Phase IV (1974) dir. Saul Bass
Starring Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy and Lynne Frederick
Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw
“Phase IV” is a nifty, creepy ecological sci-fi thriller that keeps one engrossed from beginning to end in spite of occasional, though rather glaring flaws that could have dragged the film down quite a few notches if it had been directed by anyone other than Saul Bass. In fact, the movie is so good, it is almost overshadowed by the single question it raises which is – why the hell did Saul Bass only direct ONE feature film?
Well, in spite of winning an Oscar for the very cool and supremely unconventional short film “Why Man Creates, “Phase IV” was, and still is, a criminally neglected and forgotten picture. Misunderstood and mishandled by Paramount Pictures upon its theatrical release it has also been conspicuously absent on DVD until the recent Legend Films release of numerous titles that Paramount seemed curiously ambivalent about releasing themselves. Thankfully, though, Legend has picked up this slough of interesting titles and in particular, “Phase IV” can now be seen and enjoyed by the few of us who enjoyed it upon its original release and hopefully a hell of a lot more.
A variation on the “big bug” creature features of the 50s, one might call it a “small bug” creature feature in that the villains are not oversized tarantulas and preying mantises, but rather – ants – yes, I kid you not, ants.
Billions upon billions of ants that have, in a remote corner of an Arizona desert and due to a strange interplanetary phenomenon, merged into a central force of thought and destruction bent on ascending to the very top of Earth’s food chain. But in spite of this seeming doom and gloom creature feature premise, “Phase IV” is a quiet, deliberately paced and, at times cerebral picture – reminiscent of Robert Wise’s strangely clinical adaptation of “The Andromeda Strain” and the 1971 release of “The Hellstrom Chronicle” (Walon Green and Ed Spiegel’s riveting mock documentary about insects taking over the Earth).
The delightfully named principal character, one Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (zealously brought to life by Nigel Davenport) teams up with James Lesko (Michael Murphy), a young statistician and computer scientist. Together they set up a small research base in the desert to keep a watchful eye on the rather odd behaviour of several colonies of ants. Given the power to evict a family living nearby, they begin a series of experiments that very quickly suggest that the ants not only have rational thought but also communicate via the universal language of mathematics. As ridiculous as this sounds, the visually sumptuous attention to detail through macro-photography, stop-motion and some really cool optical effects allows us to suspend disbelief and, for most of the picture’s running time engage in the mechanics of screenwriter Mayo (Marooned) Simon’s oddball plot. Where the picture occasionally falters is in some of the more stilted dialogue shoved into the mouths of the characters and the weird presence and performance of the stunningly gorgeous, but mind-numbingly inept Lynne Frederick (real-life squeeze of Peter Sellers).
But when Saul Bass trains his eye on either the ants or the scientific gymnastics of the two men, “Phase IV” is a real treat. Bass, of course, is best known – not as a film director, but as the graphic designer responsible for such memorable title sequences as “Psycho”, “The Man With The Golden Arm”, “Vertigo” and, among numerous others, “Casino”. His frame compositions in this picture are nothing less than masterful and at times, come close to being worthy of the best of Kubrick. Alas, the ideas under the surface of the narrative become such a cerebral jumble that not only do they come close to making the more obtuse moments of “2001: A Space Odyssey” seem clear as day, but occasionally one is tempted to give up in frustration since the film occasionally veers from brilliant to moronic.
Finally, though, the uneven quality of the picture is more than obscured by Bass’s visual panache and once in awhile, “Phase IV” is blessed with images so horrifying and creepy that one realizes just how important Bass must have been to Hitchcock during Psycho. Many of the key set pieces in Hitchcock’s masterpiece were storyboarded by Bass and Phase IV has some visuals that evoke similar feelings of revulsion. I will never forget, for example, a horse’s whinnying - sounding like shrieks of pain coming from an inquisition torture chamber as its body is covered with millions of swarming, munching ants and the look of horror on the face of the young owner of the horse as it is shot to death in order to end its suffering. Nor will I forget the creepy sight of an outstretched hand of a dead man as thousands of ants pour out of a gaping hole in the palm. Nor will the sight of several towering monolith-like anthills surrounding the remote research base ever leave my memory.
“Phase IV” is replete with such strange and horrific images that finally, its not only a picture worth seeing, but one that instills feelings of regret that Bass never made more films as a director. If he had, he might have not been able to create some of the most astounding titles sequences in motion picture history, but motion picture history might have been blessed with a few more masterworks. As it is, “Phase IV” is a work that stands more as a testament to the promise of Saul Bass as a director, but sometimes just imagining what might have been is a worthy substitute for what actually is or was or could have been.
Until another life, or at least until the ants take over, dreaming will have to do.
“Phase IV” is available on DVD from Legend Films.