An image from Phase IV has stayed with me my whole life. I saw it on some long forgotten late night TV show when I was kid. It was inserted amidst a montage of other strange moments but for some reason this particular picture both terrified and mesmerised me.
The image was of ants crawling from a hole in a mans hand and it is this very same surreal and shocking snapshot that is displayed on the front cover of the new Blu-ray release of Phase IV from 101 Films the movie that contains that very visceral and vivid scene.
The 1974 Sci-Horror Phase IV is a film I had heard about since becoming entranced by that creepy clip and it is directed by Saul Bass best known for his work on the title sequences of movies such as The Man with the Golden Arm, West Side Story, Anatomy of a Murder and Psycho.
With a career spanning over 40 years Phase IV is the only feature film directed by this legendary Hollywood figure however it more than lives up to not only to Bass’s credentials as a master of imagery but my fears and nightmares from childhood.
Written by Mayo Simon the movie begins with a voiceover discussing Phase I, events in space which only had effects on one of the smallest yet most advanced species of animals on the planet, ants. From here we witness a mucked up nature documentary as the ants meet, unite and discuss their plans for out planet all leading to Phase IV.
Shot in extreme and sinister close ups, to ponder how these opening scenes where filmed befuddles the brain but somehow Bass manages to imbue the tiny insects not only with intent but also character and most importantly malice as we watch the machinations of these super evolved ants begin to play out.
It is 10 minutes before we see any humans and these are expert Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport from The Island of Dr. Moreau) and scientist James R. Lesko (Manhattan’s Michael Murphy) who have headed out to the desert to live in a research station and investigate the unexpected occurrences affecting the land around them.
Finding large farm animals have been eaten and giant square monolithic ant hills have been built the pair set about getting to the bottom of the insects baffling behaviour attempting to decode their language and uncover their objective.
Frustrated at a lack of interaction the foolish humans blow up the ant hills and this aggressive action starts a spiral that descends into all out war between the misguided men and advanced ants resulting not only in the loss of more livestock but the loss of their sanity and possibly their lives as well.
Brilliantly realised and perfectly plotted Phase IV is immensely unsettling from start to finish and unlike anything you have ever seen, slamming together elements of the atomic animal genre with a wildlife documentary and a heavy dose of the psychedelic psychology of Seventies cinema.
The only let down is the abrupt ending however this brilliant Blu-ray has you covered by bringing not only a whole host of extras including documentaries and a disc of Saul Bass’s Short Films but also the original ending which was vetoed by the studio upon release and long thought lost.
This far superior and far out hallucinatory climax delivers exactly the ending you would expect offering few answers but many more nightmarish visuals leaving the viewer even more confused and creeped out than ever.
Like ants crawling under your skin Phase IV will get inside your mind and stay there and thats why its such a powerful and poignant horror movie.