Phase IV

| November 16, 2015

Even if film fans aren’t familiar with the name “Saul Bass,” chances are very good they have seen his work. Bass is best known for his work as a designer creating iconic title sequences for films, including three particularly memorable ones for Alfred Hitchcock’s films North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho. This work has had a major influence on film title and poster design that is difficult to overstate. But despite his reputation and talents, Bass only ever directed one feature-length motion picture. That film was Phase IV, a science fiction oddity that has gained a cult following since its release in 1974 and which has finally been released on Blu-ray by Olive Films.

The film is narrated by James R. Lesko (Michael Murphy), a researcher who has been sent to investigate a massive shift in the ecosystem of a desert area. Along with Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), Lesko is tasked with figuring out why the ants living in this area have suddenly began wiping out the animals that are usually their predators, as well as why they seem to be making aggressive moves on human dwellings. Cloistered in a geodesic dome, the men become trapped when the ants adapt to their chemical defenses and destroy their vehicle. A local girl named Kendra (Lynne Frederick) is trapped with them as well, and as Lesko attempts to communicate with the ants, Hubbs tries to figure out how best to attack them. With their radio out of commission and temperatures rising, the men engage in a desperate struggle with each other and against the ants.

Phase IV is an exceptionally strange film to have been released by a major studio. The first actual human actors aren’t even seen on screen until around the ten-minute mark, the opening scenes depicting life among ants after a cosmic event causes them some sort of evolutionary change. These sequences punctuate the film, and are breathtakingly shot. These sequences were shot by Ken Middleham, a wildlife photographer who had made a name for himself with his work shooting similar sequences for 1971’s The Hellstrom Chronicle. It seems likely that Bass or the producers of Phase IV had seen that film and brought Middleham on to the project as a result, and the sequences of the film that he shot inside the ants’ colonies are astonishing. However, any mainstream audience looking for a “killer ants” movie likely would have been perplexed by the methodical pacing, abstract visual storytelling, and careful attention to detail of colony life that opens the film. That attention to detail carries over into the work of Lesko and Hubbs, who spend a good amount of their on-screen time explaining what exactly it is they’re doing. There is a lot of information that the audience has to process, and Bass throws the viewer in the deep end and trusts them to keep up. The film’s excellent score, including electronic music by David Vorhaus (White Noise) and and Desmond Briscoe (co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), perfectly complements the strange happenings in the story but again may have been too alien for mainstream audiences.

Watching the film now, it seems obviously far ahead of its time while also being very much a product of the 1970s. This was a decade in which a number of thoughtful, intelligent science fiction films were made, and Phase IV is certainly a highlight among them. It is not surprising that the film has gained a cult following over the years thanks to its release on home video, where appreciative audiences keyed to its peculiar wavelength could find it and watch it over and over again. This new Blu-ray release from Olive Films is great, giving viewers the best look at the film possible, but it also suffers an unfortunate omission. Paramount Pictures distributed the film theatrically in 1974, and cut a closing sequence that was shown in preview screenings of the film before its theatrical release. While some footage from this sequence was incorporated into the film’s trailer, it was presumed lost after Paramount excised it prior to its release. In 2012 this footage resurfaced and the alternate ending was shown along with the film at select screenings. This footage is not included on the Olive Films disc, which has no special features at all. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that a restored version of the film with Bass’s intended ending will be released any time soon. Despite this disappointing omission, the Blu-ray of Phase IV is still the best presentation of the film on home video to date, and any serious fan of science fiction cinema who has not yet seen the film should track it down immediately.

Olive Films released Phase IV on Blu-ray and DVD on 27 October 2015.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium:
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