Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS) [4K-Review]

Synapse Films present all three versions Phenomena in 4K-UHD

Dario Argento, the maestro of Italian horror. His creative peak was in the 70s and 80s with cinematic landmarks such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Tenebrae, and most famously Suspiria. One of his more offbeat ventures was Phenomena, releases in some markets as the heavily edited Creepers. Like Suspiria, this is a tale of a young American girl, who travels overseas and finds herself in nightmarish surrounds, only instead of witches we have murders, monkeys, telekinesis, and talking to insects.

The girl in question is Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly). Suffering from bouts of sleepwalking, she also contends with her mysterious emerging powers. Sent to a Swiss boarding school by her actor father, she finds herself in the middle of a spate of murders. Falling in with local entomologist, Dr. McGregor (Donald Pleasence) and his chimpanzee Inga, they look to unravel the mystery behind the brutal killings, before the killer strikes again.

A relatively simple plot, but one accompanied by absurdist, weird fare. We get not just a chimpanzee assistant, but Jennifer’s burgeoning telekinetic powers, and another ability to not only commune with insects, but control them too. A wacky device, handled with a grim weight, that is leverages into the murder mystery at hand, as well as fostering the bond between this young girl and the friendly neighborhood entomologist.

The screenplay by Argento and Franco Ferrini, is equal parts murder mystery (giallo-adjacent), horror, and psychological thriller. At times it feels like a rigg on Argento’s greatest hits, with him throwing many of his ideas into the mix. They manages to pull all these disparate elements together into something weird but cohesive, unless you watch the Creepers cut of course, largely by leaning into the investigative arc as a way to anchor the film. Argento’s mastery of mood is ever-present, with cuts, perspectives, and camera positions that build an unsettling tone, particularly in several set-pieces, notably those revolving around a killing or a dungeon location in the film’s finale. Connelly shows of that beguiling innocence her early performances are laced with, while Pleasance is always an absorbing presence on screen, even if he is confined to a wheelchair. The cherry on top is the killer heavy-metal soundtrack. A hypnotically entertaining feature.

The Package

A round of applause to Synapse films who offer up not just one, but all three editions of the film in 4K. Disc one houses the original Italian, clocking in at 116 minutes, the international cut (110 min), and the U.S. Creepers-cut (83 min) are on the second disc. The differences, notably the hacking up of the film for the Creepers release, is pretty well known amongst Argento fans. One of the extra features included on the release (below) does a very good job of explaining the various differences in the versions.’

These 4K restorations are notable step ups in quality from previous home video releases, and look akin to a rather pristine 35mm print I saw a few years ago. Blacks are inky and deep, colors have a natural palette but healthy representation. Details is where the 4K stands out, especially those shots zooming in on insects or facial features, of showcasing the foliage of the surrounding forests. Quality is consistent across the three versions, although the grain consistency looks a tad more natural and refined on the Italian cut. Extra features also impress:

  • Audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento (on Italian Version): A comprehensive commentary that not only gets into detail on the various cuts of the film, but Argento’s career in general. He’s pretty critical over certain aspects of the film, sometimes surprisingly so
  • Audio commentary on the international version by Argento scholar and author Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist and radio/television commentator David Del Valle: A more positive commentary, one that largely focuses on Argento’s overall career, and the recurring themes and aesthetic in his films
  • Of Flies and Maggots, a feature-length 2017 documentary produced by Arrow Films, including interviews with co-writer/producer/director Dario Argento, actors Fiore Argento, Davide Marotta, Daria Nicolodi and others…: A superb documentary that assembles a whole host of materials (including behind the scenes footage) and interviews from cast and crew, to sketch out the genesis of the film, on set issues, production problems, and the films release and legacy
  • The Three Sarcophagi, a visual essay by Arrow Films producer Michael Mackenzie comparing the different cuts of Phenomena: The featurette the breaks down not only the specific differences between the different cuts of the film, reasons behind it, and their personal preferences
  • “Jennifer” music video, directed by Dario Argento: An ‘original’ musical tale, using some of the talent from the movie. Looks to be upscaled
  • U.S. theatrical trailer and radio spots for ‘Creepers’:
  • Original Italian and international theatrical trailers:
  • Slipcover with new artwork from artist Nick Charge
  • Reversible cover featuring the new artwork, or the original Italian Phenomena art

The Bottom Line

Synapse films offer up a welcome 4K restoration of Phenomena, in all its forms. Visually resplendent, the extras are solid, although some included in previous release are absent. Even with that, it’s the best way to watch Arento’s absurd but enthralling blend of supernatural horror and giallo-esque murder mystery.

Phenomena is available from Synapse Films on 4K-UHD, via MVD, from March 14th

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