Thursday, August 12, 2010

Film Review: PHASE IV (1974, Saul Bass)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 84 minutes.
Tag-line: "Ravenous Invaders Controlled by a Terror Out in Space Commanded to Annihilate the World!" Well, let's not get carried away.
Notable Cast or Crew: Written by Mayo Simon (FUTUREWORLD). Cinematography by Dick Bush (MAHLER, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, SORCERER). Music by Brian Gascoigne (THE EMERALD FOREST, CHERRY 2000, additional synths on THE DARK CRYSTAL). Insect sequences by Ken Middleham (THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE, DAMNATION ALLEY, DAYS OF HEAVEN). Starring Michael Murphy (Altman-fave, TANNER '88, MAGNOLIA, NASHVILLE, BATMAN RETURNS, SALVADOR), Nigel Davenport (PEEPING TOM, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, NIGHTHAWKS), Lynne Frederick (VAMPIRE CIRCUS, VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED).
Best one-liner: Not really that kind of movie.

PHASE IV is the only full-length film directed by Saul Bass– graphic design virtuoso, legendary credits sequence creator and Oscar-winner (for his short film WHY MAN CREATES)– and it leaves the viewer in a state of distress- not only due to the unsettling subject matter, but mostly because Bass never bestowed us with another feature!

To use mere words to describe PHASE IV would be a senseless exercise, but I suppose that it's one I shall attempt nonetheless. It is a collage of sound and image conjured from the deepest pits of mankind's greatest fears. It takes the ball from 1971's THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (as well as that film's genius insect cinematographer, Ken Middleham) and runs with it. Taking cues from arthouse cinema of alienation propogated by the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni (L'ECLISSE, RED DESERT) and Hiroshi Teshigahara (WOMAN IN THE DUNES, THE FACE OF ANOTHER), Bass creates a cruel, exotic worldscape of geodesic domes, subterranean tunnels, microscopic photography, and blistering sunlight. Brian Gascoigne's accompanying soundscapes are often electronic, high-pitched, oscillating frequencies; elsewhere they're eerie synthesized organs and low, dissonant tones. His work recalls early Tangerine Dream, the more avant-garde scores of Ennio Morricone, and the manic energy of Franco Battiato, and it perfectly sets the stage for what Bass desires to show us:

Forget the tag-line, forget the supposed sci-fi 'reasons' behind why the events contained within PHASE IV occur. This film is trippy as shit, and it's as beautiful as it is troubling. PHASE IV is order and disorder. Geometry and disarray. Patterns and chaos. Symbols and meaninglessness. It's something hidden- buried- within our souls and etched upon our spinal columns. It's been with us since the stone faces were built on Easter Island and since the time of the pyramids and before. Each and every image captivates us, fascinates us, because deep down we know that we are not the masters of this planet.

Impression: ants marching to their doom, carrying a poison granule to their Queen, so that She might become immune to the contagion. The limbs become weary, and the creatures take their final steps. Upon dying, each hands off the toxic crumb to the next contestant like some kind of solemn relay race.

Impression: human beings choking on industrial insecticide. Each heaving, laborious breath begets dry coughs which only serve to further coat the lungs with the thick, deadly yellow powder.

The morning after, silver men with artificial respirators survey the damage, looking down upon the fleshy wreckage with the disconnected indifference of ancient gods.

Impression: walls of dirt and avalanches of debris lay siege to the compound of the ants.

Crushed by a small stone, an ant explodes with Peckinpah-ish élan and ceases to be a living creature, its empty ant-shell separated from its viscera in a moment nearly frozen in time by the slow-motion photography.

Impression: a solitary ant gnaws on a slender electrical cable, the lives of three humans and an entire society of organisms hanging in the balance.

Concurrently, a praying mantis stalks its prey amidst unnatural corridors of wiring and circuitry...

This is insect drama, and it's better than most of the crap that passes for human drama. It strikes a chord. And I'm struck with the thought that somehow PHASE IV would have made a better series finale to LOST than the actual one; just stick the Dharma logo on the ant research facility.

In the end, we are weak. Our ungainly size, our emotion, our selfishness, our reliance on technology, our fragility, the ease with which we become frustrated, our increasingly tenuous link to the living world- these things shall be our downfall. And so I'll leave you with a few quotes from what I consider to be PHASE IV's sister film, THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE:

"In fighting the insect we have killed ourselves, polluted our water, poisoned our wildlife, permeated our own flesh with deadly toxins. The insect becomes immune, and we are poisoned. In fighting with superior intellect, we have outsmarted ourselves....
Compared with Man, we have to admit that the insect does not display what we can describe as intelligence. But do not feel too proud about that, because where there is no intelligence, there is also no stupidity.
Confronted with this incredible resourcefulness - this desperate desire to survive - we must wonder, why? What is the value, even for oneself, to sustain an existence that must ultimately end in death? The insect has the answer, because he never posed the question."

Five stars.

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

Your closing comments reminded me of the excellent book "Blindsight" by Peter Watts. A science fiction book where alien is truly alien.

I will definitely have to check this movie out, thanks again for a great write up.

Anonymous said...

When Sci-Fi channel first came out, they used to run things like this late on Friday, and I caught this.

It was a very unsettling movie (good) but at the end I wanted to take a long shower just to make sure that I was ok.

Sean Gill said...


I think you'll enjoy this flick, you'll have to let me know your thoughts when you do see it. Just did some reading about BLINDSIGHT, it sounds very intriguing.


PHASE IV does really get under the skin. I'm not really sure how a movie can take things to such a level where a solitary ant climbing up someone's arm can inspire deeply existential dread- but I'm glad it's out there!