Saul Bass, 1974
Starring: Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick
Though I’ve included it in animals attack month -- you can’t write about animals attack films or ecohorror without at least mentioning this film -- Phase IV is not really a horror movie. It is an odd, dark, cerebral science fiction outing and is one of the most interesting off shoots of the genre, though this is probably due to the fact that Jaws came out a year later and Phase IV avoided many of the genre trappings that later films would copy verbatim. Ants are evolving rapidly and begin building strange towers and designs in the desert. They have seemed to develop a strong telepathic power. After most of the local populace flees in fear, scientists (Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport) struggle about whether they should try to understand the ants or destroy them. The ants successfully resist Davenport’s destruction-obsessed character and Murphy’s character can either flee or attempt to communicate with them. A young woman is also lost somewhere in their midst...
Despite the ridiculous poster art and damaging marketing campaign that both loudly declare this to be another version of Them!, Phase IV is an intelligent and complex film, probably more so than any other in the animals attack genre. It did poorly in the theaters, but has since developed a cult following, become surprisingly influential to science fiction cinema, and was given an episode on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Though there are decent performances from Murphy (Batman Returns), Davenport (Peeping Tom) and Lynne Frederick (Vampire Circus), the film has a very basic plot, little dialogue and little human action overall. The ants and their visual world are the real stars of Phase IV.
The only film directed by accomplished designer Saul Bass (he created some of Hitchcock’s most beloved title sequence, among many others), the impressive visuals are the most compelling reason to watch Phase IV. The intricate, detailed insect scenes - shot by Ken Middleham (The Hellstrom Chronicle, Days of Heaven) - are breathtakingly beautiful and make the ants collectively the strongest character in the film. It’s truly amazing that Middleham was able to accomplish some of these scenes at all. The almost equally impressive remaining cinematography is from Dick Bush (a regular on some of the loveliest Hammer and Tigon horror films). The Morricone-like sound design from Brian Gascoigne is also greatly enhances the film, though successful scoring and sound design is an element of many of the better animals attack films - Jaws, Lost Weekend, etc.
Phase IV isn’t perfect. It is obviously low budget and has some silly plot developments, as well as some completely unbelievable scenes, like an elaborate ant funeral. There is a slow burn to the psychological terror and not a whole lot happens over the course of the film. There is some violence, but almost no gore. The general ambiguity of the film and its ending might bother some viewers, but if approached with the right attitude, Phase IV can also offer a lot of surprises and rewards. It comes highly recommended and is fortunately available on DVD from Legend Films in a bare bones edition.