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{Blu-ray Review} The Great Sarcophagus: Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985) in 4K

“These are things that can happen in a woman’s life.”

Phenomena is not the best Dario Argento movie. It’s not the most significant, the best-known, or the most widely seen. Yet, it boasts a singular accomplishment that few other films can match: If it were not for Phenomena, we very likely wouldn’t have the Clock Tower series of video games, a franchise that is, itself, often considered to be the genuine classic that many might argue Phenomena is not.

Courtesy Human Entertainment

At one time, I might have been among that “many.” Phenomena was the first Dario Argento film I ever saw, and I was not prepared for it. While I enjoyed my time, it didn’t win me over the way something like Suspiria later would. And yet, each time I return to Phenomena, I seem to love it more.

That early reticence can’t be laid entirely at the feet of my relative inexperience with Argento, either. Looking on Letterboxd, one can find plenty of devoted fans of Italian horror who dismiss or deride Phenomena, calling it, for example, “by far the worst movie of Argento’s otherwise untouchable ’75-’87 run” or even “fake Fulci horeshit.”

There are also giallo purists who will lay out a very strict set of definitions regarding what is and is not covered by that peculiar subgenre. They will tell you that expressly supernatural films such as Suspiria and Inferno – which were not direct predecessors of Phenomena, but pretty close – don’t count. I don’t know how those individuals feel about Phenomena but, for my purposes, it also doesn’t really matter.

Whether it truly is one or not, Phenomena is, in so many ways, practically the ur-text of what many of us think when we think of giallo – and of Italian horror from this period more generally. There’s a little bit of everything (perhaps, some would claim, too much) in this flick set at a girls’ boarding school in a region that the film assures us is called the “Swiss Transylvania.”

Courtesy Synapse

Naturally, there’s a killer on the loose, knocking off young women using a knife on the end of a long metal pole that snaps together. There’s also a very young Jennifer Connelly – a year before Labyrinth – playing the daughter of an absent movie star who comes to stay at the boarding school and who has a psychic rapport with insects (you heard me). There’s Donald Pleasence with a Scottish accent as a wheelchair-bound entomologist who is helping the police to try to catch the killer.

There is ominous wind, said to “cause madness.” Portions of the school, which is on grounds once owned by Richard Wagner, are abandoned and unsafe. There’s sleepwalking and music cues that at once flaunt the normal approaches of score deployment and, at the same time, define and structure the scenes in which they occur. Before all is said and done, there’s a deformed killer, a creepy life-sized doll, a gross pit filled with corpses, more than one unlikely decapitation, and a chimpanzee armed with a straight razor. When we get the killer’s motive – to the extent that we ever do – it hinges upon what is essentially a pseudoscientist’s understanding of psychology.

It is, in sum, an Argento movie. And while it may not be the most Argento movie he ever made, it’s probably the one that I think of the most, when I think of his work, even while it lacks certain trademarks such as the Mario Bava-esque lighting of Suspiria or Inferno. In the grand traditions of the best of the form, it is both beautiful and grotesque, lurid and poetic, potent and nonsensical. It is not what the kids these days might call “pure vibes,” but it either works for you or it doesn’t, and very little that I can say is likely to change anyone’s mind.

Courtesy Synapse

Shot on film, released in a variety of cuts over the years, heavily reliant on soundtrack and atmosphere, movies like this are basically what fancy Blu-ray and 4K editions were made for, and Phenomena has been released a number of times on home video in various forms. This new 4K Ultra HD release is only the latest upgrade even from Synapse, who previously rolled out a features-loaded Blu.

I’m not an expert on film restoration or sound mixing or any of that, but I can say that, to my untrained eye and ear, the movie has never looked better. What’s more, the two-disc 4K set is just as features-packed as previous Synapse releases and boasts what I think is every major cut of the film, including the 116 minute Italian version, with a mixture of English and occasional Italian dialogue, the 110 minute “international” version, and the much shorter, R-rated, 83-minute U.S. cut, under the title Creepers.

So far, I’ve only watched the longest cut on this edition, but I’m told that all three boast new 4K restorations, including lossless soundtrack restorations. Various additional material includes a feature-length documentary originally produced for the Arrow Video release of the film. If you already own Phenomena in high definition from one of its numerous previous releases, the question of whether the upgrade is worth it will probably come down to how strongly you feel about the film. But then, if you feel strongly enough about it, like I do, there’s probably not really even a question to begin with…