Dario Argento's Phenomena: Arrow Raises the Stakes! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

In 2011, Arrow released Dario Argento's Phenomena on blu-ray in limited edition with a fold-out poster. In 2012, they released the combo-pack edition, and in 2014 they put out an exclusive steelbook through zavvi.com. No matter which version you pick up, though, the actual blu-ray disc is the same, and so is the booklet. And as you can see above, I've opted for the superior reversible artwork cover, rather than the more comic-booky side they face out. Oh, and that's Anchor Bay's DVD on the left, because you guess it, I'm going to do another comparison.

Update 1/27/15 - 5/26/17: It's becoming a pretty regular thing, as 2 and 4k scans are becoming more affordable, to see one DVD label reissue a blu-ray that was already been released on blu by another with a more modern, superior scan.  But you don't see too many labels replace their own blus.  But Arrow's done it.  Their 2012 blu is now being supplanted by a fancy, 3-disc limited edition release of a new 4k scan of all three cuts of the film.  But just how much of an upgrade is it - a massive overhaul or no big deal just marketed to sap suckers of their money? Oh, and you might be saying, come on, bro.  This was one of your very first posts where you posted .jpgs instead of lossless .png screenshots.  Those might be fine for basic comparisons, but in a hardcore blu vs blu comparison, where we'll be zooming in to hunt for macroblocks, you've gotta do better.  So, alright you hypothetical slave-drivers, you; I'm also taking all new .png screenshots of the previous three versions for 100% fresh comparisons.
In the special features (which we'll come back to), Dario Argento calls Phenomena his favorite of his films. I don't think it's mine, but you can see why he'd choose it. It's got high production values and combines earlier giallo stories with his later fairy-tale horror plots. It makes amazing use of insect photography, a strong interest of his, and and he got to use real, underage actors as his leads (Jennifer Connelly was just 13 when she shot this film), something he wanted to do in Suspiria, but had to compromise with adults playing school girls. It's got great effects - in fact, it's Sergio Stivaletti's first movie, and also utilizes some inventive opticals by his compatriot Luigi Cozzi - great music, utilizing both Goblin and major label rock songs, exotic Swedish locales and a great cast, including Connelly straight off of Once Upon a Time In America, Donald Pleasance, and of course a highly dramatic performance by Daria Nicolodi.
It's the story of a rich, American schoolgirl arriving in a foreign country to stay in an all-girls boarding school, where there unfortunately happens to be a killer on the loose targeting girls her age. Hey, that's exactly the same set-up as Suspiria! But the similarities end there, because this time the villains aren't witches, and in fact the supernatural aspect comes from our heroine, who has a psychic connection with insects. She teams up with a local entomologist (Pleasance) and his chimpanzee (no joke) to track down the killer before the killer tracks down them.  And discovering the killer only turns the proceedings more bizarre.
And Arrow presents the full, longest 116 minute cut of the film, which is great because I don't believe any of the trims from the other cuts benefit the film (although the differences between the two longer cuts are practically academic - it's not a drastic shift either way).  But, still, there are fans who prefer the other cuts; and now Arrow's 2017 Limited Edition release should satisfy everyone by also including the 110 International cut and the highly truncated, 83-minute Creepers cut, each on separate discs.  And all three cuts are presented in both English and Italian (with optional subtitles), however, since the full 116 cut was never entirely dubbed into English, 6 minutes of the 116 cut revert back to Italian even on the English track.
Now, to be clear, Anchor Bay released this twice on DVD (not counting the times they included the same transfer in larger boxed sets of Argento films): the original version in 1999, and a later 2008 reissue, which bumped it up to anamorphic and included an excellent new featurette as an extra.  I've got the 1999 one here for comparison, too, so we can see how far we've come.  And of the first edition Arrow blu-rays, I opted for the 2012 combo-pack, so we'll be looking at both a DVD and blu-ray from there.  And there new limited edition (limited to 5000 copies, to be precise) consists of three blu-rays, and they seem to all use the same master, but just to be thorough, let's look at shots from all three cuts, too.
1) 1999 Anchor Bay DVD, 2) Arrow 2012 DVD, 3) Arrow 2012 blu-ray, 4) 2017 Arrow Italian cut blu
5) 2017 Arrow International cut blu, 6) 2017 Arrow Creepers cut blu.
Every release is pillar-boxed to roughly the correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (Anchor Bay is more like  1.64:1, and the 2012 release is 1.67:1).  The old DVD is non-anamorphic, so it has that going against it; and the newer releases (even the 2012s) have clearly cleaned up dirt and damage, like the black mark on the upper right of the first shot above.  Arrow's 2012 has a curious blu push, and not just the dramatic night scenes, where Argento gives the scenes a lot of blue light.  Just look at the skin-tones in the shots above; I think this new 2017 blu gets it right.  Or, at the very least, it's the most natural.  Given Argento's creative use of colors and lighting, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the most correct timing.  But it certainly looks good.  And speaking of looking good, the new 4k scan definitely brings out grain and fine detail better than the 2012 blu.  Look at the green background in the first set of shots, for example.  The new blu has very naturalistic film grain, where it looks smoothed away on the older blu ...though not as badly as the Anchor Bay, of course, which has a lot of high contrast and other hallmarks you'd expect of an old 1999 DVD.  But going back to the blus, the 2012 colors have a flatter look to them, then the 2017 which is more lively.  In my early comparison between just the 2012 blu and the DVD, I wrote, "Arrow's dual-layered disc has obviously superior image quality and compression, while the DVD is clearly boosted, but at the same time, the blu could be a little more colorful."  Well, the new blu took care of that, too.

Oh, and yes, the three 2017 blus all do look indistinguishable from each other as we'd presume.  I mean, if you really get in close, different specs of grain pop up in different places, but nothing to elevate one in PQ higher than any other.
Now, the old Anchor Bay gave us English 5.1 and 2.0 mixes with no Italian or subtitle options (though there was a random French dub).  The 2012 Arrow blu took care of that, giving us both the Italian and English language options in uncompressed LPCM stereo, with freshly re-translated subtitles.  For this new limited edition, with multiple cuts, it gets a little more complicated but no less rewarding.  The 116-minute cut has the English (with a few minutes of Italian, as explained earlier) and Italian both in 5.1 DTS-HD and lossless PCM 2.0 stereo.  The 110 minute cut has the English in 5.1 DTS-HD and PCM 2.0, and the 83-minute Creepers cut has the English in lossless PCM 1.0 mono.  That's right, the 110 and 83 minute versions don't have Italian audio options, only the full 116 does, though all three still have optional subtitles.
Extras are interesting and even more complicated.  Arrow's 2012 blu also comes with a host of brand new extra features, however it doesn't port over any of the old Anchor Bay ones, and Arrow's 2017 has even more strong, new extras, but doesn't even port over their own 2012 stuff, let alone the Anchor Bay goodies. The original DVD's strongest asset was an audio commentary by Argento, Stivaletti and Goblin's Caludio Simonetti.  It's not perfect; there are semi-regular gaps of silence, and the three commentators are clearly edited together, not all in the room together.  Plus they're all struggling a bit with their English, so it's informative, but a little clunky.  Thankfully, there's a moderator.  The rest sort of felt like random odds and ends, mostly sourced from video... A short clip of Cozzi's World of Argento 2 documentary showing a clip about one of Phenomena's special effects. There was also two music videos, the trailer and a clip of Argento being interviewed on The Joe Franklin Show. So, I can see not going to the trouble and expense of releasing that stuff (though the commentary would've been nice).  The 1999 disc also featured an insert with additional artwork, and AB's reissue featured the best of all their extras, a seventeen-plus minute featurette which included great interviews with Argento, Nicolodi, Cozzi, Stivaletti, writer Franco Ferrini, Fiore Argento (who plays the killer's first victim), and director of photography Romano Albani.
Arrow's blu has a brand new documentary, though, which is pretty good. It's 50 minutes long (although a good ten or more minutes are spent on clips from the film we've just watched, as well as Arrow's animations) and includes Argento, Cozzi, Nicolodi (who's pretty frank not only about working with her ex-husband, but she takes a pretty strong shot at Ferrini), Stivaletti, and underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, There's also a separate interview with Simonetti, which is good, and two festival appearances by Stivaletti are edited together into one Q&A, which is still a little dry but has its moments. I'd say the new extras are at least a tie with the old extras, but both feel a little lacking for want of the other's. The two documentaries cover almost none of the same ground, and it almost feels like Arrow was consciously trying not to repeat anecdotes and details from Anchor Bay's, as if they were originally anticipating including their content in addition to the old stuff, rather than instead of.  Oh well.  Anyway, the 2012 blu also includes reversible artwork and an 8-page booklet by Alan Jones.
Arrow's new limited edition adds an all new expert audio commentary by Troy Howarth (on the 116 minute cut) to the table, which is quit informative and an enjoyable listen, though he does put down the film as "second shelf Argento" at times.  And even more excitingly, it replaces the 50-minute documentary with an all-new 2-hour one, which is even better, with fresh interviews with Dario Argento, Fiore Argento, Davide Marotta who played the monster kid(!), Daria Nicolodi, actress Fiorenza Tessari, Franco Ferrini, Romano Albani, production manager Angelo Jacono, Luigi Cozzi, Sergio Stivaletti, make up artist Pier Antonio Mecacci, Gianlorenzo Battaglia, Claudio Simonetti and Simon Boswell.  You can tell just by the bolding that they brought in several people all the previous releases neglected to talk to.  This is definitely the most comprehensive Phenomena coverage we've ever had, and frankly, it's about time.  There's also a great 30-minute featurette detailing the history and differences between the three cuts of the film, and the process involved in creating a new, more seamless English/ Italian audio hybrid track.  Plus, there are English and Italian trailers, the "Jennifer" music video (which Argento directed) and a "Japanese pressbook" stills gallery.  The limited edition comes in a nice, hard slipbox with two blu-ray cases, each with reversible artwork, and a 58-page book, featuring writing by Mikel J. Koven, Rachael Nisbit who I follow on Twitter because she has a great blog, and Leonard Jacobs.  And there's also a full soundtrack CD, which comes with its own insert for the track-listing and credits.
So it's a shame this new limited edition had to let the old extras go, but the new material is so comprehensive, you won't miss much of it unless you're just a completist who wants it all (which I absolutely understand).  I'll still hang onto my 2012 blu; but I think most fans who upgraded will feel comfortable letting it go once they've watched everything on the new release.  The old Anchor Bay commentary was still a nice treat, though, so you might want to hang onto that DVD still.  But otherwise, Arrow's new blu is easily and obviously the definitive winner, and probably even worth double-dipping if you have the 2012 blu, depending how big a fan you are of this film.  ...I feel kind of bad for Synapse, who spent years after Arrow's 2012 blu polishing that master into a cleaner and stronger looking blu for their recent steelbook release, which also included all three cuts, only to have Arrow come back around and trump them with this new 4k scan, and who also really killed it in the extras department, giving Phenomena the loaded special edition it deserves.  But enough people stay region-locked, I suppose, that both labels will do fine.  But if I was buying this film for the first time, there's no question it would be Arrow 2017 for me all the way.

1 comment:

  1. I love this edition of the film. I find it odd that Synapse released that steelbook last year and they used the older transfer. They couldn't do one of their own? Still, this edition is great and if people can find it for a reasonable price then they need to pick it up

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