Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Insects Have No Politics: PHASE IV Review

My grandfather told me about this movie when I was a kindergartner. I specifically remember his recounting of the scene in which the MENSA ants make little rafts to sail across a moat of gasoline. It sounded like the most amazing thing ever committed to film. Anybody could make a movie about ants on a rampage (The Naked Jungle, Them, It Happened At Lakewood Manor a.k.a Ants! etc.) but it took a real genius to make a film about ants who were also geniuses.

That genius was legendary graphic designer Saul Bass. This is the same Saul Bass who worked with Alfred Hitchcock and invented the modern title sequence. It’s natural to attempt to try to visualize a film before it is viewed. I could not do that with Phase IV. How can you imagine a film about intelligent ants that is directed by the guy who did Jimmy Stewart’s Vertigo nightmare?

The plot is simple: scientists build a base to study strange ant activity in the Southwest. Along the way, they take in a young farmer’s daughter whose family was killed by yellow pesticides intended to deter the ants. Bass’ talent as a designer is in full swing here. The most effective scenes are dialogue free and appeal to a sense of unreality and inhumanity that is scary in a much more disorienting way than the traditional sense of dread carried by horror films. The insect photography is top notch. It’s only surpassed by the similarly themed The Hellstrom Chronicle. Ants live right beside us (there’s probably some in my kitchen now) which makes their alien nature so unnerving.

The cause of the ant’s new power is not a chemical spill or atomic radiation but something much more esoteric. It’s time for Earth to move to the next phase and a cosmic force has chosen the ants over the humans. If this sounds very Aquarian, it’s because it is. This is a film that is very firmly in the tradition of 1970’s eco-occultism. I remember and episode of In Search of…. with Leonard Nimoy about people who hooked lie ditectors to plants. Phase IV is of that era. Just look at the posters. This is a movie that made a lot more sense in 1974.

Even though the film is primarily visual, the central performances are strong enough to give a sense of urgency and realism to a pretty outlandish and hippy-dippy premise. Nigel Davenport plays the physically and mentally deteriorating scientist with a ruggedness not seen in many obsessed scientist roles. The great Michael Murphy (of Allen's Manhattan and Altman's Nashville) is the scientist who is simply trying to communicate with the ants so that humanity can be given a second chance. Lynne Frederick does not get much to do besides be terrified by the super-colony and but she provides a beautiful and innocent face that contrasts nicely to the black mandibles of the film's monsters.

Phase IV is not an extremely entertaining film. It can be dull and obtuse. There are portions where the camera lingers a little too long on ant hills. Also, there is a five minute strectch where the base's ant alarm is going off. It’s a godawful sound and I had to mute the TV. I was worried that my neighbors were going to complain. “Sorry, just watching a movie about mystical ants! Won’t happen again!” I do give the filmmaker's credit for boldly making the film so unpleasant.

It’s lens flares and hallucinogenic sequences can date film terribly. I almost expected Billy Jack to show up a start kung-fuing the ants. The film did wind up on and episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. This is not completely undeserved. The film's metaphysical pretensions only draw attention to the fact that at the end of the day it's covering the same territory as Bert I. Gordon. It's those pretensions and Bass' graphic compostions, however, that make Phase IV a forgotten classic. It is unusual to find an animal invasion film with such intellect and scope. The film is worth watching if only to see the master title designer tell his own story.

Watch the trailer!


  1. Jake: love the new blog! I must give this film another look, this time with Bass' work in mind as well as attempting a more sympathetic approach to the cosmic theory of evolution. My memory of this film is ant hills. Lots and lots of ant hills.

    I don't hold out much hope, though. I think the five minute alarm sound will crush me. Strange to admit, sustained, annoying sounds in film are a pet peeve. I recently purchased a republic serial call The Lost World which deals with a made scientists work harnessing the power of electricity for evil. The first episode is drenched in the heavy, loud crackle of ozone and electric arcs. I thought I was going to blow my brains out.

    Be that as it may, I am really enjoying your work here. -- Mykal

  2. Jake: PS Make that "mad" scientist. I'm not sure what a "made" scientist would be. Perhaps a scientist doing work for the Mafia?