Monday 21 March, 2011 14:59
Note: Time constraints prevent me from doing a full review of PHENOMENA, as I have done for other recent Argento BD releases like INFERNO, TENEBRAE and DEEP RED. At some point in the future I might come back and add some thoughts on the extras (once I’ve had time to watch them). For the time being, though, I’m going to concentrate on the image quality.
The film: I consider PHENOMENA to be my Dario Argento “guilty pleasure”. Although nowadays Argento’s “golden period” is considered to stretch from DEEP RED in 1975 to OPERA in 1987, with PHENOMENA fitting comfortably under that umbrella, the press wasn’t exactly kind to it when it was originally released, and seems to have been held up by more than a few as proof that Argento had lost it (a sentiment that has since been echoed every time a new Argento film has come out).
It has a reasonable claim to being Argento’s craziest film, an ill-disciplined, kitchen-sink affair combining the supernatural elements and girls’ school setting of SUSPIRIA with the more conventional logic of gialli like DEEP RED and TENEBRAE. It’s not exactly a comfortable mix, and a liberal sprinkling of heavy metal doesn’t do anything to make the film more cohesive, but it somehow works all the same. That’s largely thanks to a young Jennifer Connelly’s engaging screen presence (it’s actually helpful to think of this as the less child-friendly evil twin of LABYRINTH, released a year later), the wonderfully evocative atmosphere of the “Swiss Transylvania”, and a no-holds-barred bat-shit crazy third act. The latter somehow manages to make the at times meandering and inconsequential first 90 minutes worth sitting through… and let’s face it, it’s got a razor-wielding chimp, Donald Pleasence doing an awful Scottish accent, and Jennifer Connelly communicating telepathically with bugs! As such, I can fully understand those who consider this their favourite Argento film, even if in my opinion it’s a long way from the grandeur of SUSPIRIRA and DEEP RED, or his next (and last truly great) film, OPERA. 8/10
Image quality: This is PHENOMENA’s high definition debut, and after having watched more DVD copies of the film than I care to count, I feel reasonably confident in stating that it’s a step forward in some respects and a step backward in others. It looks slightly less contrasty than its predecessors, and in terms of colour palette seems to fall somewhere between the heavily blue-tinted look of the Anchor Bay (US) and Imagica (Japanese) DVDs and the more natural-looking Medusa (Italian) release. Detail varies quite a bit, with some shots - particularly static ones - showing a decent amount of fine detail, but for the most part it’s not great. As far as I can tell, this largely stems from the application of overzealous grain reduction. It’s hard to tell whether this was on the master or something Arrow added themselves, but knowing that they grain reduced INFERNO themselves (or rather paid for an outside firm to do it), I have my suspicions.
In any event, the grain reduction has a seriously detrimental effect on the texture of the film, frequently giving the image the look of a watercolour painting (see Example 5). The striking Alpine landscapes become fuzzy and indistinct, and in a number of shots the grizzled Donald Pleasence looks like he has the skin texture of a man half his age. But none of this compares to the absolute havoc the grain reduction wreaks on shots with particularly rapid camera movement, such as the “we worship you” chant when the other pupils gang up on Jennifer. Here, the artefacts became so bad that I actually ended up rewinding the BD and going through it frame by frame because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing (see Example 12). Bear in mind that, while Example 12 is a particularly severe demonstration of the effect, it’s far from an isolated incident and simply hammers home that whoever applied the grain reduction wasn’t paying attention to what they were doing.
This is the only HD release of PHENOMENA currently on the cards, so I suspect a lot of people will want to pick it up regardless. However, I felt incredibly short-changed by this presentation, and didn’t get much pleasure out of watching it because I was constantly distracted by the destructive grain reduction. It’s sad when a DVD release from a decade ago looks more film-like than a just-released BD, but that’s unfortunately how things are. That’s not to say that the BD of PHENOMENA looks worse than its standard definition predecessors - the improvement in detail puts paid to that - but I constantly found myself thinking about how much better it could have looked if it hadn’t been mangled by overzealous technicians. 5/10
studio: Arrow Video; country: UK; region code: ABC;
codec: AVC; aspect ratio: 1.66:1
PS. It’s worth pointing out that this is the full-length 116-minute “integral” cut of the film rather than the 110-minute English-language export version released by Anchor Bay. The differences between the two cuts are too numerous and minute to list here, but there’s a great guide over at Dark Dreams. Suffice it to say that, with so many (around 75) differences, many amounting to a frame or two here and a frame or two there, conforming the English language audio track (which was created for the 110-minute version) to the 116-minute version was no small feat. (Where no English audio exists, the film drops into Italian with English subtitles. Because most of the cuts were little more than slight trims at the beginning and end of shots, this only happens a handful of times - it’s nowhere near as frequent as in DEEP RED.) On the whole, Arrow have done a good job, but there are a number of instances where the music unavoidably skips and repeats itself, and I also noticed at least two instances where dialogue that was in English on every previous English-language DVD inexplicably dropped into subtitled Italian here (these can be found at around 00:19:00 and 00:26:00 - there could well be more). It’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but a slightly perplexing one.