Color, 1984, 115 mins. 54 secs. / 110 mins. 6 secs. / 83 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Patrick Bauchau, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Federica Mastroianni, Mario Donatone, Fiore Argento
Arrow Films (2016 Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Synapse Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Happinet (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan R0 HD/NTSC), Arrow Films (2011 Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Medusa (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Divid 2000 (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) / DD2.0, Dragon (Germany R0 PAL) / WS (1.66):1)

PhenomenaPhenomenaCommercially popular but critically attacked upon its release, this wild and woolly shocker has built up a fiercely loyal fan base over the years, particularly among fans of director Dario Argento. These diverse responses are due to how willing the viewer is to enjoy a film with complete disregard for standard cinematic laws of narrative logic and linear plotting, and it didn't help for many years that the United States only had access to a butchered version, Creepers, which amazingly enough played in US theaters in 1985 under the auspices of New Line (though its gruesome ads were censored in many local papers). While the longer edition may not clarify much in the way of storyline, it does greatly aid the film's pacing and overall effect as the eye and mind are given more time to absorb the bizarre, shocking collision of images and horror and mystery elements.

On the surface, Phenomena is a return to Suspiria territory with a virginal American girl, Jennifer (future Oscar winner Connelly), arriving at a boarding school for girls in Switzerland. Her awkward habit of sleepwalking gets her into trouble on her first night when she wanders out of her room and witnesses the murder of a schoolmate, and on top of that, it appears she has a telepathic connection to insects. A local Scottish entomologist, John McGregor (Pleasence) tells Jennifer about a string of bizarre serial killings in the area, and with the aid of Jennifer's uncanny powers, they set out to find the murderer. PhenomenaIn many ways this film is the perfect stepping stone between the crystal-clear, razor-edged photography of Tenebrae and the baroque hyperactivity of Opera, delivering essentially two split narratives which finally converge in the amazing, excruciatingly violent final half hour.

The eclectic supporting cast also commands attention with appearances by Argento regular and ex-partner Daria Nicolodi (in an astonishingly unflattering, unhinged performance), the icy Dalila Di Lazzarro (Flesh for Frankenstein), and Patrick Bauchau (A View to a Kill) as a nosy police inspector. Add to that top notch make-up effects by Sergio Stivaletti (Demons) and an unsettling score featuring Goblin, Claudio PhenomenaSimonetti, and Simon Boswell, and the result is an undeniably unique and haunting experience. The film boasts a few strange quirks, such as a voiceover narrator inexplicably appearing 15 minutes into the film and a bizarre tendency to rely on heavy metal tunes by Iron Maiden and Motörhead to get the viewers' blood pumping. In many ways, though, these "flaws" can be almost as endearing as the film's good qualities; its sheer daffiness is almost beyond criticism. The off-kilter, dreamlike performances have also drawn critical fire, and again it's a matter of taste. Most unfairly, Phenomena has been termed a work of style over substance with no internal schematics to hold it up. On closer analysis, this simply isn't true. With ruthless precision, Argento dissects the notions of how families can fragment and become distorted-- Jennifer's celebrity father has abandoned her for a year's shooting on a film, her mother left without so much as a goodbye, and the bizarre genetic quirks that explain the identity of the killer(s) reflect Argento's own disintegrating domestic state at the time. Significantly, the film takes place at Passover, with Jennifer attaining a kind of virginal Zen state at the finale after her trial by blood and Phenomenakilling off the firstborn of her nemesis. The clash of languages and dialects (German, French, American) and the placement of the action at the "Richard Wagner School" also indicate that Argento was comparing the idealized notions of what a family should be and how easily it can crumble and destroy its children; Jennifer's early declaration, "Screw the past," quickly comes back to haunt her as the sins of the fathers (and mothers) stalk across the countryside. On a more visceral level, though, the film is also quite entertaining and boasts some of Argento's most delicious shocks, particularly the final scene. Phenomena

Anchor Bay's 1999 DVD was the first out of the gate, with a nearly simultaneous laserdisc from the long defunct Roan Group. This print was a tremendous improvement over the Columbia laserdisc from Japan, a major factor in building the film's '80s fan base, which was well known and beloved by gore fans for ages but suffered from an horrendous sound mix with music blasting out ten times louder than the dialogue and drowning out entire scenes (such as Bauchau's asylum visit). This edition also has its share of idiosyncrasies carried over to almost all future releases; for example, early on when Pleasence unveils a maggot-covered severed head in a glass cage, the moment unfolds with a deafening fanfare of music on the Japanese disc but contains no music at all here. The commentary by Argento, Stivaletti, and Simonetti is enthusiastic and occasionally helpful but also has a tendency to become completely quiet for long stretches of the film. The feature is followed by a bizarre European trailer and the music video for the cue "Phenomena" Phenomena(incorrectly identified on screen as "Jennifer" and credited to Argento himself, who's seen in both footage and a photograph on a dresser. This odd little treat, also letterboxed, mostly features Connelly running down hallways while Simonetti jams away on his keyboard. The DVD also contains Soavi's video for Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor's "Valley" and the infamous appearance by Argento on New York's The Joe Franklin Show.

A slightly longer Italian cut (116 mins.) first turned up on Japanese laserdisc as an "Integral Hard" edition, coupled with Luigi Cozzi's hit-and-miss Dario Argento's World of Horror 3, while DVD buyers were first offered the PhenomenaDragon two-disc set from Germany, which packs most of the Anchor Bay extras with the longer cut in English (with Italian footage inserted) or, better, the full Italian dialogue track with optional English subtitles. Though not the original studio track, the Italian dialogue is much classier and easier on the ears than the English one and makes for a significantly different experience. On the other hand, the first UK disc from Divid features a fine transfer but maddeningly only includes a mono track and some very skimpy interviews. The Italian DVD from Medusa lacks the English track, but the reasonable Italian 5.1 audio has English subs and is one of Medusa's better efforts with some nice separation effects and generally solid use of ambient sound drifting among the speakers. This is also the "integral" version containing those extra bits of footage (Jennifer's extended bus ride, the longer telephone fight with Nicolodi) but some fleeting, minor snippets of Italian dialogue (such as a student asking Sophie to get off the phone) are inexplicably lacking subtitles. The only bonus is the Italian theatrical trailer. PhenomenaAnchor Bay eventually revisited the film in 2008 with an anamorphic upgrade (though it looks like the same master boosted up to 16:9), essentially the same package but with a couple of new extras: the 16-minute "A Dark Fairy Tale" featurette (17m17s) with Argento, Nicolodi, co-writer Franco Ferrini, Stivaletti, Cozzi, and Fiore Argento, and a vintage 4-minute snippet, "Luigi Cozzi & The Art of Macrophotography" (4m38s).

In early 2011, Arrow Video unleashed the first Blu-ray of Argento's cult favorite as a region-free UK release along with a DVD reissue. The HD transfer is fairly solid, certainly better than any of its predecessors, though it's a bit soft and the compression could be improved in several spots. The longest "integral" cut is presented here with the option to watch it in Italian with English subtitles or in English (both LPCM stereo) with subs popping up for the brief extra snippets; Phenomenathe transitions aren't always the smoothest with some very inconsistent audio transitions due to the fact that many of the added bits amount to mere frames added to shots many times throughout the feature. The packaging is typically elaborate with their trademark panel reversible sleeve options, a two-sided fold out poster, a liner notes booklet by Alan Jones,and an entirely different slate of extras: a video intro by Stivaletti; a High Rising featurette called "Dario Argento's Monkey Business" (52m11s) featuring Argento, Nicolodi, Stivaletti, and Luigi Cozzi, among others, not to mention the longest animated transitions you've ever seen; a "Music for Maggots" (6m33s) interview with Simonetti; and a "Creepers and Creatures" Q&A (18m54s) from 2010 with Stivaletti and moderator Calum Waddell.

Another Blu-ray option popped up from Japan in late 2015 courtesy of Happinet, which appears to be derived from the same master as the Arrow with identical color timing and framing. Audio is presented in English Dolby TruHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0, and Italian Dolby Digital 2.0, with the original audio commentary from the Anchor Bay DVD ported over (the only way you can get it on Blu-ray as of this writing). You don't get English subs this time for that tiny handful of Italian dialogue, but as everyone knows now, you're not missing much. Carried over from the Arrow release are the "Dario Argento's Monkey Business," "Music for Maggots," and "Creepers and Creatures" extras, plus the usual two music videos, the Italian and international English trailers, and the international English opening and closing titles and Creepers opening titles. Also added here exclusive to the release are the 7-minute Fiore Argento interview, "The First Victim," the 9-minute "The Look of Phenomena" with cinematographer Romano Albini, and the 12-minute "The Music of Phenomena" with composer Simon Boswell, though only the last one is English friendly (and well worth watching). Phenomena

In 2016, Synapse Films followed up its sterling steelbook release of Tenebrae with a similar presentation of Phenomena, a 3,000-unit Blu-ray steelbook edition containing two discs and a soundtrack CD (essentially the remastered Goblin/Simonetti soundtrack supervised by Claudio Fuiano with the three Andi Sex Gang and one Simon Boswell track added on; if you have that first CD edition with "Valley" and the heavy metal tracks, hang on to it -- Phenomenaand sadly, the Wyman/Taylor track "Valley Bolero" has yet to surface on any commercial release at all). The transfer appears to be sourced from the same original HD scan used for the prior Blu-rays, albeit with the best compression job here and bolder color schemes with a stronger emphasis on blue and green throughout (colors associated with the film that have made their way into several critical studies). All three cuts are included -- uncut Italian, English international, and for the first time in HD, the Creepers U.S. cut. The Italian cut has options to play the film in Italian DTS-HD 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles or a nicely done hybrid track with mostly English but bits of Italian woven in far more smoothly than before (executed by Vincent Pereira) and thankfully free from the jarring edits of past versions. The familiar international version is presented in 2.0 stereo mixes of both its usual English-language mix and, for the first (and only) time anywhere outside of the Japanese laserdisc, that odd alternate mix with extra and alternate little music additions, plus optional English SDH subtitles. This version also sports an audio commentary with Derek Botelho (author of The Argento Syndrome) and David Del Valle. The Creepers cut is mainly comprised of the same transfer apart from the opening titles, which have been pulled from what appears to be a solid 35mm source with that American title intact. (English SDH subs are included for that one as well.) Previously available as a standalone DVD from Synapse, the great Michele Soavi documentary Dario Argento's World of Horror is included here as well in SD. A major gateway for many young Argento fans in the '80s (as it was the only place to see uncensored scenes from the likes of Suspiria and Tenebrae at the time it hit U.S. VHS from Vidmark), this is still a great love letter to the filmmaker with loads of behind-the-scenes footage from this particular film. Also included are the English international trailer, the New Line Creepers trailer, and a fuzzy-looking Andi Sex Gang interview (3m58s) about working with Boswell on the songs for this film. This edition also comes with an insert booklet featuring essays by Michael Gingold and New Line publicist Gary Hertz, plus technical notes by Pereira about the assembly of the hybrid track and the technical challenges of the film's multiple versions. PhenomenaPhenomena

The following year, Arrow's UK branch threw another surprise into the mix with the announcement of a limited four-disc edition featuring a fresh 4K scan of the film from the original negative. The transfer features a significant amount of additional image info compared to prior releases mainly on the sides and top, which actually does alter the atmosphere of the film a bit as the landscape shots in particular now feel a bit more spacious and overwhelming than before. Almost every release of this film has had variations in its color timing (see comparison grabs below against the new Arrow ones seen in the body of this review), and this one strikes a fine balance between natural flesh tones, deep blacks, and enough of those trademark hypnotic blue lighting accents that pop up in many scenes. The green foliage also looks quite rich, and the bump in detail results in more of a discernible sense of depth than before (especially evident in that ambitious opening crane shot over the trees during the main titles). The Italian cut features DTS-HD MA 5.1 and PCM 2.0 options for both the Italian audio and a hybrid English-Italian track (a new crack at it with some different mixing variations compared to the Synapse one), with either optional English or English SDH subtitles. As usual the English track sounds more organic while the Italian one is more aggressive and features significant dialogue differences, including minor variations in some character names ("Greta" versus "Rita") and oddities like more overt references to necrophilia. The surround presence is pretty minor with the 5.1 version staying mostly limited to the center and front channels, but it sounds great no matter which option you choose. The international cut on disc two has English DTS-HD MA 5.1 and PCM 2.0 choices with optional English SDH subtitles, while disc three has the Creepers cut with LPCM mono audio and optional English SDH subs. The Italian cut also features a new commentary by Troy Howarth, author of the So Deadly, So Perverse book series on gialli, who does an excellent job of parsing out this complicated entry in the Argento canon by pointing out its manipulation of past giallo conventions, the references to Argento's past films (including not one but two young women getting their heads pummelled through glass windows), and the high points of the actors' performances and their backgrounds with a bit of info about alternate casting choices like Isabella Rossellini. (He also sidesteps the more seamy aspects of Dalila Di Lazzaro's showbiz history, which is just as well.)

The 31-minute "The Three Sarcophagi" features Michael Mackenzie chatting in his usual warm Scottish brogue about the extensive differences between the two versions, highlighted by fascinating Phenomenademonstrations of the many Phenomenaminiscule (sometimes a couple of frames) trims made to speed up the international cut. He really comes down hard on the Creepers cut, understandably so, but it's a version worth watching for its sometimes thoughtful and occasionally elegant solutions to the challenge of bringing this film in under 90 minutes. Some familiar video extras here turn up, namely the Italian and international English trailers and the "Jennifer" (but really "Phenomena") music video, while a Japanese pressbook has been added. (Significantly, all of the featurettes from the old Arrow release have been jettisoned entirely, so hold on to that one if you have it.) The big new draw here in the video extras department is the mammoth (two-hour!) Freak-o-Rama documentary, "Of Flies and Maggots," which covers practically every aspect of the film you could possibly imagine. Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi turn up and cover some familiar material (his inspiration from real-life cases of cadaveric insects being used to solve crimes, the hostile nature of the relationship between Argento and Nicolodi during the production), but a barrage of other participants make this feel entirely fresh and exciting to watch. Luigi Cozzi, Sergio Stivaletti, Fiore Argento, Michele Soavi, co-writer Franco Ferrini, cinematographer Romano Albani, actress Fiorenza Tessari (the first murder victim at the school), diminutive actor Davide Marotta (who plays a pivotal role in the final act), executive producer Angelo Jacono, underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, and (a bit at the end) composers Simonetti and Boswell are chock full of stories about the elaborate visual effects (lots of insect wrangling stories here), the film's ecstatic reception in Japan (where Connelly's hair and Armani fashions became a trend), the complexities of the makeup, and plenty more, with VHS-sourced production footage scattered throughout. Disc four is the soundtrack CD, also featuring the full Goblin score and the Andi Sex Gang/Boswell bonus tracks. A beautifully designed insert book (60 pages) contains new essays by Mikel J. Koven ("The Poetry of the Gross-Out"), Rachel Nisbet ("Argento, Armani and the Fashions of Phenomena," a fascinating take on the film's costume design and commentary on Germanic and Swiss culture), Leonard Jacobs ("Phenomena as a Key to Unlocking Opera," noting how this film dovetails into the finale of Argento's next feature), and notes about the restoration and multiple versions. Needless to say, it's one of the best releases of an Argento film to date.

SYNAPSE BLU-RAY

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HAPPINET BLU-RAY

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ARROW 2011 BLU-RAY

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ANCHOR BAY DVD

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Updated review on May 11, 2017