Sunday, March 1, 2015

Phase IV (1974)

... aka: Phase 4
... aka: Phase Four

Directed by:
Saul Bass

Thankfully, not just another killer bug flick, this is an imaginative, unique, smart and stylishly-made gem. Something referred to only as "the effect" happens in space and it seems to have had an adverse effect on the Earth. Then again, maybe not. That's only a theory. Either way, there's been a recent, unexpected change in "the smallest and most insignificant" of the planet's species: the world's ant population. And that change seems well on its way to altering life as we know it. Sure, ants are small and easy to squash but when there are countless numbers of them, they rapidly reproduce faster than they can be killed, they're suddenly super-intelligent and they're all working in service of one common goal, that spells major trouble. Because of many unusual incidents in and around a small Arizona desert community as well as a threat of biological imbalance due to a recently dwindling number of ant predators, biologist Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), who first noticed and began documenting these ant changes, and information specialist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) are brought in to the area to investigate matters and attempt to curb the problem.

A small, entirely self-contained, dome-like experiment station with lots of high tech equipment is set up in the desert so the two scientists can immediately get to work. It doesn't take long for them to discover this newly evolved breed of insect is both extremely dangerous and extremely intelligent. One small bite from one of these ants is so toxic it causes as much swelling as a rattlesnake bite. They can strip other bugs and small animals down to a skeleton in a matter of seconds. They're smart enough to make their own booby traps, tear apart whole houses and sabotage equipment and vehicles; even disabling the air conditioning system and building rock formations to reflect light directly at the dome in an effort to overheat their equipment. They also prove to be resistant to nearly everything thrown at them, whether it be poison or high-pitched sound waves, by taking ant corpses back to the queen ant, who ingests them and then pops out a new batch of even stronger and more resilient worker ants that are immune to whatever had killed the previous ones.

Two of the major questions to arise are how the ants have gotten to this state and what (if anything) has caused it. The opening shot of the stars and mention of an anomaly in space, as well as a crop-circle formation found in a field and some bizarre Stonehenge-like rock formations, hint strongly at alien involvement, though the film goes a more vague route by never actually explaining it. Sometimes ambiguity works and sometimes it doesn't, but in this context it works extremely well because it only adds another layer to an already unique and intriguing central concept. The film is not only imaginative itself but also invites the viewer to use their imagination to connect the dots. While there were numerous killer animal / bug movies made in the 70s, none of them are quite like this one and they're seldom done with this much creativity and thought.

Phase IV is also really impressive in visual sense, utilizing excellent macro photography by noted wildlife photographer Ken Middleham to give these bugs fascinating close-up detail and bring us right into the underground world they inhabit. Great use is made of slow-motion as well as fast-motion of the ants quickly devouring various animals in their path. The ant scenes are also quite artfully and sometimes even beautifully shot through with color. There's lots of spellbinding imagery in here, like a yellow ant with a bright green abdomen standing on the edge of a tunnel lit with blue flashing lights. Watching the remastered version, the colors really pop in a strangely psychedelic and other-worldly kind of way. It's the ideal aesthetic choice for this kind of movie.

Director Bass (who passed away in 1996) is rightfully regarded as one of the best title-makers of all time, but it's a true shame this was his only feature-length film as director. It probably didn't help matters that it wasn't well-received by many critics in its day and was a box office flop, but what really crippled its chances more than anything else was distributor interference. The removal of the film's original ending; a fascinating and thought-provoking barrage of odd and surreal images depicting the "New Earth," was completely excised from the theatrical release and has yet to be reinstated. In other words, some doofus at Paramount decided it was wise to remove the entire "Phase IV" scene from Phase IV! That ending has since been found and screened separately, but has yet to be officially reinstated into any of the prints. Hopefully it will one day be because it's vastly superior to the non-ending in the 84 minute cut. The images below are taken from the original ending and currently not available on any of the DVD and VHS versions.

Lynne Frederick, a very pretty young actress who has a co-starring role as a teenage farm girl who ends up at the installation after her parents are killed, also starred in Hammer's Vampire Circus (1972) and Pete Walker's Schizo (1976). In 1977, she married actor / comedian Peter Sellers (who was over 30 years her senior) and, upon his passing in 1980, ended up retiring from acting after inheriting his entire fortune after just three years of marriage. Afterward, she became the subject of malicious tabloid gossip due to not sharing the inheritance with Sellers' three children (he supposedly was in the middle of divorcing her and re-writing his will when he died) and getting remarried just six months after his death. She struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction for years and ended up passing away in 1994 at the age of just 39.

Phase IV was (undeservedly) riffed on a very early 1989 episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 when it was still in the early cable access days, but has since gone on a decent cult following. A novelization of Mayo Simon's screenplay written by Barry N. Malzberg was also released as a tie-in with the film.

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