PHASE IV 1973 (released in 1974)
Nigel Davenport (Dr. Ernest Hubbs), Michael Murphy (James Lesko), Lynne Frederick (Kendra Eldridge)
Directed by Saul Bass
The Short Version: Astonishing science fiction film foretells a potential Armageddon at the pinchers of millions of super intelligent species of ants, the product of a mysterious cosmic occurrence. Two scientists--one wishing to study, the other wishing to destroy--attempt to thwart the impending doom of mankind. Incredible visuals accentuate this confounding, if spine-chillingly unusual entry in the 'Animals Attack' sub genre. Impatient and easily distracted viewers should look elsewhere, but those with some time to ponder what's transpiring onscreen might find the proceedings enlightening.
An unknown cosmic event hits the Earth. Predicted to have almost cataclysmic results, the effects to the planet seem insignificant. However, the rays from space have an extraordinary effect on various species of ants. They begin to think, make plans and eventually wage war with mankind. An ecological imbalance is discovered in an Arizona desert location with the eradication of beetles, scorpions and spiders--creatures that feed on ants. Two scientists are dispatched to an isolated location specially built so as to study the escalating and potentially devastating problem in an effort to quell the onslaught of this new super intelligent breed of ant.
"...their ability to adapt genetically. I believe that after this test run they'll move rather quickly into desert areas taking over the countryside first then laying siege to towns and cities. I believe they will learn as they advance...anticipating our moves and continue to stay a move ahead."
This fascinating and frequently frightening science fiction slow burn is arguably the most ambiguously complex motion picture of the entire 'Nature Amok' sub genre. An incredible visual experience, this movie is unlike anything else that has ever been made in this style of film. This is the thinking man's version of any number of the 'Killer Kritter' flicks that propagated during the 70s renaissance. One way to describe it would be a cross between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977) with a dash of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).
Undeniably unique and possessing a sprawling, hypnotic visual style, Saul Bass created a thought provoking, apocalyptic creature feature for the intellectual set. Equally terrifying as it is provocative, PHASE IV is based on a novel by Barry Malzberg. Whatever this mysterious planetary alteration was is never explained, but its effect on ants puts them on a level equal to, and in some cases, surpassing that of man. Instead of building ant hills, the ants construct towering monolithic skyscrapers that, compared to the size of the creatures, match the dimensions of the type of buildings made by man. When Dr. Hubbs attempts to get the ants' attention, he does so by destroying their "city". The insects retaliate by destroying a nearby family's home.
After the scientists fire back with a yellow poison, the ants then build these reflective surfaces which threatens to burn the humans out of their scientific dome. Not only that, but the ants act as martyrs in an effort to bring back a sample of this yellow poison (it hardens into a sugar like powder shortly after exposure) to the queen in a bid for immunity. The queen then gives birth to a new yellow tinted species! Another mind boggling scene is when the scientists use a sonic weapon to liquidate the reflective constructs threatening to burn up the station and destroy their computers. Thousands of the yellow ants are wiped out. The black ants emerge, drag the bodies back to the hive and neatly align the carcasses in single file formation for a bizarre funeral procession!
"We knew then we were being changed and made part of their world. We didn't know for what purpose...but we knew we would be told."
In an interesting dichotomy, the aged Dr. Hubbs is the one wishing to destroy the ants while Lesko the cryptologist is more interested in communicating with the creatures. This time, older isn't necessarily the wiser. Lesko, using his techniques of geometric and mathematic configurations, gains more answers in his quest to "talk" to the war mongering ants than Hubbs with his strategic assaults. Lesko manages to come to the conclusion that the ants want something from them--from man. Just exactly what it is these super intelligent insects wish to do with us is one of the unanswered questions that leaves the answer up to the audience. The final few minutes still invoke a chilling denouement even if the end result isn't entirely clear. Do they want us as slaves to the queen? A new source of food? A new species of ma-nt that can peacefully co-exist?
Whether the sometimes confusing nature of the proceedings was intentional or not is unknown. Very little is spelled out for the viewer and a good number of questions go unanswered, especially the aforementioned ambiguous ending. Apparently, the film suffered at the hands of studio intervention sacrificing 9 minutes in the process (this DVD is that abridged version) which allegedly soured Saul Bass on directing leaving this as his only such credit in the chair. Regardless, it's also unknown whether the removed footage would make the film anymore linear, or confound things further. One thing is certain, the film is a visual showcase and unravels in such a way that the convoluted aspects are never irritating, but add to the perplexing, oppressively scary atmosphere.
One of the more peculiar portions of the film is at the beginning when Hubbs and Lesko find what appears to be a crop circle with a small patch in the center and the dead carcass of a sheep lying in the patch. Hubbs inspects the dead animal and finds three holes--perfect circles in a line from which several ants exit from this wound (these bizarre wounds later turn up on a human corpse, but this, too, is never explained). Hubbs divulges to Lesko that certain species of ants retaliate against any opposing species including man, should they threaten their food supply. Later in the movie Lesko receives an "answer" from the ants told in a geometric pattern--a circle with a round dot at the center. He surmises the ants want Hubbs. The next scene correlates with Hubbs' assertion earlier in the movie that the insects do indeed annihilate any threatening element.
Ken Middleham's special photography of the numerous insect sequences are both incredible and occasionally skin crawling. We see thousands of them make a quick meal of both a large spider and a rat. Another astounding sequence has a single black ant attempting to chew through the air conditioning cables to shut down the computer inside the dome. A praying mantis watches stealthily from above. Snatching the ant, we see in close up as this predator eats the ant alive. But below, the mantis doesn't realize one of the yellow ants is watching it, too. The new species grasps the long leg of the mantis and pulls it down into the electrical grid frying it to a crisp.
Dick Bush, the DP on a handful of Hammer productions as well as Tigon's BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971), was responsible for the eerily striking phantasmagorical color palette that saturates the world seen in PHASE IV. The electronic soundtrack by Brian Gascoigne (THE DARK CRYSTAL) is of an otherworldy quality and creepily conveys both the natural and the unnatural that unspools on the screen. It's an incredible score that fits the film like a glove. Another novel touch is the how the film is presented. At the beginning, we see a view of space. The words 'Phase 1' appears in the right corner. Over the course of the film, we see Phases II and III and in the last shot, the films title appears--PHASE IV--apparently the final stage in civilizations new evolution.
Fans will remember actor Michael Murphy as one of the good guys in Bob Kelljan's creepy COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and one of the bad guys in Richard Franklin's delightful CLOAK & DAGGER (1984). British actor Nigel Davenport played Van Helsing in Dan Curtis's version of COUNT DRACULA (1974) and also took a major role in Don Taylor's version of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977). The late and lovely Lynne Frederick was in Robert Young's VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) and Lucio Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975).
With so many facets of interest in PHASE IV (1974), this enigmatic science fiction horror opus portends to prophecise calamity on a genocidal scale, but by the end, the true meaning is left up in the air for the viewer to ponder. Naturalistic in approach, the inherent realism is far more frightening than if these tiny arthropods were depicted as gigantic. It's not a film for impatient viewers, but those with a serious interest in science fiction will be rewarded with one of the most unusual visual experiences they've likely ever witnessed.
This review is representative of the Legend Films DVD