APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PHASE IV (1974)

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DIRECTED BY: Saul Bass

FEATURING: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick

PLOT: Following a mysterious cosmic event, ants in a remote corner of Arizona are acting strangely, and a pair of scientists are out to determine if the insects’ behavior has implications for the future of humanity.

Still from Phase IV (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Given the parts and tools needed to make a monster movie, a master of Hollywood imagery chooses instead to make a kind of video essay envisioning humans and ants becoming one in a sort of neurological singularity. Surprise of surprises, no one really got it, but it lingers in the memory as an example of genre filmmaking providing a platform for genuinely idiosyncratic visions. The film, like its director, is one of a kind.

COMMENTS: Saul Bass is the strangest kind of movie legend. While everyone else was trying to earn fame as an actor or an auteur, or the more adventurous hoped to become a household name as a writer or a composer, Bass carved out a lasting legacy as a master of marketing and design. His graphic skills are still revered as some of the finest and most memorable film posters and title sequences (the latter in partnership with his wife, Elaine) ever devised for the medium. He built a second career for himself as the creator of some uncommonly memorable corporate logos, and his distinctive style even earned him his own Google Doodle. His skill at capturing a movie’s mood soon carried over into the filmic storytelling itself: what could have been a simple end credit sequence to Around the World in Eighty Days became a six-minute animated epic retelling of the tale audiences had just sat through; some accounts (including that of Bass himself) give him credit for crafting Psycho’s iconic shower sequence; and his own dabblings in short filmmaking earned him three Oscar nominations, claiming the short documentary prize for “Why Man Creates.”

All this is to say, when you sit down to watch the sole feature film that Bass ever helmed, you should know not to expect anything traditional or commonplace. Yet audiences and executives alike seem to have been completely unprepared for the kind of movie that Bass intended to make. The subject matter suggests a B-movie with cheap thrills, a la Empire of the Ants or Kingdom of the Spiders. To think that Saul Bass would get control of a film and make something  uninspired is to fail to read the man at all.

For one thing, it’s probably the most delicately paced nature-on-a-rampage movie ever made. Like a metaphysical take on The Andromeda Strain, the film pits methodical scientists against a mysterious phenomenon they are just beginning to understand, and we see their step-by-step process as they test out pesticides and make halting first steps at communication. It feels real, if not suspenseful; the closest thing we have to a ticking clock is the ever-present threat of the government withdrawing a funding. It’s a thriller for tenured university professors.

Bass and screenwriter Mayo Simon are far less interested in the human side of the tale. With the scientists played by the classically arrogant Davenport and the determinedly milquetoast Murphy, and Frederick’s ingenue mainly present to facilitate the ending and to provide the geography for an entertainingly creepy ant’s-eye tour, there’s not much to latch onto. It’s not as though you’re rooting for them to die, but you’re definitely not invested in whether or not the scientists live. Especially when you’ve got the convincingly creepy world of the ants to reckon with. From their 2001-style monolithic creations on the Arizona plains (Arizona being played, oddly enough, by Kenya) to their elaborate funeral ceremonies, the bugs are where it’s at. The close-up photography of Ken Middleham (who cut his teeth capturing similar up-close insect footage for The Hellstrom Chronicle) is absorbing and brings character and nuance to the ant populace, in a way that no present-day CGI take on the material could ever manage.

Adding Phase IV to our list might have been a no-brainer, had the producers not chosen to cut a four-minute chunk out of the movie’s finale. The released cut leaves you with an enticing uncertainty, as the surviving humans are left to contemplate their unknown future. But that’s nothing compared to the original vision (recently rediscovered and offered on a French Blu-Ray release and as an iTunes extra), in which the transcendental implications of the coming conjunction of life on Earth are explored and the true meaning of the film’s title is revealed. With Dalí-esque landscapes, an unsettling soundscape created by Stomu Yamashta, and a cacophonous mix of solarization, overlaid imagery, and off-kilter angles, it almost manages to capture the unseeable vision of a biosphere transformed. In some respects, it’s the greatest Saul Bass opening sequence ever: a prelude to the evolution of the human race.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Think of it as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of treacherous ant movies… it’s a gorgeous and strange film to look at, accentuated by Brian Gascoigne’s sparse and eerie electronic score.” – Jim Knipfel, Den of Geek

(This movie was nominated for review by Morgan. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch Phase IV

4 thoughts on “APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PHASE IV (1974)”

  1. Phase IV is the best movie most people have never seen. I saw it on a local cable station when I was a kid and it made a huge impression on me. You can see the influence it had on Panos Cosmotos and his movie Beyond the Black Rainbow. Phase IV was also filmed in Kenya as there are no locales in Arizona that appear in the movie. Unfortunately, this was the only film Saul Bass directed because it was a dud at the box office.

  2. There’s also a blu-ray available from UK label 101 Films; the limited edition is sold out, but there is a standard edition available that carries over the Bass short films (on another disc) and the original ending. It doesn’t have the oversize book (tempting to get if one can read French), but it does feature audio commentary on the film and on the original ending. Region B, so those who have all-region BR players may want to take the plunge; no mention yet as to when a Region A release will happen, unfortunately.

    https://101-films-store.com/collections/black-label-standard-editions/products/phase-iv-1974-standard-edition

  3. My thoughts from awhile back (this is a really good film, btw):

    In his first and only directorial feature, famous graphic designer Saul Bass puts his unique stamp on this unnervingly effective cautionary tale of man vs. ant, presented as one of those thinking person’s sci-fi films that were so in vogue in the early 70’s post-2001 era. A mysterious cosmic force has affected all the colonies of ants and they quickly evolve into a higher intelligence than that of the humans who hunker down in a futuristic-looking desert outpost to study the changes and their possible effects. The pace is glacial and the action is non-existent. There’s no blood or gore to speak of (except of a single close-up shot of a human hand with holes in it from which ants begin emerging!). Don’t let that stop you from checking out this fascinating minimalist sci-fi film which was sometimes mistakenly marketed to emphasize the horror aspect (there’s really no horror either, but there is a ton of creepy atmosphere). Bass wisely chose to spend as much time in developing the the characterization of his ant colony as he devotes to the core three actors who are confined to the interior of the lab for most of the film. He even begins the film with a ten minute sequence of what appears to be documentary footage of ants, with incredible close-ups and eerie insect noise, which is juxtaposed nicely with the equally eerie electronic soundtrack. The humans are presented in an equally clinical way, but less sympathetic. Bass wisely chose his desert locale and the futuristic trappings to emphasize a barren, alien environment and indeed, the scientist’s outpost seems more like a spaceship than a lab. Since there are no real action set-pieces, Bass employs a steadily elevating sense of dread that deepens once the scientists realize the extent of the ants’ startling evolution. To illustrate, one sequence shows the aftermath of an attempt to poison the ants: one by one, ant workers attempt to transport a chunk of the poison to their queen. This is shown in a lengthy series of shots where one ant carries the toxic chunk until he dies, only to be replaced by a fresh worker ant — who also dies. This is repeated several more times until finally the poison is delivered to the queen. Immune to its toxic qualities, she devours it and proceeds to lay new eggs of ants who are immune to the poison! All of the ant shots are shown in loving close-up photography and indeed given more emotional weight than their human counterparts. Bass also utilized his keen sense of geometrical design in developing some amazing shots. The sense of isolation works in the film’s favor as the humans quickly realized that as a species, they had become marginalized. The human acting is no great shakes, but part of me wonders if that was intentional. The real stars here are the ants, and boy do they deliver. Recommended.

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