Blu-ray Release: March 14, 2023 (following March 8, 2022 LE)
Video: 1.66:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color
Audio: English and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (integral and international cuts); English/Italian combo DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (integral cut); original English and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo (integral and international cuts); alternate effects & music English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (international cut); English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 music only stereo (effects/dialogue mono) and English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono (US Creepers cut)
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 115:54 (integral cut), 110:03 (international cut), 83:05 (US Creepers cut)
Director: Dario Argento
Note: I'm recycling the majority of my older Blu-ray review. If you're only reading this to get my opinion on the new 4K UHD transfer, skip to the Video and Audio sections.
The young Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) 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) 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? (From Synapse’s official synopsis)
Dario Argento often cites Phenomena (aka: Creepers, 1985) as his favorite and most personal motion picture, despite it being generally disliked by even his biggest fans and critical champions, at least upon release. It followed Tenebrae (aka:Tenebre and Unsane, 1982), a film that marked a major shift in Argento’s relationship with his own movies. Tenebrae was born out of the frustration, when the director’s second supernatural-based feature, Inferno (1980), proved a difficult production, was met with critical indifference, and was a box office disappointment. It took his tried, true, and very popular gialli model and turned it on its head as a brutal, often ironic satire of his work, his fanbase, his critics, and even his personal life. It was the Argento giallo to end all Argento gialli. Then, it was also a hit, which left him in a less vulnerable situation and, presumably, open to further experimentation with supernatural hijinks. However, unlike Suspiria (1977) and Inferno, Phenomena still holds tight to his established gialli mold on a basic plot level.
The Argento mold usually incorporates an artist type protagonist (writer, puzzle-maker, musician, et cetera), who witnesses a murder/attempted murder while visiting a foreign country. Intrigued, they mount an amateur investigation – often with the help of a new friend (sometimes a love interest) – and are targeted by the killer when they get too close to the truth. In addition to these established thriller motifs, Argento incorporates elements from his supernatural horror movies into Phenomena’s already jam-packed, wackadoo screenplay, including Suspiria’s girls’ dormitory location/culture and Inferno’s sentient, vengeful animals.
Common sense might dictate that Argento was (and is) overly obsessed with certain ideas and unable to move on to other things, but the larger story behind the screenplay actually indicates that he was also overly invested in one of the story’s seemingly incidental plot devices – that insects can be used by law enforcement to date time of death and ultimately solve murders – yet he couldn’t quite find a way to adapt it into a horror/thriller context. During an interview with author/Argento biographer Alan Jones (seen in Profondo Argento, FAB Press, 2004), co-writer Franco Ferrini claims that the director randomly heard about crime-solving bugs on Italian radio, immediately ordered a book on the subject from a French entomologist, and proceeded to “locked himself away until he had read every page, because he was convinced that the concept for his next film lay somewhere between the covers.”
Not content to hem himself (and Ferrini) in with such a specific plot device, Argento was also determined to build his story around future Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, who was only 14 at the time, and the Swiss locations he had fallen in love with. So how, then, does one incorporate a high school-aged girl into a Swiss-set movie about crime-solving bugs that still needs to please a Horror Master’s vehement fanbase (Argento was riding high on a wave superstar celebrity status in Italy and investing a lot of his time co-writing and producing movies for his directing apprentices)? If you’re Dario Argento, you recycle story assets. You stick the teenage girl in a Suspiria-style boarding school in a foreign country (a caveat that ensures much of the student body is, as in the case of Suspiria, mostly Italian, rather than from the country where the film takes place), you team her up with an entomologist who has mounted an amateur investigation into a local serial killer, and you establish her psychic bond with insects to ensure that the language-free critters are able to communicate their findings.
In the end, Phenomena is short on sense or logic, but Argento’s blind eye to this insanity and his lack of supervision (Ferrini admits he found it almost impossible to tell his idol that any of his ideas were bad) endows it with a ridiculous charm that could endear it even to the director’s detractors. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) the killer is a mutated dwarf or that the entomologist is an invalid who is cared for by a vindictive helper chimp (/SPOILER ALERT) – each aspects that could carry an entire exploitation film under normal circumstances. This is filmmaker id at its purest and, because it was made before the depressing, Italian-horror-industry-killing 1990s, Phenomena is also gorgeously rendered. This beauty is usually what fans will tout as the film’s greatest asset and the reason non-fans need to see it (I’ve done the same myself over the years), but nice photography and creative violence come part and parcel with Argento. The real value here is found in his untethered, sometimes positively daffy creative choices, not with clever themes or cinematic innovation. This may sound suspiciously like I’m recommending Phenomena on the same so-bad-it’s-good basis as a Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragasso movie, but those films are amusing in their laziness. Phenomena is outrageously ambitious and the weird story behind that ambition only adds to its quality.
Phenomena DVDs & Blu-rays have grown into their own cottage industry. To understand why, you must first understand the difference between the three most common cuts of the film (though regional censorship dictates that there are probably several dozen cuts out there). Argento’s director’s cut ran 110 minutes, but American distributor New Line Cinema decided that was too long for Eurohorror nonsense and hacked out a whopping 28 minutes. They also changed the title to Creepers, based the advertising around the accompanying heavy metal soundtrack, and circulated it on VHS via Media Home Entertainment. The already abstract film was rendered completely incoherent and subject to a number of jarring jump cuts. In the pre-DVD days, stateside fans (or at least those without access to bootleg dupes of the Japanese Laserdisc) long assumed that most of the cuts were made to secure an R-rating and Phenomena was some kind of incredible bloodbath, but, when Anchor Bay finally loosed the 110-minute edit on VHS & DVD, they discovered that the majority of deleted scenes related to its plot. Meanwhile, a 116 minute edit was cobbled together from rediscovered deleted scenes and dubbed the ‘integral cut.’ For a long time, this version was only available from German, Japanese, and Italian DVDs (give or take a few seconds), but every single Blu-ray and 4K UHD version since, including this one, has included it in some capacity.
Synapse’s collection (which is the same as their limited edition set, minus the packaging and pack-ins) includes all three cuts. Unlike their previous Blu-rays, these 2160p transfers and the extras were made in tandem with Arrow’s UK exclusive releases, meaning that all available 4K UHDs of the film are functionally identical (aside from packaging). I am unable to secure UHD screen caps and Synapse hasn’t included a Blu-ray with a 1080p version of the remaster, so the images on this page are not representative of the 4K UHD’s quality. If that’s what you’re looking for, please see this page from the fine folks at caps-a-holic.
My subjective opinion on the subject is based on decades of rebuying this goddamn movie and rarely being satisfied. Basically, it never looked quite right on DVD and, for a time, every Blu-ray edition featured nearly identical, clean, but still sort of shimmery HD transfers. Arrow’s second Blu-ray release came closest to looking like a natural, film-based image from the mid-’80s. This 4K transfer is very similar, though with finer grain, more delicate textures (especially in the backgrounds), and punchy dynamic range made punchier, thanks to the HDR enhancement. Sometimes, the deeper black levels absorb a little detail, but, on the other hand, even the good Arrow Blu-ray has an issue with washing out its lightest highlights, so it’s a good trade-off. The rescan also fixes some of the older Blu-rays’ telecine noise problems. The color timing is warmer than the cool, largely blue and lavender palette that go back to the Creepers VHS, so, arguably, the producers have messed with Argento and cinematographer Romano Albani’s original vision. Personally, I think the difference is worth it for the richness of the scenes set out in nature.
There are three different cuts of the movie here and each has its own audio options, including some variations that were not available with Synapse or Arrow’s Blu-rays. I prefer the integral cut, so that’s the one I sampled most completely for this review. The options here are the original Italian dub or an English track that defaults back to Italian during the five or so minutes that were never dubbed into English, both in 5.1. If you want to listen to the original 2.0 stereo, unfortunately, Italian is your only option (this is probably my only real disappointment with the collection). I’ll remind readers that the film was shot without sound and that all tracks are dubbed, but, in this case, the bulk of the major cast was speaking English on set and both Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence dub their own performances. The international cut includes three English dubs – the 5.1 remix and two stereo mixes with slightly different effects and music. The Creepers cut also only features English options, including stereo and 1.0 mono. All tracks are uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio.
Phenomena’s musical soundtrack is sometimes credited to Goblin, but only keyboardist Claudio Simonetti contributed any new themes. This mislabeling is probably due to the fact that the absolutely fantastic main theme is often included on Goblin compilation albums and played by the band in concert. The other original themes were composed by former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and composer Simon Boswell, and the soundtrack also included previously released metal/rock tracks from Iron Maiden, Andi Sex Gang, Motörhead, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Phenomena was the first of three of his movies that utilized established metal acts, followed by Demons (Italian: Demoni, 1985; co-written/produced by Argento, directed by Lamberto Bava) and Opera (aka: Terror at the Opera, 1987). He never seemed to really understand how to use the music, especially in the case of Phenomena, where Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” blares over a completely inert scene of Connelly trying to use a phone. Still, it adds something extra to the very, very ‘80s aural texture of the film.
Disc 1 (Integral Cut)
Commentary with Troy Howarth – This first commentary track is taken from Arrow’s 2018 Blu-ray release. The author of Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento (Midnight Marquee Press, 2020) explores the various cuts of the film, Argento’s common themes and autobiographical inclusions (something I didn’t discuss in my review is the fact that Jennifer’s character is imbued with aspects of the director’s personal life), the wider careers of the cast & crew (including chimp actress Tenga), the film’s music, Argento’s post-Phenomena work, and his deteriorating relationship with actress and former partner Daria Nicolodi.
Of Flies and Maggots (120:13) – Federico Caddeo’s 2017 feature documentary was also originally a part of Arrow’s Blu-ray and includes interviews with Argento, co-writer Franco Ferrini, optical effects supervisor Luigi Cozzi, FX artist Sergio Stivaletti, executive producer Angelo Iacono, underwater camera operator Gianlorenzo Battaglia, assistant director Michele Soavi, composers Simon Boswell and Claudio Simonetti, and actors Daria Nicolodi, Davide Marotta, and Fiore Argento. It includes footage from a vintage EPK that is not otherwise included in this collection.
Claudio Simonetti “Jennifer" music video (4:11, SD)
Italian and English trailers
Japanese pressbook gallery
Disc 2 (international and Creepers cuts)
Commentary track with Derek Botelho and David Del Valle (110-minute director’s cut) – The author of The Argento Syndrome (BearManor Media, 2014), Botelho, and film historian/TV & radio host/writer/general Hollywood gadabout Del Valle discuss every nook and cranny of the film, Argento’s larger career, and the other movies that inspired and were inspired by Phenomena in this archival track from Synapse’s previous Blu-ray.
The Three Sarcophagi (31:02, HD) – Another extra from Arrow’s first re-release. In this visual essay, author/critic Michael Mackenzie compares the different cuts of the film.
Phenomena international trailer and Creepers trailer & radio spots
Fans that collect extras will want to hang onto their original Synapse Blu-rays for the Dario Argento's World of Horror documentary (76:00, HD) and an exclusive interview with Andi Sex Gang.
The images on this page are taken from the original Synapse BD (not the 4K UHD) and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.