BluRay/DVD Reviews

PHASE IV

By • Dec 24th, 2008 •

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For myself, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a transition time that, for a while, showed great promise to the viewers of the genre that many called ‘the celluoide fantastique’ or ‘cine fantastique”. Arthur P. Jacobs’s PLANET OF THE APES and Stanley Kubrick’s monumental epic, 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, began to push cinema science fiction/fantasy slowly into a new direction. It seemed, finally, that creative evolution had begun to leave behind forever a Mesozoic landscape littered with B.E.M. (Bug Eyed Monster) corpses in its hoped-for omnipotent wake. Suddenly, going to the theatre during this period began to take on new depth as some thought-provoking pieces of cinema began to emerge to challenge and stimulate. To see on a big screen, for the first time, such titles as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN, IF, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, SILENT RUNNING, NO BLADE OF GRASS, ZPG and THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE had moved us out of the bottom of the quagmire to the very top of Olympus.

Sadly, for the most part, this time of thought-provoking cinema eventually gave way to the more exploitable fare that resulted in big loud sensory overloads such as STAR WARS (and sequels), STAR TREK movies and the heart-tugging (but PC) ET.

One film that came and went, unnoticed by many, but highly intelligent and at times, visually hypnotic, was PHASE IV, which was the directing debut, and remained the only feature of, Academy Award winning cinema graphic artist Saul Bass. But now, Legend Films has released a beautiful new transfer on DVD, miles better than the VHS transfer of several years ago, so that a new generation can give this movie a fresh look and evaluate it anew.

In PHASE IV, a cosmic event triggers what appears, at first glance, to be a minor biological imbalance in a Arizona Valley. Later, two scientists (Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy) are sent to set up a field lab and begin to study the area’s ant population, which seems to have undergone a strange mutation in a collective way: various species of ants have ceased warring on each, joining together, and have begun killing off species that prey on them with military precision. The human population, with the exception of one ranch, have fled the area. This is Phase I.

The second phase comes when the scientists try to cope with the disturbance by attempting to destroy the ants by means of chemical and sound waves. The ants, however, develop a genetic immunity to the spray and despite heavy casualties, also manage to survive. The scientists then attempt to correlate a language system to communicate with the ants.

Phase III takes the form of a clash of intelligences, with the ants beginning to show the superior intellect. The final phase – “Phase IV”, shows the outcome and the choice mankind must make.

Saul Bass had already made his name as one of the world’s most respected graphic designers. Examples of his work could be found in the fields of industrial and exhibition design, and are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington. In filmmaking, he began with a short called “The Seeing Eye”, which won the Grand Award at Venice. “From Here to There”, another short, earned the Special Jury Award at Chicago. They were shown at the New York World’s Fair.

Hollywood had used his flair in such motion pictures as THE BIG COUNTRY (FIR Editor Roy Frumkes supplied excellent liner notes as well as an interview with Bass for the laserdisc presentation from Image. On a personal note I thought the LD was a much better release than the DVD which, while very good, reproduced the color palette a bit too strong and the contrast was off as well), PSYCHO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, WEST SIDE STORY, WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, and a host of others. On PHASE IV, his use of people and the environment around them (the desert) brought to mind Jack Arnold and some of his Universal International science fiction films. Photography was handled by Ken Middeham, who also delivered the jaw dropping ant sequences, and was hailed in the Academy Award winning documentary THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE. His incredible time lapse/closeup images were done from his basement studio workshop as we are drawn into the world of the ants and try, as the humans do, to understand what is happening as the story progresses.

The human leads in the cast were a very good choice and each did an excellent job. Nigel Davenport, reunited with co-star Lynne Frederick from the bio-pic NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDER, was a famed stage actor before his leap into cinema, who’s stage credits include London’s Royal Court Theatre. He hade his film debut in 1958 with LOOK BACK IN ANGER with other performances following in HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, PLAY DIRTY, THE LAST VALLEY, NO BLADE OF GRASS LIVING FREE, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES. As Professor Hubbs, Davenport takes on an almost Ahab-like search for a way to defeat the ants but does it, in my opinion, without the needed chewing up of the scenery. To Hubbs, this is a mystery to be resolved at all costs (similar to Robert Cornthwaite in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD). The late Lynne Frederick, who died at the early age of 40 (July 25, 1954-April 27,1994), played Kendra, the rancher’s daughter who almost appears to be existing on another plain of reality with her vulnerable looks (was she also changed by ‘the event’ at the same time as the ants?). Others of her roles included VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED and the Hammer Film VAMPIRE CIRCUS. She made entertainment news also for being the final wife of actor Peter Sellers. Michael Murphy, who had worked with Robert Altman many times (going back to the television series COMBAT) including MASH, and was also in such films as MANHATTAN, AN UNMARRIED WOMEN, SALVADOR, and McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, was cast as James Lesko, a mathematician who tries hard to use communication with the ants, and eventually discovers man’s ultimate choice in the scheme of things.

Legend Films has released the 84 minute cut of PHASE IV (the film was originally over 90 minutes with a longer ending where Murphy, during his revelation, has visions of possible outcomes for Humanity in relationship to the new intelligence now given to the ants. This version was pulled and reedited before being sent into general release). Too bad Legend was unable to track down the longer cut, but the film will still hold the viewer’s interest. The disc has a sharp image and despite a few flaws on the print, the color is strong and the contrast very good. The picture, anamorphic widescreen at 1:75:1 is well balanced. Audio playback is clear, and I didn’t hear any major distortion from my speakers. There are no extras or subtitle option but the movie is close-captioned.

Legend Films has done us all a great service by digging this movie out of the vaults over at Paramount Pictures, and giving us a new set of speculations to ponder!

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