining audio commentary with entertaining Argento expert Alan Jones, paired up this time with writer Kim Newman; it's brisk and packed with information, including a solid survey of the Italian film scene at the time and how Argento managed to shake up the international film world his first time out. The first disc also contains the standard international trailer, a subtitled version of the Italian trailer (previously available on the UK DVD), and two 30-second TV spots. (For some reason the readily available Phantom of Terror reissue trailer has yet to appear on any version.) Note that the DVD also promises "recently discovered never-before-seen footage of explicit violence," which refers to a few extra frames at the start of the stairwell slashing. Disc two contains four new featurettes: "Out of the Shadows" (an interview with Argento in which he talks about landing his first directorial gig), "Painting with Darkness" (a frustratlingly oblique 10-minute ramble from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro), "The Music of Murder" (8 minutes with Ennio Morricone discussing his creation of "audacious, jarring and traumatic music"), and "Eva's Talking," an 11-minute chat in English with the late Eva Renzi, complete with a marvelous shot of Argento in costume doubling as the killer. She has warm memories of Argento and, well, less than flattering ones of Musante (which is the director's opinion as well). And be sure to stick around through the credits for her comments about Klaus Kinski...

However, for Blu-Ray fanatics the hi-def version from Blue Underground is the clear winner, with an obvious great leap up in detail levels as well as even more vibrant and naturally-rendered colors. The entire presentation looks very film-like and doesn't appear overly enhanced, and apart from a handful of deliberately low-lit interior scenes (mainly Mustante's interrogation at the inspector's desk early on), film grain is surprisingly minimal but doesn't appear to be eliminated with any sort of obvious noise reduction. Very pleasing and attractive all around, and hopefully a harbinger of further Argento delights to come in high definition. As if that weren't enough, the English track (which is more organic to the film as it uses the two leads' original voices) is presented in a very dynamic 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix along with an equally punchy Dolby TrueHD 7.1 mix, both of which make excellent spacious use of Morricone's score. (And while you're at it, be sure to grab the Cinevox reissue soundtrack from 2008 which finally presents the music in true stereo, a major leap up in quality from all past CD and vinyl editions.) The English track is also presented in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX, which is equivalent to the earlier DVD edition, along with a 5.1-EX mix of the Italian track. Optional English subtitles are also included. All of the extras from the DVD are carried over here in standard def, but the upgrade in quality for the main feature should make it the obvious choice.

For a comparison between four of the transfers, click here.

Color, 1996, 116m. / Directed by Dario Argento / Starring Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann
Blue Underground (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9) / DTS-HD/DD TruHD (7.1) / DD5.1, Medusa (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD5.1, Troma (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1), Dutch Filmworks (Holland R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Pioneer (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Marquee (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) / DD2.0

After a two-film stint in America, Dario Argento shocked fans by delivering one of his most grueling, difficult films with a jittery study of psychosis hinging on the familiar Hitchcockian theme of transmission of guilt, here filtered through disturbing psychosexual imagery that contrasts harshly with his previous dreamy, asexual nightmares. Argento's daughter, Asia, takes the lead once again as Anna Manni, a police detective whose pursuit of a serial killer leads her to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. While gazing at the paintings among the stifling crowd, Anna is overcome, collapses to the floor, and experiences a bizarre underwater vision. The psychopath, Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann), makes contact with Anna and continues to observe her, even dragging the young woman into the middle of a horrific gunshot killing. Gradually Alfredo closes in and plays sadistic mind games which ultimately distort Anna's entire perception of reality.

A rare Argento work to actually receive a theatrical run in America, The Stendhal Syndrome is definitely not a film for Italian horror beginners. Unprepared midnight movie audiences greeted the film with giggles and confusion, a problem exacerbated by its weird pacing. The film seems to reach its violent climax halfway into the story, only to abruptly switch gears and become an entirely different narrative for the following hour. On top of that, the dialogue was spoken phonetically in English but dubbed in English by different and wholly inappropriate actors. As a result, some lines come off as unforgivably clunky ("I can let you ride my French scooter") and detract from what is otherwise a somber, brutal, and nightmarish film that begs to be considered as a serious work of art. Asia's performance improves with repeated viewings as she is subjected to a variety of physical and psychological tortures; mercifully her father relents and shows some mercy in the final sequence. Along the way he also indulges in skewed references to both his own films (Phenomena in particular) and some unexpected riffs on other horror titles like When a Stranger Calls. Of historical note, the film also marked the reteaming of Argento with composer Ennio Morricone, who had scored Argento's first three landmark thrillers in the early '70s.

Troma's American DVD was originally announced with a commentary track by Argento which ultimately had to be pulled due to the director's discomfort with speaking English for long periods of time. The absence is regrettable, but the film transfer was, if not even close to exemplary, at least above par for Troma and better than the overly harsh contrasts of, say, the Japanese laserdisc. Likewise the surround audio was quite powerful, with the rear speakers constantly buzzing with activity. The dialogue still sounds canned and disjointed, but alas this flaw will apparently never be removed from the film. The usual bizarre, unrelated Troma extras round out the package, including a frankly wretched US theatrical trailer, "coming distractions" for titles like Killer Condom and Cannibal: The Musical, a video interview with Argento and Lloyd Kaufman (also included on other Troma DVDs), some comments from FX maestro Sergio Stivaletti about the mixture of latex gore and CGI manipulation, a bizarre video interview with director Ruggero Deodato, some camcorder footage of Argento at a horror convention in Sweden, and the usual "Tromabilia." The Dutch and (overmatted) French DVDs offer anamorphically enhanced transfers which are superior to Troma's but still a bit lacking, though the surround tracks are weaker. Both have optional subtitles and the usual Argento bio-related extras. The Dutch version also tacks on Dario Argento's World of Horror as a generous extra. The UK actually saw two different DVD editions from Marquee; the first (sporting a black and white sticker) accidentally slipped through uncut, while the second pressing (with a color sticker) complied with BBFC requirements by censoring some of the sexual violence.

Late in the game but better was the Italian disc from Medusa, which divided its bounty onto two discs. The first contains the slightly longer Italian cut of the film (which finally makes sense of Veronica Lazar's presence in the end credits), with booming Italian 5.1 and 2.0 tracks with optional English or Italian subtitles. Colors are vibrant and often stunning, giving the film a much-needed visual gloss missing in its other presentations, though the liberal application of digital noise reduction resulted in an overly smooth, waxy surface to actors' faces and some noticeable loss of detail in many of the paintings. The Italian track restores much of the film's dignity and wipes out memories of that horrific English track; for those who have not yet experienced this film at all, try to go for this option first as it does feature Asia's real voice, even if it's not really in sync with her dialogue. This disc also includes the usual filmographies, all in Italian. Disc two contains the standard English language cut of the film, anamorphic and with 5.1 audio. Though it pales in value compared to the Italian version, this is also the most pleasing version of this variant to date. The disc also includes brief video interviews with Dario and Asia Argento on the set of the film, as well as a more worthwhile half-hour featurette containing behind-the-scenes footage from various sequences throughout the film. None of the extras are English friendly, of course, but the documentary is still a worthy addition. As a special mention, the menu design is quite clever and in keeping with the nature of the film.

Which brings us to the Blue Underground version, available as both a two-disc DVD edition and a single-disc Blu-Ray, with the same contents contained on both with the latter obviously winning out in the end due to its 1080p HD presentation. The Blue Underground edition also marks the only 16x9 version presented in the correct, original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Most noticeably, the transfer has all the film grain back and accounted for, which is fine for the DVD but will not doubt be a big stumbling block for some Blu-Ray converts. While most '90s films have fared well under the scrutiny of high definition, Stendhal is a peculiar case. Daylight scenes look very clean, clear and vivid, and in the Blu-Ray particularly, colors are rich and far superior to those seen on theatrical prints. On the other hand, the film stock obviously wasn't the best, and in darker scenes this becomes readily apparent by an enormous amount of grain (which the Italian disc tried to scrub away) which becomes even more magnified on the Blu-Ray. Anna's scenes in her hotel rooms, for example, will no doubt have BD converts gasping in horror as she appears to be under attack by swarms of mosquitos. Such is the nature of the film, folks. Both the DVD and BD feature the expanded cut of the film (with the extra Italian footage presented with optional English subtitles), while the bulk of the film can be played either in Italian or English. The Blu-Ray sounds excellent in English thanks to the DTS-HD and Dolby TruHD 7.1 audio mixes, which are powerful and easily fill the room (though the surrounds only get an occasional workout). The Italian track only gets a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which sounds fine in and of itself but comes off as downright timid compared to its English counterparts.

All of the extras are in Italian with English subtitles, and while the interesting making-of featurette from the Medusa disc is absent, what's here easily picks up the slack. Argento appears for another interesting video interview, "The Director," which spends 17 minutes covering the genesis of the film, Argento's psychological fascination with the titular syndrome and its integration into his gallery of murderers, putting his daughter through such a traumatic leading role, and how he felt going back to Italy after the tepid reception to his films made in America. Graziella Magherini, the psychologist who introduced the syndrome into the popular vernacular, appears for "The Inspiration," a great 20-minute piece which actually sheds quite a bit of light on the main feature's storyline and goes into depth on some real-life cases which thankfully weren't as extreme as the one depicted by Argento. "Special Effects" devotes 15 minute to the great Sergio Stivaletti, whose showstopping concoctions were augmented with CGI here for the first time, most memorably in the outrageous bullet-cheek scene (which brought down the house back in '96 but looks a tad awkward now). As always, Stiveletti is interesting and passionate about his work, which still stands up well except when it's horrendously misused (i.e., the wretched The Last House in the Woods). Frequent Argento collaborator and Profondo Rosso store manager Luigi Cozzi pops up for "Assistant Director," in which he spends most of his time covering his decades-long relationship with the director and the experience of working with him again in a very different era (or lack thereof) for Italian horror on this film. Finally, "Production Designer" (the longest of the bunch at 22 minutes) features Massimo Geleng discussing the visual style of the film, which came as a shock to many fans with its dark, dank color scheme inspired by the chiaroscuro established by painters like Caravaggio (seen in the Ufizzi opening) as well as the violent sexuality of both the story and the visual schemes, particularly the obscene and unsettling cave paintings during the harrowing middle sequence. The set is rounded out with a very brutal theatrical trailer, which was mostly likely prepared for international English sales as it's much more extreme than the one Americans eventually saw.

Color, 1998, 100m. / Directed by Dario Argento / Starring Starring Julian Sands, Asia Argento, Andrea di Stefano, Nadia Rinaldi
A-Pix (US R1 NTSC), Medusa (Italy R2 PAL), TFI (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

The first Italian adaptation of the familiar Gaston Leroux story, The Phantom of the Opera marked a deliberately calculated attempt to break into the international horror market with what seemed to be a "sure thing." Unfortunately a chilly critical reception overseas prevented it from finding an audience, leaving director Dario Argento to turn back to his familiar giallo formula. While the film's less than stellar reception is understandable, it does offer mild rewards for seasoned Italian cinema fans and isn't quite the shambling debacle one might be led to fear. After a brief prologue in which a rejected infant is dumped into a Parisian river and saved inside the sewers by hordes of rats (shades of Batman Returns), the film begins in 1877 at the Paris Opera House, where young Christine (Asia Argento) works as a chorus girl in the latest production. When he's not busy killing nosy construction workers and treasure seeking interlopers, the mysterious phantom (Sands), infatuated with Christine's voice, uses his telepathic powers to seduce the willing ingenue and allow her to supplant the tempestuous diva, Carlotta (Rinaldi). Meanwhile the exotic Count Raoul de Chagney (di Stefano) reveals his own designs on Christine and takes it up himself to free her from the romantic but irretrievably psychopathic phantom.

Like most of Argento's films, Phantom is first and foremost a feast for the eyes. Packed with luscious scenery and ominous caverns, the film is primarily a work of scenic stylization, though the bland cinematography by Ronnie Taylor (Tommy and Argento's Opera) avoids the expected Argento camera gymnastics. Ennio Morricone provides an elegant, subdued score, and Sergio Stivaletti's gore effects by and large get the job done, including a nasty stalagmite impaling and a Fulciesque tongue-ripping. In many respects Phantom marks a progression of ideas Argento introduced with The Stendhal Syndrome; most obviously, his murderer is unmasked right from the beginning and is far more sexualized than the usual black-gloved serial killer. Once again he utilizes odd bursts of CGI, represented here by a floating Christine in the clouds(?) and the bizarre image of naked childish bodies transfixed in a giant rat trap. Unlike Stendhal, this film benefits greatly from the presence of the actors' original voices, making it far more accessible and easy on the ears. Roman Polanski's favourite screenwriter, Gérard Brach, collaborated with Argento on the screenplay, imbuing it with the same delirious, overripe exchanges which characterized Bitter Moon. The unusual locales are generally interesting and well handled, making this a more successful and interesting foray into Parisian period horror than Argento's last effort, the unbearable Wax Mask (which he mercifully only produced).

The trouble with Phantom lies mostly with its context in the entire Argento canon. While Argento has often cited the Claude Rains version as one of his earliest and most influential movie memories, he already covered most of this ground quite thoroughly in the excellent 1989 film Opera, essentially a modern day updating of the Leroux story. From an artistic standpoint, there was really no reason for this film to be made in the first place. However, a poll with the Italian moviegoing public decreed that they wanted him to do a straight version of the familiar story, and he complied. In essence, the film is a commercial enterprise at heart rather than the anguished, stylish exorcism of internal demons Argento followers have come to expect. Saddled with such familiar material, he apparently decided to have fun and injected the film with far more humour than one expects. The Leroux novel is indeed surprisingly witty, but horror fans are understandably confused by this approach. With its emphasis of bizarre gimmickry (the ratcatching machine), grotesque faces, and weird non sequitor humor, Phantom more often resembles a Jeunet and Caro film, sort of a gory City of Lost Children. The film abounds with bizarre, potentially laughable moments: an unexpected visit by Raoul to an Eastern bathhouse (complete with unpleasant frontal nudity), in which he envisions Christine as a wine-dribbling whore; the phantom obtaining sexual communion with the rats whom he regards as his family; and the graphic chandelier dropping, a scene reminiscent of the Opera raven attack. The actors themselves are largely ineffectual, with Sands in his moping Boxing Helena mode and lovely Asia serving more as window dressing through most of the running time. (Also, look for Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, the ill-fated wardrobe mistress from Opera, reprising her role here.) Acting quibbles aside, the romantic and sexualized elements provide some points of interest, with Christine experiencing a similar personality dualism as Stendhal's Anna, represented here by the temptations of two very different men ("I may have fallen in love with them both"). Once again Argento provides a wistful, sad, but ultimately merciful coda for his daughter, complete with her literally running towards the light. Ultimately, this is the most positive and heartfelt rendition of the tale since Terence Fisher's underrated Hammer version back in 1962.

A-Pix's DVD release of Phantom is a moderately successful presentation. Attractively letterboxed at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the image quality is velvety and looks colorful and finely detailed throughout. Nothing notable appears to be missing from this "unrated director's cut," though it has reportedly been time-compressed down from 103 minutes with few detrimental effects on the film. Also, some of the gore footage was apparently reinstated after being trimmed for an R rating, so there's an odd jump cut now and then where it was digitally spliced back into the master. The 5.1 sound mix suffers somewhat from some artificial post-production canned sound and ambient effects (typical of recent Italian productions for some reason) but at least isn't a wretched padded-down mono mix like Trauma; unfortunately the music of the 5.1 track slips out of synch several times, while the 2.0 track remains consistent. The disc includes both the original theatrical trailer and the far less impressive video preview, as well as a "making of" featurette consisting of camcorder footage during the shooting of several sequences such as the finale. A brief Julian Sands interview and a reprint of the first Fangoria article on the film round out the package. The Italian DVD features a darker, even richer transfer, with both the English track and the more elegant Italian track with optional English or Italian subtitles, while also porting over most of the extras from the US disc as well. Also, the jump cuts are thankfully absent. On the other hand, the censored French disc omits the bathhouse footage and, despite an attractive transfer, is best avoided.

More Argento reviews can be found here.

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