Friday, October 29, 2010

Random Film Review: Phase IV


It's a safe bet Bass didn't design the film's misleading poster.

Dir: Saul Bass | USA | 1974 | 91 min

Are rats and mice forever going to fall for traps? Are badgers and foxes ever going to look both ways before they cross a road? Will rabbits always freeze in headlights? Are animals just stupid or does evolution just take a very long time?

In Phase IV, after an unspecified 'event', two scientists are sent to the Arizona desert to investigate strange behaviour that ants are exhibiting. They're building massive ant nests, displaying high intelligence and evolving at an exponential rate. By the end of the film, the scientists discover that they are in fact the subject of the ant's experiment.

With a cast of millions of ants (I felt itchy throughout) and only a handful of humans in the whole film (half of whom get killed early on), for the first ten minutes there are no people or dialogue at all (just a voice over); mainly just microscopic images of ants. Labelled a 'sci-fi horror' (minus any special effects), most of Phase IV is more like an eerie, psychedelic nature documentary. But its mood and message is in keeping with other classic, intelligent sci-fi films of the period, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and The Andromeda Strain.

I hadn't since Phase IV since I was a child. I did recall it was about ants, though I remembered them being giant-sized (must have been the macro photography giving that illusion). Or maybe I'm thinking of Them! (which does concern giant ants).

Largely forgotten about nowadays, though it has a sort of cult status, being the only film directed by the great graphic designer Saul Bass. Unsurprisingly from the man who gave us the shower scene in Psycho, it's full of eerie, startling imagery: huge close-ups of ants (macro and time-lapse photography were both fairly new at the time); giant ant's nests like monoliths from 2001 (or Easter Island); ants coming out of a dead man's hand (an update of the Bunuel classic); and abstract, hauntingly beautiful shots of landscapes, machinery, and man's (and ant's) relationship to them.

The website goofbutton has assembled a collection of stills from the film, highlighting its visual motifs and colours.

The actress Lynne Frederick was only twenty when she acted in the film; she died twenty years later, in 1994. She acted in Vampire Circus and was married to Peter Sellers and David Frost. For some reason she has several (pretty tacky) fan websites dedicated to her.

If you're a member of lovefilm.com you can watch Phase IV for free on their website along with thousands of other films including Let the Right One in and The Mist (both excellent). Please note: this blog has no affiliation with lovefilm and isn't even a member.

It's scandalous that there's still not a decent book about Saul Bass.

1 comment :

RA said...

Ooh, good, can't wait to hire these films, particularly after reading your comments on Shutter Island and Sixth Sense.

JA