This weekend’s release of “Ant-Man” brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the end of its second phase, but if you want a true tale to astonish, you’ll bypass Phase 2 in favor of “Phase IV.” The only feature directed by Saul Bass, best known for creating the riveting, expressive title sequences for movies like “Vertigo” and “The Man With the Golden Arm” (not to mention “Casino” and “The Age of Innocence”), 1974’s “Phase IV” sounds like a creature-feature curiosity, an apocalyptic goof about humanity being taken over by giant ants from outer space. But what Bass does with that premise, taken from a script by Mayo Simon, is so wonderfully strange and disturbing it nearly defies description. Despite the fact that Paramount couldn’t have had a clue how to market it, the movie’s trailer does a fairly decent job of conveying its tone.
Despite featuring Robert Altman standby Michael Murphy in the lead role, “Phase IV” is generally indifferent to its human characters, and the performances and thin characterizations show it. But as with George Romero’s “The Crazies,” the affectless acting feels like part of the design; in the struggle between humankind and the ants, you’re rooting for the ants. Most of the movie is set in a tiny geodesic dome in the middle of the desert where Murphy and a fellow scientist (Nigel Davenport) have set up camp to study the strange, uncommonly complicated formations apparently being built by colonies of ants. It quickly becomes clear that these structures have a purpose, and that part of that purpose involves wiping out any nearby humans; Murphy and Davenport are soon joined by the daughter (Lynne Frederick) of a local farmer, whose farm is consumed by a vicious swarm.
Murphy eventually discerns that the ants, who have been pushed to the next evolutionary level by an unspecified cosmic event, aren’t trying to wipe out the human race but transform it: The “Phase I,” “Phase II,” “Phase III” markers placed at apparently random points along the way mark the stages of a transition the characters don’t know they’re undergoing. (What of “Phase IV”? Well, that would be telling.) The astonishing close-up photography by Ken Middleham, who also handled the time-lapse sequences for Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” present the ants as full-fledged characters, an alien intelligence building civilizations beneath our feet. (Compare the way the ants are photographed here with the more technically advanced but essentially soulless sequences in “Ant-Man”; it’s no contest.) “Phase IV’s” original ending, cut by Paramount for the movie’s original release but recently re-discovered and restored, is a tripped-out montage that shows people taking up residence in human-sized ant farms as Brian Gascoigne’s electronic score reaches its abrasive pitch. It’s only been screened a few times in public, including at the El Paso Classic Film Festival, where I was lucky enough to see it two years ago, and it’s not available on video, but you can watch it here. I recommend saving it until after you’ve seen the film, naturally.
“Phase IV” is available for rental and purchase via iTunes, Amazon, and other digital outlets, as well as on a bare-bones DVD, and Olive Films, who now handles Paramount’s back catalogue, confirmed for the first time today that the movie is scheduled for Blu-ray release, with a tentative date of this fall. (Update, 10/27: The movie is now out on Blu-ray, although the Olive Films version does not include the extended ending.)
More reviews of “Phase IV”
David Cornelius, DVD Talk
“Phase IV” smartly balances old genre standbys (the obsessed, unfeeling scientist; the damsel in distress; the strange invaders) and B-movie conventions (show world-shattering events through the eyes of a small cast in a remote location) with the gloom and headiness of the early-1970s sci-fi scene. Simon builds a rather old fashioned beasts-strike-back yarn, then layers it with elements that raise so many questions, all unanswered. Is this an ecological tale, a warning about our treatment of nature? Is it an allegory for grass roots revolution, with the smaller, overlooked masses rising up – and if so, is it fearful or hopeful? (In other words, is Simon rooting for us or the ants?) What do Lesko’s efforts to communicate with the ants say about our current status in the universe, where we think we know so much but actually know so little? Do the scientists’ individual fates hinge on how they treat their supposed enemies, or is it all a matter of luck, coincidence, and incorrect interpretations of the facts? (Which takes us, of course, right back to the question about what we know versus what we think we know.)
Simon’s screenplay pushes all of these questions in between the lines, while Bass is eager to make a film more dependent on a slow, steady tone than obvious shocks. I wonder what audiences must’ve thought upon seeing the film in 1974, its methodical approach to the plot a far cry from the promises of the movie’s poster, which promised “Ravenous invaders controlled by a terror out in space… commanded to annihilate the world!” The movie contains no such hyperbole; even the few scenes that could somewhat be perceived as “action sequences” (a family flees their farmhouse in a moment of chaos) are designed to unsettle, not thrill.
If Stanley Kubrick himself had crafted an ant movie, then it could have turned out something like this. That’s no small praise; it really is that good. Sure it’s slow at times, and it won’t climb conventional narrative ladders to get to an action-filled climax, but it simply doesn’t need to, and doesn’t feel compelled to give you any excuses.
Thomas Scalzo, Not Coming to a Theater Near You
In the hands of an impatient and less aesthetically minded director, this tale of imperialistic ant hordes may well have devolved into a giant insect monster movie a la “Empire of the Ants” or “Them!” But Bass keeps his story planted firmly in the realm of the believable featuring regular-sized ants, and filtering any talk of enhanced ant abilities through the sober lens of science. Instead of employing his crawling nemeses to sensationalistic effect (much as “Them!” features gigantic mandibles crunching rib cages and “Empire of the Ants” centers on gargantuan insects emitting effluvial, brainwashing pheromones in hopes of creating sugar factory slaves), Bass gives us feasible scenarios that are all the more frightening for their grounding in reality. Thus we have ant legions chewing through wires and disabling a much-needed truck, surreptitiously conking out the dome’s essential air conditioner, and, in the most gruesome moment of the film, collectively devouring a man from the inside out. Under Bass’ direction, however, even such moments of the macabre are imbued with such eerie beauty that we cannot help but revel in the sublime photography, even as we recoil from the horror.
Sean Gill, Culture Shock
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 (“Women 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.
Greg Klymkiw, Daily Film Dose
The uneven quality of the picture is more than obscured by Bass’s visual panache and once in awhile, “Phase IV” is blessed with images so horrifying and creepy that one realizes just how important Bass must have been to Hitchcock during Psycho. Many of the key set pieces in Hitchcock’s masterpiece were storyboarded by Bass and “Phase IV” has some visuals that evoke similar feelings of revulsion. I will never forget, for example, a horse’s whinnying — sounding like shrieks of pain coming from an Inquisition torture chamber as its body is covered with millions of swarming, munching ants and the look of horror on the face of the young owner of the horse as it is shot to death in order to end its suffering. Nor will I forget the creepy sight of an outstretched hand of a dead man as thousands of ants pour out of a gaping hole in the palm. Nor will the sight of several towering monolith-like anthills surrounding the remote research base ever leave my memory.
Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
“Phase IV” has some very good visuals and many truly amazing ones. Saul Bass’s main talent, even in his famous title sequences, is visual communication, and his optical tricks conjure up weird space phenomena, strange silhouetted shapes on the horizon, and a few impressive (if dated) surreal images. Some of these are on the grainy side. The real wonder of the film are Ken Middleham’s incredibly good micro-cinematographic views of the ants and other insects going about their business. The film could easily use a number of generic “bugs milling about” shots, but these are planned, choreographed and executed for maximum graphic appeal.
Ed Howard, Seul Le Cinema
The film builds its horror not through special effects or violence, but through the subtle development of atmosphere, and Bass has infused every second of the film with an escalating sense of dread. A large portion of this must be credited to the sound design, which contrasts the dry, crackling sounds of the ants — mandibles crunching, antennae and legs scraping against various surfaces — against the eerie, atonal electronic soundtrack. The opening scenes establish this sound palette almost immediately, as Bass dives into the subterranean world of the ants, allowing their noises to dominate the soundtrack even as their calcified bodies fill the screen. There’s something inherently terrifying about seeing tiny, unknown worlds magnified in this way. It’s an effect David Lynch used to good purpose in the famous opening of Blue Velvet, and here as there it suggests the creepy, crawly evil lurking underneath ordinary reality. Nature is frightening whenever one stops to think about it, and Bass’ unflinching intimacy with these insects invites one to contemplate the horror of the natural world at length.
Bilge Ebiri, Nashville Scene
As with most experimental films, there are many ways to read “Phase IV” — as an ecological warning, as a spiritual allegory, or simply as a study in contrasting images and impulses. (That includes whatever impulse led a major studio to release a film so resolutely unconventional, though Bass complained of post-production tampering: The version screening at The Belcourt restores the original psychedelic ending cut before release.) But what’s most striking about it is how Bass drains it of what we might call conventional emotion and characterization — Hubbs, Lesko and Kendra’s interactions at times seem just as mysterious as the insects’ — and yet still manages to build genuine tension. It’s a tension borne of the film’s unsettling imagery, its troubling and reflective mood, its very refusal to do the things we expect. You’ve never seen anything like it, and when it’s over you’ll wish Bass had made more features.