Arrow Video: The Sender (1982) - Reviewed

Before falling on hard times having directed the critical and commercial bomb Battlefield Earth, art/set decorator Roger Christian copped an Oscar in 1978 for Star Wars before being nominated once again for Alien.  Having formed a rapport with George Lucas, including eventually going on to do second unit directing work on Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace years later, Christian got a shot at filmmaking with his short film Black Angel which was attached to the beginning of theatrical prints for The Empire Strikes Back.  Which brings us to what is largely known as director Quentin Tarantino’s favorite horror film of 1982, The Sender.

Joining the likes of such telekinetic psychological thrillers as Carrie, The Fury, Altered States, Scanners and The Dead Zone, The Sender begins simply enough with a young amnesiac man (Željko Ivanek) who is admitted to a mental institution after attempting to drown himself in a public beach.  Assigned to the given-name John Doe #83 is Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) who not long after taking on the task of treating the man begins experiencing increasingly bizarre and frightening hallucinations which somehow seem to be emanating from the strange John Doe #83 patient.  Meanwhile a skeptical Dr. Denman (Paul Freeman of Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Shirley Knight as a mysterious woman claiming to be the patient’s mother formulate the central cast of characters who are drawn into (or may be a figment of) the feverish subconscious imagination of The Sender.

Though steeped in the 1980s with a low-key cinematographic palette by future Brazil and Batman director of photography Roger Pratt, this British/American co-production is a subtle exercise in fear of the unknown as seemingly everyday objects start to take on strange peculiarities that feel lifted from the dark recesses of a deranged mind.  Take for instance a standout horror sequence where Dr. Farmer enters a bathroom and the mirrors crack and start bleeding crimson red.  Though other images such as rats or cockroaches and other such creepy crawlies flood the soundstages and manage to make one’s hair stand on end, it’s uncanny sequences like bloody mirrors predating the horrors of Silent Hill that imprint The Sender into the horror moviegoer’s psyche.

In addition to sporting early work from a great cinematographer, The Sender also offers a memorable original orchestral score by soon-to-be The Last of the Mohicans composer Trevor Jones.  Having worked with Mr. Christian before on his short film Black Angel, Jones’ score creates a mood of unease while also, like John Corigliano’s Oscar nominated score for Altered States, flirts with experimentation into uncharted musical territories.  

The Sender, of course, in addition to it’s wild and innovative visual effects outbursts which seem to explode onscreen with manic energy, would not be half as effective without then-newcomer Željko Ivanek.  With his distant gaze off into infinity as doctors try to make sense of his inscrutable anguished face, Ivanek imbues the film’s central protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your point of view) with mystery and an implacable sense of danger like the man is a ticking time bomb ready to go off at any second.

Sadly The Sender in spite of all the hard work did not pay off.  Though critically revered, the film tested poorly and Paramount Pictures did little to promote the picture outside of a limited theatrical run before disappearing into obscurity.  Over the years, however, the film’s garnered a strong cult reputation for being a taut and quieter foray into horror with a penchant for the uncanny rather than going for shocks or throwing chum at the camera.  Coupled with Tarantino’s endorsement, The Sender seen now is an inspired slice of psychological horror that takes the premise and its characters seriously, providing a clever minded thriller which went under the radar for so long and is now deliciously ripe for rediscovery!

--Andrew Kotwicki