A familiar video cover that I have seen in numerous video libraries across the country over the years, Phase IV always intrigued me. A flash sale somewhere online saw me pick up both Defcon 4 and Phase IV on Blu-ray. I made the mistake of watching Defcon 4 first and it tainted my desire to watch Phase IV, not that they have any connection or similarity, outside of a four in the title and that they are of the sci-fi genre. Whilst Defcon 4 was pretty poor, Phase IV was an engrossing and thought provoking horror that I wish I had not waited so long to enjoy.
Several mysterious columns appear in the arid state of Arizona and two scientists are sent to investigate and monitor. Nigel Davenport plays Ernest, an ant scientist who has noticed some strange behaviours by ants and Michael Murphy as James, a communications expert. They quickly determine that the columns are created by ants that seem to have a superior intellect to the average ant. James is able to use technology to create a dialogue with the ants. Joining them is Kendra, a local who survived the destruction of her family home and takes shelter in the scientist’s station played by the gorgeous and honest Lynne Frederick who we lost all too soon.
Bass handles the narrative with a calm recollection delivered as a diary of the fall of mankind. The film is beautifully relaxed and scored with a contemporary flavour. Michael Murphy delivers a narration in hindsight without any alarmist inclinations, only acceptance, primarily as he is a scientist, however, also as this is now a matter of fact from where and when he is recanting the tale. The main ant also appears to have something of a story arch, as we follow their actions throughout this uprising.
There is a sizeable portion of the movie given over to some incredible insect photography. The filming techniques used helps embody that ants are really characters and the losses endured by Team Ant are felt just as much as if a human had fallen. As a low budget film, these sequences are incredible to see, especially on Blu-ray as the clarity of detail adds an extra layer of immersion.
Davenport engages in an incredible chase sequence with one of the ants and he thumbs through broken electronics searching for the tiny critter. A beautiful allegory for mankind’s reliance on electronics to understand and how it gets in the way of something so simple. Not to mention, it’s an exciting chase with Davenport moving only a few feet but Mr Ant zips from shelter to shelter evading every attempt to be destroyed.
The Blu-ray contains an alternative ending that contains, amongst some minor tweaks and extra footage, some intensely scary imagery of a possible doomed future for mankind. This is where the film excels. On the one hand this feels a little arty and with that, might meet with dissatisfaction from the average moviegoer. However, Bass crafts a simple structure that can deliver a powerful thought to those only half engaged. The idea of ants overpowering the human race becomes realistic quite quickly. Phase IV sits nicely in the middle as a thought provoking horror film that gets better with a re-watch.
Phase IV is more of an artist approach to science fiction and horror whilst daring to ask questions of the audience. There is a severe role reversal in play as we realise who is investigating who and just how fragile mankind really is. If you have not seen it, you should.
Poster art is generally gorgeous and most capture the film’s approach quite well. The Hand poster, geared to the larger audience, may increase expectations that this is a full on, mainstream, horror-disaster movie.
101 Films have put together a phenomenal Blu-ray package with a huge collection of extras including a selection of Saul Bass’ short films:
New HD restoration
The Original Saul Bass ending (plus optional commentary)
An Ant’s Life: Contextualising Phase IV Commentary with film historians Allan Bryce and Richard Holliss
Short Films: The Searching Eye (1964), Why Man Creates (1968), Bass on Titles (1977), Notes on the Popular Arts (1978), The Solar Film (1980), Quest (1984) (new HD restoration)
You can grab is from Amazon here.