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.

Let's Get Brain Damage! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Basket Case is a weird, sort of independent horror classic, and most of his films are pretty fun.  But Brain Damage is my favorite Frank Henenlotter film.  And believe it or not, Arrow's new blu is its first time being released in HD.  But the old Synapse DVD was already pretty sweet (though its shiny silver cover doesn't scan so well, as you can unfortunately see above), so is this an essential upgrade or a "what I've got is already good enough" situation?
Brain Damage is a simple and fairly obvious story in a way.  A young man finds a small creature able to grant him on-demand elation and beautiful visions.  And it all it wants in return is for it to feed him human brains.  The drug allegory is obvious to the point of heavy-handedness, especially as our protagonist starts to develop withdrawal symptoms when he resists the creature's temptations.  But it's just so effectively and charmingly told.  Henenlotter caters to the cheap seats as much as ever here: in this film's most famous scene, a hooker goes to give a man a blowjob, but when she unzips his fly, a phallic monster pops out and chokes her to death.  But seeing Henenlotter's work on 35mm for a change, paired with the eye-candy hallucinations and a cool soundtrack, gives this film a real attraction.  And having TV's coolest ghoul Zacherley cleverly voice Elmer, cinema's most disgusting worm creature (sorry, Poltergeist 2), makes the movie downright delightful.
So Synapse released this all the way back in 1999, and it was a decent little DVD for its time, but quickly called out for an upgrade.  It wasn't even anamorphic.  So in 2003, they reissued it as a limited edition "1080P 24FPS HIGH DEFINITION D5 PREMASTERING" release.  It was still a regular DVD, though; so was compressed to SD, but it was using a high def master... essentially just like the DVDs that combo in blu-ray combo packs.  Anyway, it was certainly anamorphic and rendered the 1999 disc obsolete.  But now Arrow has come around to give us an actual blu-ray version.  And it's a combo-pack, so we can see if that Syanpse DVD really stands up.
2003 Synapse DVD top; 2017 Arrow DVD mid; 2017 Arrow blu bottom.
So yeah, it's clearly the same master, even including that little vertical line that runs through so much of the picture, and Synapse's 14 year-old DVD really holds up.  In fact, I think it's a teensy bit stronger than Arrow's DVD, which comes off a bit softer on detail.  But of course, the new blu is the strongest and clearest of all, being in true HD.  But it's far from a massive leap.  Unless you only have the 1999 DVD, in which case you'll definitely want to replace that.  But otherwise, it's just your minimal step forward from SD to HD.  That's not a knock on the blu, though, so much as it's praise for the old DVD, which already had a pretty cutting edge HD master for its day.  Though you'll notice that Arrow has hard matted the film from the 1.78:1 on the Synapse disc to 1.85:1 on Arrow.

And since I've seen the question raised online, I'll just add that the running time is eighty-five and a half minutes on both releases, and there's no difference at all in the content of the film between Synapse and Arrow.  I checked.

Also, when Synapse reissued Brain Damage, they added a new 5.1 mix (in addition to, not instead of, the original mono).  Well, Arrow's now carried both of those over (in DTS-HD and LPCM, respectively) and also added optional English subtitles.  So top scores there.
So Arrow's done a fine release, but if you've already got that Synapse limited edition, the real star is going to be the extras.  Syanpse had a couple nice features, most notably an audio commentary by Henenlotter, along with the author of the Brain Damage novelization(!) Bob Martin and indie filmmaker Scooter McCrae.   It also had an isolated music track, the trailer, and a fold-out insert with McCrae.  So, not bad, but Arrow turned it into a real special edition.

They've got an all new commentary by Henenlotter, with a moderator who he calls Mike Hunchback, a terrific hour-long documentary, an enthusiastic on-camera interview with effects artist Gabe Bartalos, a brief but interesting talk with assistant editor Karen Ogle, a fun featurette exploring the filming locations of Brain Damage, an interview with the stop motion artist Al Magliochetti, a 20-minute Q&A with Hennenlotter, a cute stop-motion animated short film featuring Zacherley, several Brain Damage-related songs (I don't fully know what the deal is with those; they're silly but not my kind of thing), the isolated score, several stills galleries, and the trailer.  What you should notice, though, is that it doesn't include the original audio commentary from the Synapse DVD; and while Henenlotter covers a lot of the same ground, of course, in his new one; it doesn't include Bob Martin, so fans might want to hang onto their old DVDs.  Arrow's blu does come in a nice slip cover and include a 32-page booklet with a lot of art and some liner notes by Fangoria veteran Michael Gingold, as well as reversible artwork.  Oh, and if you ordered this from Diabolik, you also got an enamel pin of Elmer.
So Arrow delivered a strong, first class release for Brain Damage.  But how imperative it is to upgrade will depend largely on whether you're an extras guy or not.  Because otherwise, Synapse's DVD holds up perfectly well (again, assuming you have the limited edition, not the original "Special Edition," which you should absolutely replace immediately).  But the extras are great and very well-rounded, with all the interviewees striking that ideal balance between entertaining and informative.  If you're on the fence about this one, I can confidently say you'll be happy with Arrow's release.

The Squid and the Whale, Finally From Criterion (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

I couldn't wait for this release to come out since Criterion first hinted at it in their newsletter.  And it was an especially long wait, because it was one of their New Years drawings, which can take a couple of years, as opposed to their usual hints, which usually come true in 2-3 months.  So I was really raring to go.  But when specs were finally announced and I read that they weren't carrying over the DVD extras, I lost some steam.  Then, when I read some early reviews suggesting that because this film was shot on 16mm it didn't really benefit from the HD upgrade, I climbed up on the fence and held off double-dipping.  But I'm glad I finally hopped off, because this is a first class release all around.
The Squid and the Whale is my favorite Noah Baumbach film.  His previous films were great (yes, I will defend Highball), but with this film he finds an added level of maturity, which he's maintained in his subsequent work, and a keen insight that may be stronger here than anywhere else.  In a way, it's well trod ground of two young brothers, including a young Jesse Eisenberg, coming of age.  But it's real strength comes from the brilliant, semi-biographical character of his father, played by Jeff Daniels.  Daniels has always been a terrific actor (Terms of Endearment, and great comedy roles like The Purple Rose of Cairo and There Goes the Neighborhood), but I don't think the world ever quite saw what he or Baumbach were truly capable of until this film.  It's a perfect merger of writing and performance, zeroing in on a real human life in a way very few films in history have ever managed.  We actually caught a glimpse of him before, in Kicking and Screaming, played by Elliot Gould; but here he's really fleshed out and brought to life.  It helps that Laura Linney strikes the perfect balance as a counterweight to all of his energies, and really his whole world billows out around him thanks again to Baumbach's writing (this script was nominated for an Oscar) and a strong supporting cast, including William Baldwin and Anna Paquin.
Sony originally put this film out on DVD as a new release in 2006, and it was a pretty strong disc.  Anamorphic widescreen, nice selection of extras.  But when it came time time to graduate to HD in 2012, all we got was a crummy Mill Creek double feature, where the same old master, with obvious tampering in post, was slapped on double disc along with Running With Scissors, shorn of its extras.  But thankfully, in 2016, Criterion finally came through to do the film justice.  And have they?
2006 Sony DVD on top, and 2016 Criterion blu below.
2006 Sony DVD left, and 2016 Criterion blu right.
So yeah, some very nice improvements here.  Criterion has done an all new 4k scan of the original negatives, and like I mentioned in the intro, there was some concern that 4k might not do all that much for a 16mm film.  Like, it wouldn't be one of those nice examples where signs in the background and text that was unclear would suddenly become readable... but as you see in the close-up above, that's exactly what happened here.  Sure, it's grainy, but actual image has been recovered as well.  The colors are a lot richer, too.  That tennis court and Owen Kline both look like they're fading away on the DVD.  You'll also notice that the DVD was slightly window-boxed (again, think old television overscan areas), which has been fixed on the blu, turning a strange 1.81:1 ratio to a proper 1.85, essentially revealing what's hidden under those vertical bars.

Sony gave us a solid 5.1 mix, plus optional English subtitles, and several language options (alternate English CC subs, French subs, and a French 5.1 dub track).  Criterion keeps it strictly English (sorry, overseas importers), but gives us a remastered 5.1 track in DTS-HD and optional English HoH subs.
So I was 100% relieved about the picture restoration, but here's where I still get a little grumpy.  Sony came up with some great special features for this release.  There's a photo gallery/ audio commentary by Baumbach where, because he says he doesn't feel comfortable completely analyzing the entire film, he talks for just over an hour over a series of film stills.  It's really insightful, and I have to admit, I don't miss him trying to stretch with "um"s and "ahs" just to meet the film's running time.  There's also a substantial (well over half an hour) film festival Q&A with Baumbach, the promotional 'making of' featurette, a crap-ton of bonus trailers (11), and a multi-page insert with the film's original LA Times review, and an article on the film from The New Yorker.
Well, Criterion carried over the vintage featurette, but that's it.  So holding onto the original DVD (or picking it up if you don't have it already) is unfortunately pretty essential for any serious fan.  On the other hand, Criterion did come up with some pretty terrific new extras of their own.  There's a new, on-camera interview with Baumbach that runs over 25 minutes, an all-too brief (under 8 minutes) interview with Jeff Daniels, a featurette interviewing Eisenberg, Kline and Linney, some original audition footage, and a short piece on the film's score, with Baumbach talking to composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips.  Oh, plus the trailer, which I'm surprised Sony forgot, and a substantial, 38-page booklet featuring an essay by Kent Jones and another Baumbach interview.
So, look.  I can't complain about anything Criterion gave us, it's all great.  A killer new transfer that exceeds expectations, souped up audio, and some terrific new special features that bring in the voices of a lot of key players left out of the DVD.  This is a must-have release of a must-have film.  It's just frustrating that this could've felt truly definitive if they'd've just licensed the Sony extras, too.  We should be able to chuck our DVDs at this point.  But oh well.  Don't make the same mistake I did and let it put you off upgrading.  Criterion's blu-ray definitely belongs on everyone's shelves.