‘Phenomena’ Looks Phenomenal [4K Review]


Dario Argento’s ability to craft captivating aesthetics and arresting visuals will be studied and lauded by genre fans until the end of time… but with few exceptions I find the stories and narrative directions are often muddied. His films embody the mood of horror, presenting its essence in such fantastic ways that brilliance is an easy distraction from the plotting. Taking the film, Phenomena (1985), as an example we see imagery of the Swiss countryside, an imposing all-female academy, moonlit forests full of night terrors, a killer’s POV through which numerous people die brutally—everything looks gorgeous.

But for a film about a young girl who can talk to insects that massive revelation is only marginally exploited, no doubt due to budgetary reasons more than anything. Argento offers up some insane ideas and lets his story go wild but these elements don’t quite blend into something cogent.

Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) is the daughter of a famous actor who has been sent to live at a Swiss all-girls academy. There she resides under the watchful eye of Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi) who appears to have no tolerance for the young women there. Unbeknownst to anyone, Jennifer has the ability to communicate with insects via telepathic link. She’s also prone to sleepwalking, and during a somnambulant episode, she witnesses a student being murdered before she falls from a roof and flees into the woods.

There she meets Inga, pet chimpanzee to entomologist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence). When McGregor meets Jennifer he notices she shares a link to the insect world. There is a killer on the loose, and McGregor theorizes them to be a necrophile, leaving a biological trail of maggots that in theory could lead to whoever is behind the murders. Jennifer then becomes an ideal partner to the wheelchair-bound McGregor, who theorizes her skills could prove valuable to the hunt.

Despite the story not engaging me in ways I would have hoped I admire how Argento swings for the fences. It would be easy to realize Jennifer’s psychic link to the insect world today, thanks to CGI. But back in 1985, it took a fish tank and a pound of coffee grounds just to create a swarm of flies covering the academy’s walls. The best thing about the film, thankfully, is the lead.

Jennifer Connelly’s character is young but far from naïve and hardly a pushover. She’s got wit and bravery, often speaking her mind succinctly regardless of how it will be received, and her kind heart makes her an ideal ally to all animals. This was Connelly’s second role ever —her first was working for another famous Italian, Sergio Leone, on his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America (1984)—though you’d never know it because she oozes the confidence and charisma of a pro. She has no problem holding her own against a screen vet like Donald Pleasence, who pulls off a convincing Scottish accent in his limited role.

Music is often a highlight of Argento’s movies and he once again employs Goblin, with the group delivering a fantastic, electrically-charged score that ratchets up tension and quickens the pacing. But what doesn’t work quite as well is Argento’s decision to use modern source music. For example, there’s a killer chasing a woman through an abandoned building while Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” is blaring through the speakers. Great track but it doesn’t feel fitting at that moment. Similar heavy metal music comes in at odd moments and the movie practically turns into a music video. I could understand if these tracks were used during, say, a scene in a nightclub or playing from a stereo in someone’s room. But they come in and out at inopportune times and do not vibe with the scenes at all.

Issues aside, I still had a good time watching this because Argento knows his audience and feeds directly into their desires. The murders are rough as always (man, those actresses must have been exhausted from all that screaming) and the killing blows look devastatingly brutal. There’s only one kill I don’t like, that of a main character, not because they die but because of how slow and lame the death is. There’s also the usual twist on who is killing and why and I wish we’d seen more of that person because it’s an unsettling visage that’ll stick with you long after the credits.

The Swiss country is beautiful and although Argento doesn’t shoot in full-on scope he still manages to capture the majesty of these sweeping plains and mountains. Likewise, the nighttime scenes feel supernatural thanks to plenty of blue lighting and claustrophobic settings. And again, Goblin delivers some A+ scoring. I find all of this a testament to Argento, that even with an average story his style is so strong it overcompensates for any shortcomings.     

One area in which you won’t find a single shortcoming is the video quality. Synapse has created a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative and the results are incredibly good. The 1.66:1 2160p image is about as close to flawless as they come, with the ultra HD resolution wringing every bit of color and detail from the 35mm frame. I was constantly in awe of how good this image is, right from the opening frames showcasing the lush green hillsides and flowing water. There is a close-up of a bee that provides such incredible details you can see the individual hairs that make up its coat.

Nighttime scenes are no slouch either, with optimal definition evident even when the killer is chasing someone under the cloak of night. I can’t even recall seeing a single shot that appears unfocused or hazy. Synapse can always be counted on to do the highest quality restoration work and this is yet another fine example.

For the film’s Italian version an English/Italian hybrid DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that delivers what is mainly a good dub, with a few portions only available in Italian with English subtitles due to a loss of elements. Audio has never been a strong suit of Italian horror but Synapse does a fine job of balancing levels and providing a relatively clean soundfield. A few instances of echo-y dialogue sound a bit annoying but there’s nothing so egregious it ruins the experience. Goblin’s score soars with the lossless audio. Additional English and Italian 2.0 and 5.1 options are available.

Disc 1 features an audio commentary with author Troy Howarth, the gargantuan 2017 documentary “Of Flies and Maggots” that runs for two hours, a “Jennifer” music video directed by Argento, along with a couple of trailers (Italian and International), and a digital version of the Japanese press book (there’s some awesome art).

Disc 2 contains the two alternate cuts of the film—an International version and the U.S. Creepers cut (with an alternate 2.0 sound mix). There is also an audio commentary with Derek Botelho and David Del Valle. “The Three Sarcophagi” is a featurette that examines the differences between the three cuts of the film. Finally, a U.S. theatrical trailer and some radio spots round out the extras.  

Special Features:

NEW 4K RESTORATION of the original 116-minute Italian version, the 110-minute international English version, and the 83-minute U.S. “Creepers” version from the original camera negative by Arrow films



  • Lossless Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks, derived from the original 4channel Dolby Stereo elements
  • Lossless “hybrid” English/Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack*
  • English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the hybrid soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento
  • Of Flies and Maggots, a feature-length 2017 documentary produced for Arrow Films, including interviews with co-writer/producer/director Dario Argento, actors Fiore Argento, Davide Marotta, Daria Nicolodi, and Fiorenza Tessari, cowriter Franco Ferrini, cinematographer Romano Albani, production manager Angelo Iacono, special optical effects artist Luigi Cozzi, special makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, makeup artist Pier Antonio Mecacci, underwater camera operator Gianlorenzo Battaglia, and composers Claudio Simonetti and Simon Boswell
  • Archival interview with Andi Sex Gang musician Simon Boswell
  • Original Italian and international theatrical trailers
  • “Jennifer” music video, directed by Dario Argento
  • Japanese press book gallery


  • Lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks on the international version, derived from the original 4channel Dolby Stereo elements
  • Lossless English PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack on Creepers, mastered from the original 3 track DME magnetic mix
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary on the international version by Argento scholar and author Derek Botelho and film historian, journalist, and radio/television commentator David Del Valle
  • The Three Sarcophagi, a visual essay by Arrow producer Michael Mackenzie comparing the different cuts of Phenomena
  • US theatrical trailer
  • US radio spots
  • Phenomena
  • Special Features


This is the penultimate film from Argento’s golden years and the crazy story and mesmerizing visuals still show the Italian master was operating near the top of his game. Synapse’s 4K release is a stunner, with demo-worthy video quality and powerful audio options, making the decision to upgrade your existing release (or for first time buyers) an easy one.

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