Thursday 26 February 2015

Phase IV

Title: Phase IV
Director: Saul Bass
Released: 1974
Starring: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, Alan Gifford, Robert Henderson, Helen Horton

Plot: A cosmic event has the effect of mysteriously evolving ants which leads to them developing a hive mind. Now scientists James Lesko (Murphy) and Ernest Hubbs (Davenport) have set up a lab in the Arizona desert to study the ants who threaten to take over the local area.

Review: February might be “Women in Horror Month” but equally important is that it also sees my good friend and occasional podcast co-host Emily over at “The Deadly Doll’s House of Horror Nonsense” celebrating her 5th Annual shortening. A cross blogging event celebrating all that is vertically challenged, so what better excuse could I really need to revisit this film.

Originally I saw this film back was I was a kid as part of a double bill which also included the equally surreal “Fantastic Planet”. This of course was more down to TV scheduling than my parents being the kind of free thinkers who took their kids to surrealist film double features, even if it was my dad who being was responsible for taping the films in the first place. Since that original viewing there was unquestionably something which stuck with me about it, so I knew it was only a matter of time before I revisited it here on the blog.

The sole film to be directed by the acclaimed designer of countless film title sequences and posters, it remains a curiosity to say the least as director Bass teamed up with wildlife photographer Ken Middleham who previously handled the insect sequences for the documentary “The Hellstrom Chronicle” to produce a film which is probably unlike any of the other Wildlife gone rouge movies which came before or which certainly followed and certainly worlds apart from the other ant movies such as "Them!" and "Kingdom of the Ants".

Unlike so many of the Wildlife gone rouge movies this film plays things very smart from the start as it opens with some trippy visuals of the solar event listed as the first of the “Phases” as we soon see the ants coming together in a mini Ant United Nations to put aside whatever differences it is that ants have and start working together, forming huge columns in the desert and hunting the animals which would normally prey on them, as seen with a swarm of ants descending on a spider. All the ant sequences Middleham shot using real ants, making it only all the more remarkable some of the footage that he captures here as he gives the ants a personality let alone has them performing in some remarkable sequences which I’m still stumped as to how he pulled them off.

Setting up their dome shaped lab in the desert the two scientists have very different approaches to the work with Lesko trying to adapt his methods for communicating with whales in an attempt to establish a communication with the ant’s hive mind, using messages coded in mathematics, which generally translates to a lot of constant chattering noise from the ants, while Lesko spends his time looking at various screens of wavy lines or print outs of shapes which he takes to be the ants attempting to communicate. Hubbs meanwhile constantly feels himself being pressurised to deliver results from his superiors frequently leading him to take more direct action against the ant colony in an attempt to stir up more of a reaction, because we all know how well that tends to end up. Things for Hubbs also take an Ahab style turn after he gets bitted by one of the ants, causing his arm to grotesquely swell up while sending him into an ever more delusional and irrational state.

The ants meanwhile prove to be frequently resourceful bunch capable of adapting to any situation the scientists throw at them, even rapidly evolving to become immune to the pesterside sprayed around the lab. At the same time their superior numbers see them tackling anything they consider a threat in skin crawling swarms which could not be truer than when it comes to the demise of one of the characters here which proved to provide the same sense of ill-ease that it did when I first watched and most likely to be the one which sticks with you after the film ends even despite it being filled with so many beautifully shot sequences which really benefit from Bass’s visuals focused style.

While this might not be the most action packed of films, it does have a number of great set pieces such as the ants getting past petrol filled trenches via the use of a log raft or lining up their dead like a world war one field hospital following the collapse of their towers at the hands of Hubbs. At the same time the film is visually stunning despite the spare location which see’s Kenya standing in for the Arizona desert, though why Base choose to shoot here is unclear. The barren desert shots and space ace style dome lab really project a sense of isolation and claustrophobia especially when the ants start to build towers around the lab to increase the temprature or by infiltrating the lab and starting to sabotage the lab equipment. This tension is only added to by the rapidly crumbling mental state of Hubbs so that you truly get the feeling that your part of the situation. Ironically the titular phase IV would end up on the editing room floor leaving us with a rather open ending, rather than the more trippy and fantastical ending that was originally planned seeing the surviving characters being altered to form the next evolutionary step between humans and insects. Shots for this scene would appear in the trailer but even without this ending the film still ends pretty satisfactory if maybe slightly more sudden than you would like.

The film might be low on gore and action but this is still a highly watchable film and one which deserves its cult status, especially when other animals gone rogue movies leaned toward the more preposterous. Here Bass shows that with you can still keep things grounded in a sense of reality without the film being any less effective.

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