‘Phenomena’ 4K Review – Dario Argento’s 1985 Horror Movie Returns to 4K With New Standard Edition

Phenomena is a substantially different movie depending on how you first saw it. Audiences in its native Italy were able to see the original 116-minute film as director Dario Argento intended for its initial release in 1985. That cut was pruned down to 110 minutes for international release. In America, however, New Line Cinema cut the picture to 83 minutes before putting it out under the title Creepers in 1986. Finding its audience in the VHS rental market, this was the only version available in the US until DVD came around.

Each version has its advantages and disadvantages. The original integral cut contains everything, but it drags a bit in the middle and there are a few moments that were never dubbed into English. The international version is a bit tighter, mostly trimming frames and sacrificing only a few lines of dialogue. Those who grew up with the Creepers cut may prefer its punchier pace, but it also leaves lapses in logic. In addition to removing significant exposition, some gore is excised.

Thanks to Synapse Films, viewers no longer have to decide between the different cuts. All three versions have been restored in 4K and are presented with Dolby Vision along with a variety of lossless audio options for Synapse’s two-disc 4K Ultra HD release. Originally debuting in 2021 with a limited run of 6,000, a standard edition is now available with all the same content, sans slipcase, booklet, poster, and mini lobby cards.

The film follows American teenager Jennifer Corvino (future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly) to an esteemed all-girls boarding school in Switzerland, where a killer that preys on young girls is on the loose. Jennifer is plagued by nightmarish visions while sleepwalking, serendipitously leading her to handicapped entomologist John McGregor (Halloween franchise stalwart Donald Pleasence) and his chimpanzee assistant. Upon discovering that Jennifer has a telepathic connection to insects, McGregor encourages her to harness her abilities to catch the killer.

Despite a rather outlandish premise, Argento expertly builds suspense on top of the elaborate death scenes audiences expect from him. He and co-writer Franco Ferrini (Demons, Two Evil Eyes) introduce supernatural elements to the well-trodden giallo subgenre Argento helped popularize. The sleepwalking angle plays directly to the filmmaker’s strength in dreamlike storytelling and visuals, aided by Romano Albani’s (Inferno, Troll) cold cinematography.

It’s goofy at times and borders on incoherent – to the point where a narrator is employed for exactly one line of exposition – but the operatic climax gives Argento free rein. Rife with memorable imagery, it includes a sequence that rivals Poltergeist’s pool of skeletons, a monstrous youth reminiscent of Don’t Look Now, vicious animal attacks, underwater photography, blazing fire, and a shocking decapitation.

Connelly, in her second film and first leading role at the age of 14, shows the promise of the in-demand actress she would soon become with wide-eyed resilience. Pleasence fully commits per usual, even confined to a wheelchair and speaking with a Scottish accent, although he’s occasionally upstaged by his primate co-star. Argento’s then-wife and frequent collaborator Daria Nicolodi has a memorable role as the school’s chaperone, Frau Brückner. The family affair also includes Argento’s eldest daughter, Fiore Argento, who opens the film as an ill-fated tourist.

Argento’s scores are often eclectic, but Phenomena shows the filmmaker adopting the trend of using popular songs in a film. In addition to music by Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli of Goblin (Dawn of the Dead, Suspiria), Simon Boswell (Hackers, Lord of Illusions), then-Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, and Andi Sex Gang of the gothic rock act Sex Gang Children, the soundtrack includes heavy metal anthems by Iron Maiden and Motorhead. The aggressive music often doesn’t match the tone of what’s occurring on screen, which is not uncommon for an Argento film but is particularly glaring here.

In addition to three cuts of the film, the two-disc set has several substantial extras. Film historian Troy Howarth (author of Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento) provides a solo audio commentary on the integral cut, while film historians Derek Botelho (author of The Argento Syndrome) and David Del Valle team up to discuss the international version. Both are expectedly informative, though the latter is a bit drab despite having two commentators to bounce off one another.

Of Flies and Maggots is a two-hour documentary on the movie produced for Arrow Films’ 2017 release. It features in-depth interviews with Argento (who refers to Phenomena as “one of the most important films of my career”), Nicolodi, Fiore Argento, Ferrini, Albani, Simonetti, Boswell, special effects artists Sergio Stivaletti and Luigi Cozzi, and other cast and crew members. Arrow Films producer Michael Mackenzie illustrates the differences between the cuts of Phenomena in a visual essay titled “The Three Sarcophagi.”

Simonetti’s “Jennifer” music video directed by Argento, Italian, international, and U.S. theatrical trailers, two U.S. radio spots, and a gallery of the Japanese pressbook round out the special features. Two extras from Synapse’s 2016 Blu-ray edition – the 1985 documentary Dario Argento’s World of Horror and a snippet of a vintage interview with Andi Sex Gang – are conspicuously missing, but the new additions more than make up for their absence.

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