Since its inception in 2007, Los Angeles' revival house Cinefamily has slowly become one of the city's most diverse and exciting places, hosting screenings of cult classics and current releases alike with special events galore. They've made a habit of digging up gems and developing a themed week around them (such as the stand-up comedy “A Thousand Clowns” with Jason Robards), but recently, during a week devoted to artist/designer Saul Bass' storied career, they managed to change film history.
According to Cinefamily's executive director, Hadrian Belove, archivists working at the Academy of Arts and Sciences stumbled upon an excised reel of Bass' 1974 directorial debut, “Phase IV” — simply an item of speculation up to today — while compiling footage for his retrospective. A science-fiction film about two scientists' relationship to an homicidal ant colony and its behavior, the project came in Bass' career after his iconic main title contributions to “The Man With The Golden Arm” and “Vertigo,” as well as his design of the “Psycho” shower scene. In addition to working within a surreal narrative, Bass also hired nature DP Ken Middleham to shoot footage of real ants, lending the film a naturalistic air as well.
From the story and visual style, it was obvious the film never stood out as a blockbuster, but Paramount, who handled distribution, still found ways to essentially bury Bass' work, leading to the final reel, a depiction of the titular process on the scientists, being cut. The sequence, where [SPOILERS] the scientists realize the ants “want to join – or merge – with humanity, prompting a new evolutionary development in both species,” eventually leads to a montage of exactly that, as a radical new species is born. In the end, “emerging from their transformation, the pair gazes out onto a sunset-stained landscape, realizing that humanity has reached a new level in its evolution: 'Phase IV.' "
The final reel was placed back into the film and shown at Cinefamily this past Sunday in 35mm, allowing audiences to finally see the film as it was originally intended. The discovered ending was actually in better condition than the theatrical one currently available, which could lead to a packed Blu-ray release, but especially with cult titles like “Phase IV,” the demand needs to be there before such an endeavor begins. Still, with Bass' legacy and following, it shouldn't be too long before his restored sci-fi film finds the opportunity it deserves. [THR]