Man vs. Nature never turns out well in horror; certainly nothing past the ‘50s terrors of looming lizards/shellfish caused by radiation/radiation. And while the ‘70s switched the vibe into eco-horror (Frogs, Night of the Lepus, Benji), the genre never lost sight of the nagging realization that when we push against the elements, they push back hard. So it is with Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974), a weird and riveting sci-fi thriller that proves (as if it was needed) ants are way smarter than man.
Released in the U.S. in September by Paramount, Phase IV was not a financial success, and only inspired middling critical thought, at best. Lying somewhere between 2001’s cosmic tone poem and a Bert I. Gordon schlocker, audiences chose to ignore the cerebral looking for a visceral experience that isn’t really there; nevertheless, this uneasy mixture results in a unique experience far apart from other When Animals Attack films.
The film opens with a voiceover from our film’s hero, James Lesko (Michael Murphy – Strange Behaviour), informing us of a strange planetary alignment resulting in unusual behaviour from ants in Arizona; every subspecies has banded together to eliminate their natural predators, such as snakes (aww) and spiders (good riddance). Onto the scene come Lesko and Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport – The Island of Dr. Moreau), who set up a geo-dome in the middle of the desert to research the why of the ants’ increasing domination, before dusting the area with a yellow poison in the hopes of decimating the species. (I know what you’re saying – why even study them if you’re going to kill them? Because science. And running time.)
Lesko and Hubbs visit the farm of the only remaining family in the area, Mr. and Mildred Eldridge and their granddaughter Kendra (Lynne Frederick – Schizo), and tell them to leave before they start spraying. The Eldridge clan will have none of it, naturally; and while nothing could possibly go wrong with their gasoline-filled moat surrounding the property, Kendra does end up bunking with Lesko and Hubbs in their half buried golf ball. And while the men of science are busy testing the ants’ fortitude and intelligence, the ants are testing them…
Phase IV (the film clocks the ants’ lording over mankind in phases, from “ouch, it bit me” to “can I get you another leaf, my Queen?”) wants to have it both ways; not content with just cheap and easy shocks, it takes a philosophical stance but without any answers: the why remains a mystery. If it was strictly Bugs Gone Wild, there would be exposition dumps peppered throughout; administered no doubt by Davenport’s humorous homage to a Quatermass scientist, which is at odds with Murphy’s oh so earnest portrayal of Lesko. They’re both good, with each one representing the clashing tones of the film well; if the film had blended its disparate intentions, it would lose a lot of its idiosyncratic qualities that make it stand out. It’s Saul Bass’ messy but mesmerizing vision that ultimately holds it together.
While this was his only feature length film, Bass did make a couple of shorts in the ‘60s to wet his beak; but of course that was not what he was known for. Being a graphic designer, Bass created posters, titles and title sequences for little known films such as North by Northwest (’59), Psycho (’60), West Side Story (’61), through and up to Goodfellas (’90) and Casino (’95). His title sequences brought movement, colour, and captured the atmosphere of what was to unfold in a way that hadn’t been done before; suddenly the story could start as soon as the curtain arose. His visual mastery is key to Phase IV’s success; when your antagonists can’t be heard, you’d best make sure they’re seen.
The visuals store all of Phase IV’s juice. Working in conjunction with Ken Middleham, noted for his micro-photography for pseudodoc The Hellstrom Chronicle (’71) and several National Geographic specials, the two offer an extremely close look at the ants and their workings that is eerily discomforting; put into the context of the story their actions come across as believable in parts, even if screenwriter Mayo Simon (Futureworld) can’t resist giving the ants mind control abilities over other critters (beware the grasshoppers!). Again, this can be swept into the Big Pile of Why that accumulates by the end of the film. It’s not Science Fact, folks.
But that’s how Bass treats it, however, with nary a smile or wink to be found in these direst of circumstances; understandable from his end – he seemed to be making a statement on the foibles of man and selfish behaviour – but undercutting any enjoyment from audiences seeking, you know, a killer ant movie. The pleasures are there though; you just have to appreciate his approach.
Alienating the viewer even more is an ambiguous ending that Bass had no control over (mandated by the studio) with two of the protagonists pondering what the ants will do next. His original (and discarded) ending, however, makes very clear what happens and it is truly chilling; our protagonists lead the audience through the ants’ new dominion, a claustrophobic, psychedelic nightmare as people are desensitized, homogenized, and compartmentalized into massive ant hills. It’s a shame that Paramount chickened out; if you’re going to bring the horror, fucking bring it.
Still, Phase IV’s odd potpourri of heady thought, bizarre visuals, and triple bill thrills works so well that it’s a shame Bass never directed another feature film; I’m sure if he had his druthers those Paramount executives would have ended up under the care of the blessed Queen. Speaking of: another leaf, m’ lady?
Phase IV is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: JENNIFER (1978)