Phenomena Blu-ray Review
Arrow's track record with video transfers seems to court controversy with almost every release. In the past, I have been reasonably favourable towards them, just happy, I suppose, that they are bringing such taboo delights out on the format. But the trend for DNR is getting a little old-hat, now, and their scrubbing-up process has got to be rectified. Phenomena has had the wax-effect smack it, for sure. Grain has been wiped from the 1.66:1 AVC-encoded image, and the resulting blandness and smears are bound to aggravate those who want the original texture left intact. The picture is not a mess, throughout, and they are times when it looks very nice, but Arrow have been botching their quality control pretty badly of late. City Of The Living Dead suffered frozen grain, Deep Red had that nasty pixellated flare-up amongst other complaints, The Beyond had its sepia-tinted prologue totally mucked-up … and now Phenomena gets stripped down, colour boosted and struck with compression artefacts.
Although fidelity has been energised – the reds and the greens are certainly promoted – the image can yet be a touch withered and gauzy at the same time. Skin tones can vary, but the predominant hue is ruddy – the timing pushed towards the warmth of reds and pinks. There is a distressing appearance to Connelly at times. With that very pale face, there are times when it looks almost as though she has got a five o'clock shadow. You look when we see her head on the pillow as she drifts off to sleep. As attractive as she would be in more recent times, there are definitely films in which the high-def close-up does her absolutely no favours at all. Blood is nice and vivid. Other colours, such as the filtered lighting look appreciably vintage, but I saw no overt banding of over-saturation. Blacks are deep and solid, and become one of the better and more reliable elements in the image.
In spite of the DNR there are still some detailed shots on offer, such as the writhing maggots in a decomposing head and the copious close-up views of insects. The under-lit leaves and branches of the trees look quite nice, and there is a vivid quality to the massed insects swarming all over the school's windows. One or two shots, most obviously the notorious PR image of Fiore Argento's head going through the glass, look positively grubby and old and retain some thick, dirty grain – but this is how they have always appeared. The overall image, however, cannot escape the noise reduction process, despite the varying degrees with which it has been applied.
There is edge enhancement noticeable on the sides of buildings, particularly the school itself. The contrast flutters about during the scene when Jennifer follows the little glowing firefly – and, no, this isn't merely a result of the fly, itself – because it happens on a few other occasions too. There is a brief instance of aliasing during a slow panning across Jennifer's room, and other compression elements crop up at times such as when the antagonistic girls at the school all gang up on the insect-lover. I know I was looking for such things, but the smearing on some motion seen here is sure to catch the eye of even more casual viewers.
An inconsistent and often irritating transfer, I'm afraid folks.
Arrow and Cult-Labs present Phenomena with its original Italian and English audio tracks in LPCM 2.0, and not the Dolby Digital that the packaging states … which is something of a surprise and a disappointment, considering the sort of effects that could have been achieved with a lossless surround remix. This is an Argento film, for God's sake! Bring on the audio fireworks. Of course, this is just me being churlish. Phenomena arrives with the original source material, albeit cleaned-up, so we really can't complain, can we? Well … maybe we can. I applaud the insistence on bringing the full film to our attention, but this also means that when the English language elements have been lost (or simply never recorded in the first place), the track reverts to its original Italian, with forced subtitles. But the transition is not a comfortable one. There is an appreciable level of hiss on the English track which is dropped completely once we move into the Italian portions, and the initial shifts can also suffer from what sounds like drop-out. In the scene when Jennifer storms out of the brain-scan, the audio definitely does so a little too obviously as far as I am concerned. There is an even earlier moment when MacGregor is talking to the two detectives about the severed head retrieved from the water when the audio inexplicably trails-off into the ether for a second. It makes a film that already contains bugaboo dubbing and that Italian style of cluttered and/or barked line delivery all the more out-of-whack, as it were. Oh, and there's an audible pop on the track too, just when Jennifer leaves the school building during her second sleepwalk after her friend has just been killed.
The stereo width is rich and expansive. The film is full of whistling wind – the story makes a point of the Alpine air currents causing madness when they descend upon the area – and this becomes a wonderful element of the sound design. But you really wish that the effect could have been expanded-upon and given some sort of surround boost. As we hear it now, the wind through the trees sounds quite convincing, but the power of a wraparound enhancement could have been really something to savour.
The sound of the heartbeats on the track, for when Jennifer is asleep but about to go sleepwalking, are granted some considerable wallop and I found this to be very effective. The music, too, has some depth and some aggression to it, which can be a very mixed blessing, considering that the heavy metal tracks positively disrupt the flow of the film … and occasionally crash in from seemingly out of nowhere – to wit the removal of a body from a house whilst Jennifer looks on.
Depth and aggression or not, this is still a frustrating audio mix with a few errors to contend with.
By now, we know the formula with Arrow very well, don't we?
Reversible sleeves with original and specially commissioned artwork, a mini-poster, a collectible booklet of notes, and that lavish packaging that tends to dominate any collector's shelf.
But, truth be told, Phenomena doesn't get the same treatment as some of the label's other cult items when it comes to the actual features on the disc. For a start, we have no commentary tracks, which is a real shame. Argento-devotee, Alan Jones, wrote the little essay for the booklet and surely he would have been more than willing to lend his tonsils to a chat-track, even if Jennifer Connelly would have baulked at the thought … and dear old Donald is no longer with us.
However, kicking things off, we get another of those “good idea at the time” introductions to the main feature from a member of the cast or crew. In this case, makeup-man Sergio Stivaletti, provides a rather pointless and embarrassing usher-service.
Then we have a fairly comprehensive 52-minute making-of that brings in Argento, Stivaletti, Daria Nicolodi, Luigi Cozzi and a few others who talk about how the effects were achieved, how they filmed the insects and how they dealt with the chimpanzee. Argento gets to confess about using his daughters in his films, and usually placing them in provocative roles and situations, and we hear about the film's impact around the world. There's some reasonable stuff contained in this but, given its style, it possibly goes on too long and features too many clips.
Despite not having all that much to do with the film, other than composing its signature theme, Goblin honcho Claudio Simonetti gets to air his views on the production in a 6-minute featurette called Music For Maggots. Always likeable, the composer still seems to struggle with finding something worthwhile to say about this.
And Sergio Stivaletti gets his own featurette, entitled Creepers For Creatures, which comes in the form of a Q & A session hosted, of course, by the ubiquitous Calum Waddell, in which he discusses his career, his association with Argento, his effects and how he was inspired, and how he feels about the effects techniques that we see in films today. Great to see the guy … but, really, this is rambling and fairly devoid of anything of note. Once again, Mr. Waddell's twitching head and roving eyes become irritating.
This is not a very good selection of extras when compared to some of Arrow's titles, but it is great that some effort has still been made. It is apparent, however, that everything we see with Argento from the label has been culled from the same sessions … and, if you have been collecting these releases, it cannot help but become repetitive. To tell you the truth, I once relished the idea of visiting Argento's genre-store, Deep Red, but now I think I'm sick of the sight of the place. I sound very unappreciative and ungrateful, don't I? But it now seems as though these features have come as something of a job-lot, fancy animated titles or not.
Arrow bring another cult genre entry to Blu-ray with this region-free Blu-ray release of the full version of Dario Argento's Phenomena … though this one does not have the appeal of many of the other films from the Italian maestro of the macabre.
Dario's most deranged and dated plot, it may be, with some clumsy storytelling, poor acting, thoroughly unwanted music and sheer lack of convincing suspense or gore, but it is still leap years ahead of what the filmmaker has delivered in the last twenty or so years. Honestly, as bad as this movie seemed to be back when it was originally released – and I saw the full uncut version quite quickly after that viciously truncated English “Creepers” edition too – it is a masterpiece compared to Mother Of Tears or The Card Player. The thing is, it is never boring no matter how silly it becomes. And, looking at it now with eyes that have ignored it for well over a decade, I can really see some ambition and some neat ideas at work in here. Argento nicked some devices from other films of the era – Firestarter, The Dead Zone and Monkey Shines – but he seemed to reveal some heart and soul as well, particularly in his handling of the relationships between humans and insects and between humans and chimpanzees. Indeed, it is the non-human stars who give the best performances.
Sadly, Arrow's transfer has more than its fair share of problems. The audio is not the best it could be, I'm sure, and the image is blighted with unwanted digital manipulation. Extras-wise, this is light stuff and, as attractive as the whole package might seem, this is really only for completists who cannot wait for a better transfer to come along.
This is a disappointment, I'm afraid.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £24.99
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