Friday, August 25, 2017

PHENOMENA (1985) (Synapse 2-Disc Blu-ray Review)

Synapse 2-Disc Blu-ray Edition

Label: Synapse Films
Release Date: September 12th, 2017
Duration: 110 Minutes (International Version), 116 Minutes (Integral Version), 83 Minutes (Creepers Version)
Rating: R / Unrated (2 Versions) 
Audio: English, Italian DTS-HD MA English/Italian 2.0 Stereo with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.66:1)
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Patrick Bauchau

Synopsis: The young Jennifer Corvino (played by Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly (Labyrinth) in one of her first film roles) is sent to a private Swiss academy for girls where a vicious killer is on the loose, brutally murdering students. Jennifer is a “gifted” girl with the strange ability to communicate with insects, and Dr. McGregor (Donald Pleasence, John Carpenter’s Halloween series, Escape from New York) enlists her to help locate the killer. Jennifer finds herself in a bizarre murder plot with maggots, mutants, and razor-wielding chimpanzee mayhem! Can she uncover the killer’s identity before becoming a victim herself? Daria Nicolodi (Tenebrae) and Fiore Argento (Demons) also star in this strange, unique and gory film from Italy’s Master of Horror, Dario Argento. Phenomena also features fantastic soundtrack music from progressive-rock favorite Goblin, British Heavy Metal masters Motörhead & Iron Maiden, Andi Sex Gang, Bill Wyman and Simon Boswell!

Phenomena (1985) is the third of what has become known as Dario Argento's animals trilogy; a trio of films beginning with his first film, the stone-cold giallo classic The Bird with the Crystal Plumage(1970), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and ending with Phenomena (1985). The film was released following Tenebre (1982), one of my favorite Argento films, a stylish Giallo classic that brought new life to the stylish Italian whodunit. Phenomena ia a bit of a hybrid of a giallo and a more fantastical supernatural thriller, and was originally released here in the U.S. in a severely cut version called Creepers. The movie is a weird, dark fairy tale that recalls many elements of Argento's supernatural thriller Suspiria (1977), particularly a young girl who is sent abroad to a school who experiences strange happenings n and around the school. The movie opens as  tourist Vera Grandt (Fiore Argento, Demons) misses a tour bus in the Swiss countryside, she's now stranded and ventures to a nearby house in search of some assistance. She knocks but when no one answers she enters the unlocked house, stirring around inside she arouses the interest of something fiendish that's been chained to the wall inside. Whatever it is it pulls the chains from the wall and attacks the young woman with a pair of scissors, she escapes the initial attack and runs madly through the forest to a nearby gorge where she is cornered and decapitated in a rather visually stunning manner, her head shattering a pane of glass in slow-motion, we do not see the decapitation but her head falls to the waterfall below, we see her body being dragged by an unseen culprit in the water's reflection.

Months later, Jennifer (Connelly), the daughter of a famous American actor arrives at a nearby Swiss boarding school, the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls, and already we're getting some definite shades of Suspiria. There she meets Frau Brucker (Daria Nicolodi, Deep Red), the stern headmistress (Dalilia Do Lazzaro, Flesh For Frankenstein) and her new roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni), more shades of Suspiria. We discover that Jennifer has a few odd quirks about her, she regularly sleepwalks and is able to seemingly telekinetically communicate with the insects around, she's a real lord of the flies type girl. On her first night at the academy she sleepwalks, envisioning a long white corridor with many doors, these are great surreal Argento visuals, and while sleepwalking witnesses the murder of a girl from school, but has no recollection of it. During yet another nocturnal stroll she wanders off school grounds and encounters local entomologist Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasance, Raw Meat) with a snazzy Scottish accent. McGregor is wheelchair bound and relies on his care-giving pet Chimpanzee named Inga to assist him. Inga is very helpful and super protective of the McGregor, later in the movie wields a straight razor on a revenge mission when her master is hurt, and it only gets weirder. McGregor and Jennifer form a bond over their shared love the insects and he warns her that a demented psychopath on the loose in the area killing young girls, something they didn't mention at the school. 

Back at school Jennifer is not well-liked by the other girls, when her creepy affinity for insects is revealed when she summons a swarm of flies upon the school in a fit of anger, as you can imagine this does not help her image. The headmistress is intent on having her committed to a psychiatric after the event but when the men in white arrive Jennifer has fled to McGregor's who irresponsibly sends her in search of the killer armed only with a sarcophagus fly to aid in the detection of cadavers. The search for the killer obviously puts her in imminent danger which leads to a startling revelation and bizarre final confrontation on a boat with a fiendish freak and it's deranged mother.

There's not an extraordinary amount of death and gore here but what there we do get is significantly gruesome, we have some slasher-styles kills, including a great kill with a blade emerging from the victim's mouth, and some choice moments of rotting flesh to give you the creeps. The decomposition special effects by Sergio Stivaletti (Demons 2) are stomach churningly effective while the pre-digital optical effects work by Luigi Cozzi (Contamination) lends a bizarre atmosphere to the proceedings, with swarming insects filling the screen. Claudio Simonetti of Goblin performs the main title theme but the signature Goblin music is not as prevalent throughout the film as in previous Argento film scores and instead we get cuts from Motorhead and a tasty Iron Maiden track "Flash of the Blade". The tastiest track is the composition "The Valley" by Bill Wyman & Terry Taylor, super eerie, has a very Blade Runner sort of vibe about it. This was the first time that Argento really used soundtrack rock music, and it's a bit jarring at times, but loved the tunes, something he would do again with Demons.

The film is a weird hybrid, it has a different feel than either his Giallo entries or the supernatural stuff, it's a somewhat jarring mash-up of the two, but I've grown to love it more and more through the years with each subsequent watch, it gets better with age. Connolly is wonderfully otherworldly and the movie has some serious wind-swept atmosphere and visuals that Argento fans can dig into. 

Audio/Video: Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985) arrives on 2-disc Blu-ray from US distributor Synapse Films containing three different cuts, all framed in 1080p HD widescreen (1.66:1). Disc one contains both the 116 minute integral version and the considerably shorter 83 minute U.S. Creepers cut. The 116 minute cut comes by way of an older HD master which was also used by Arrow Video for their first Blu-ray of the film, not the new 4K restoration they've issued recently. This is known to have DNR issues with some waxiness and lack of fine detail in certain scenes, Synapse were denied a pass to create their own new HD master and had to go with the existing master, but what they did do was remix the hybrid English/Italian audio, we get both a English DTS-HD MA 2.0 and an Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 with three optional English subtitles choices, including one for just the foreign language segments of the hybrid version, complete English subtitles for the entire feature, and complete English subtitles for the Italian version of the film. I like the English audio but will have to give the edge to the Italian track which seems more robust and full. Disc one also contains the Creeper cut of the film, coming in at 83 minutes long, framed in the same 1.66:1 widescreen, with an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track with optional English subtitles. 

Onto disc two we have the international cut of the film clocking at 110 minutes, this is the original version of the film, derived from a different source. I've heard, but not seen it from Synapse, that the 110-min international version is an HD master from French distributor Wild Side Cinema, which has never before been available in HD, and it's an improvement - this is the best looking cut on the set.  It looks fantastic, it has not been degrained, there's no waxiness, fine detail are strong, the image is vibrant and more technically robust. Audio options include both English DTS-HD MA 2.0 and a English DTS-HD MA 2.0 with alternate music cues, the alternate track seems a bit anemic, dialogue takes focus, while effects and music cues drop off a little bit, the near constant winds heard throughout the movie are but a whisper here, it affects the viewing. The main DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is strong and well-balanced, music cues and effects are strong, mixed well with dialogue, it sounds great. 

Onto the extras for disc two we begin with a very good commentary from Dario Argento scholar and author, Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist and radio/television commentator, David Del Valle. Del Valle always has a warm and inviting persona, lots of info about the cast and crew, both speak a bit about how Dario has subjected the women in his personal life to various onscreen tortures/rapes in his films and touch on a myriad of topics, it's not one of my favorite commentary tracks though. I much prefer hearing Alan Jones and Kim Newman wax nostalgic about Argento - these guys know their stuff and I find them more compelling argento storytellers. What we get is not bad, just a bit dry for my tastes. Also included is the feature length '85 doc Dario Argento's World of Horrors, directed by Michele Soavi, who would go onto direct a few classic Italian chillers himself, including Stage Fright (1987), The Church (1989)and  Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) aka Cemetery man. It's a great doc stuffed with behind-the-scenes footage of making various films and some good interviews with Argento himself. 

Finishing up the extras we have the theatrical trailer for Phenomena and Creepers, plus a selection of radio spots for Creepers. This 2-disc Blu-ray release comes housed in a standard blue Blu-ray keepcase with a sleeve of reversible artwork, featuring the traditional Phenomena artwork and the U.S. Creepers artwork, while I think Creepers is an inferior and butchered version of the movie I do love that artwork! Each Blu-ray discs features scenes from the film of Jennifer Connelly on them, same as the 3-disc Limited Edition Steelbook.  What this doesn't have that the 3-disc limited edition Steelbook has is the 20-page booklet with notes on Synapse Films’ extensive restoration, plus liner notes on the film by authors Michael Gingold and Gary Hertz, nor the third disc, the remastered CD soundtrack. The 3-disc Limited Collector’s Edition Steelbook® from Synapse Films is still available HERE as of this review, and it's a damn gorgeous release, but this 2-disc release has all the extras minus the CD soundtrack and the cool packaging. 

Special Features: 
DISC 1 (Blu-ray)
Phenomena (116 Minute Integral version)
This English/Italian hybrid cut of Phenomena  contains an additional six minutes of material not seen in the 110 minute version. Completely remixed by Synapse Films to seamlessly integrate the additional Italian audio segments into the feature, and remastered in high-definition, this version of Phenomena is now available for the first time ever in North America!
- Creepers (83 minute U.S. release version) Synapse Films is proud to present the U.S. version of Creepers, now available for the First time ever, remastered in high-definition (1080p 1.66:1 Presentation). Includes optional English subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
- Newly remixed English/Italian 2.0 stereo mix for the 116 minute version of Phenomena
- Original Italian 2.0 stereo mix
- Multiple optional subtitle selections, including one for just the foreign language segments of the hybrid version, complete English subtitles for the entire feature, and complete English subtitles for the Italian version of the film.

DISC 2 (Blu-ray)
- Phenomena (110 minute version)
This international version of Phenomena was released in 1985 and contains almost 30 minutes of additional footage not seen in the Creepers U.S. version. Completely remastered in high-definition and released, for the first time ever, on Blu-ray!
- Audio Commentary Track on Phenomena from Argento scholar and author, Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist and radio/television commentator, David Del Valle
- Two completely different sound mix options, including the original English 2.0 stereo mix, along with a rare alternate mix containing different sound effects and music cues.
- Dario Argento's World of Horror (61 min)– Documentary A fascinating look at the early films of director Dario Argento, including Phenomena, Suspiria, demons, Dawn of the Dead, Inferno,  and many more! Containing candid interviews and awesome behind-the-scenes footage, DARIO ARGENTO’S WORLD OF HORROR gives us a look into the mind of Italy’s Master of Horror and is an essential viewing experience for all Argento fans.
- Interview with Andi Sex Gang (4 min) 
- Phenomena International Theatrical Trailer (3 min) HD 
- Creepers U.S. Theatrical Trailer (1 min) HD 
- Creepers Radio Spots (1 min) HD 
- Optional English Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard for Hearing on Phenomena

Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985) gets better with each watch, an atmospheric horror hybrid that might prove a bit more difficult to settle into than his more beloved films to the casual horror fans, but if you're up to the initial challenge this is a stylish and haunting film with some strangely wonderful and horrific moments, and one that has aged quite nicely.