Cult Cinema: Phase IV (1973) - Reviewed

In 1954, Warner Brothers released one of the very first science fiction horror films centered on post-nuclear fears with the giant killer ants thriller Them!  In it, a colony of miniature ants are mutated by nuclear testing into enormous behemoths that threaten to overrun and eradicate mankind.  Sporting still astonishing visual effects with oversized mechanical puppets and a reverberating sound of the ants that still has the power to send chills up the viewers spines, it remains a benchmark in science fiction film history and paved the way for a litany of giant killer insect films for years to come.  

But what if the threat of a killer ant invasion didn’t involve them turning into oversized monsters?  What if they simply remained their natural size but possessed a collective intelligence and combined power which proved to be far more dangerous and less detectable to mankind?  Some thirty years after Them!, American graphic designer and Academy Award winning filmmaker Saul Bass, best known for his company logos, posters and opening title sequences for many renowned classics, would answer that question in his one and only foray into feature film directing Phase IV.

Partially influenced by the 1971 documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle (also featuring footage by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham), Phase IV opens on an unexplained event in space (natural or extraterrestrial in origin?) whose side effects transform the world’s species of ants into hyper-intelligent killers quick to overrun all forms of celestial life.  After forming tall, pillar like mounds and pushing out (save for one family) residents from the Arizona desert, two scientists played by Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy station themselves inside a high-tech computerized metallic sealed lab to further investigate the strange phenomenon.  Quickly, however, it erupts into a full blown war between arthropods and humankind as the seemingly unstoppable army of ants, like Aliens, threaten to infiltrate the scientific lab’s barricade.

A psychedelic, philosophical and thought provoking thriller, Phase IV is one of the great underrated and largely unknown science fiction masterpieces unfairly written off by many (including MST3K in one of their early episodes).   One of the film’s greatest triumphs of set design and special effects is how much visual wonderment the renowned graphic designer turned filmmaker Saul Bass is able to create with so few resources.  One gets the impression watching it the film didn’t cost much to produce yet is loaded with such mesmerizing, awe-inspiring hallucinatory visions you find yourself swept up in Bass’ phantasmagorical audiovisual magic.

Penned by science-fiction writer Mayo Simon, the film is brimming with brilliantly apocalyptic ideas suggesting a future of mankind enslaved by arthropods, implying space aliens can be found right on the eyes and antennae of the ever evolving ants which seem to adapt with greater ferocity to every controlled pesticide thrown at them.  With a rich, eclectic score comprised of everything from experimental electronic to classical strings provided by a total of four composers including Brian Cascoigne, Stomu Yamashta, David Vorhaus and Desmond Brisco and visually stunning cinematography by Dick Bush, the stage is set for a truly overwhelming and breathtaking audiovisual experience.

What’s most striking about the one and only feature film to Saul Bass’ credit is his adherence to what renowned film giant Stanley Kubrick once referred to as ‘the economy of statement’.  Bass, known for his instantly memorable company icons and title sequences, keenly understands the subliminal, psychological appeal of rapidly edited advertisements and commercials to sell an idea in a succession of carefully chosen images, sounds and words. Though the film is edited down to a tee by Willy Kemplen, clearly Bass is in total control of his images onscreen, providing just enough information to sell a stunning audiovisual idea while tapping into the viewer’s subconscious. 

Tragically, the film fell victim to the studio heads at Paramount Pictures unable to make heads or tails of what to do with Bass’ film before excising the now legendary finale of sensory overload and audiovisual fantasia.  Sold as a B-movie with an exploitative poster of a clenching hand with ants crawling out of it, Phase IV opened to dismal box office returns before being nearly completely forgotten.  So distraught by seeing his masterpiece so ruthlessly and artlessly tampered with, Saul Bass never sat in the feature filmmaking director’s chair again, instead resuming work on the poster art and title sequences that made him an icon.

People at Paramount, if you’re reading this, withholding the recently rediscovered and restored finale to Phase IV, which inarguably is the pinnacle of intellectual and technical filmmaking of the renowned visual artist’s career, is a crime against cinema!  That one of the greatest pieces of film editing of pure unexpurgated Saul Bass magic can’t be seen as its brilliant visionary artist intended to this day is totally unacceptable!  As for our regular readers unfamiliar with the legendary filmmaker’s one and only feature film, viewing the picture alongside the sadly weak (for now) handicam footage of the restored deleted ending will help complete the puzzle underlying one of science fiction film history’s most underrated gems and greatest mysteries!

- Andrew Kotwicki