Laserblast: The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Phase IV, The Sender
It’s been a great month for Hammer fans. Columbia just released the Icons of Adventure box set of four Hammer adventure films – Stranglers of Bombay, Pirates of Blood River, Terror of the Tongs and Devil Ship Pirates. Despite the terrible cover art, this is an amazing package of never-before-on-DVD films. Now, our friends over at Legend Films are releasing Hammer’s The Man Who Cheat Death in July as an exclusive at Best Buy. Up to now this is one of the few “golden age” Hammers that has not been available on video. Already working their way through the classic monster canon – Frankenstein, Dracula – the studio embarked on a remake of the ’40s Paramount horror classic The Man on Half Moon Street. The result is an odd combination of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Jack the Ripper. That said, the film is extremely static, perhaps betraying its origins as a play. However, Director Terrence Fisher manages to open up the action a bit, helped by an excellent script from Jimmy Sangster, lush set design, and Technicolor photography.
The cast is particularly strong, with the villainous Dr. Georges Bonnet convincingly played by German actor Anton Diffring (Circus of Horrors, Fahrenheit 451). Hazel Court (Curse of Frankenstein, The Masque of the Red Death) is the main object of his obsession (he has a few), and Christopher Lee (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula) in a rare turn as a romantic hero.
The film leaves a few loose ends unresolved including just what causes the horrible burns that Dr. Bonnet periodically inflicts on his victims. However, this is a minor quibble, and overall the film is an excellent example of vintage Hammer horror.
The Legend Films DVD is likewise excellent, though the colors appear a bit washed out in the opening scenes of the film. Faces appear a bit waxen; fortunately, as the film progresses, the colors become stronger and more vibrant which makes me wonder if this was intentional on the part of Fisher and his Director of Photography Jack Asher. Later in the film, they exploit the lurid aspects of his color pallet to reinforce the monstrous aspects of Bonnet’s personality.
The DVD package is sparse with only scene selection and no extra features. The film is transferred in its original aspect ratio from a great looking source print. The sound is 2 channel mono and is very clean with no audible hiss or distortion.
I must admit that I had avoided Phase IV for many years, chalking it up to the limited pantheon of ant cinema (Them, Empire of the Ants, The Naked Jungle); however, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the story and the performances, both by the human actors and their ant counterparts. In the early 70’s, when Phase IV was released, there was a trend toward nature-out-of-balance as seen in films such as No Blade of Grass, Silent Running, and The Andromeda Strain. Phase IV falls solidly into this category.
Right off the top, we learn that the Earth is likely doomed. Not by some gigantic invasion fleet but rather by the tiniest of creatures, the common ant. Out in the desert they have begun to act – well, very un-ant like, building large pillars and instigating coordinated attacks on the sparse human population, suggesting they are controlled by a higher intelligence. Two scientists, Dr. Hubbs played by Nigel Davenport (Peeping Tom, The Mind of Mr. Soames) and a mathematician named Lesko played by Michael Murphy (Count Yorga, Strange Behavior) study the phenomenon in their isolated research station, which resembles an anthill. Joining them is a young girl, Kendra (Lynne Frederick of Vampire Circus and, Schizo) who has been orphaned by Hubbs’ callous behavior; she does not add much to the story and stays mostly in the background until the ending of the film. Dr. Hubbs, obsessed with finding an answer before his research grants run out, provokes the ants by destroying the pillars they have built. Thus begins a war between the ants and the scientists, who in the arrogance believe that they will easily triumph over the tiny critters.
Of course, this being the Viet Nam era the film drips with not-too-subtle metaphor. This is the only feature directed by Saul Bass, who is best known as a title designer on films such as Vertigo and Alien. (He also claimed to have directed the shower sequence in Hitchcock’s Psycho.) He manages to keep everything very low key throughout, adding enormously to the feeling of impending doom. We are witnessing the quiet beginning of a metamorphosis that will change our world. Phase IV has a rich visual style, especially the micro-photography that brings us into the world of the ants. However, the visuals get out of hand at the end of the film when Bass employs Space Odyssey-type psychedelic imagery. Composer Brian Gascoigne (The Emerald Forest) uses a minimal synthesizer score that enhances the otherworldly effect and avoids the typical brassy television music that was so prominent in films of this era.
Legend Films’ transfer of Phase IV is excellent both in picture quality and in sound. Again, it is released as a Best Buy exclusive. There are no extras included, just a scene selection menu, and the sound is 2-channel mono. This is a film that would really benefit from an audio commentary or, at the very least, cast and crew interviews. In a karmic aside – as I write this, the local daycare children are walking past my front door on their way to the park singing “The Ants Came Marching.”
Jump ahead a decade to the world of the early 1980s, and you have The Sender. It seemed that every horror film from this era was full of teenagers doing things they were not supposed to: having sex, hitchhiking, doing drugs, dressing up like Michael Jackson. However, The Sender aspires to be more and achieves a kind of X Files feel. It wraps a fairly intriguing mystery together with horror and serves it up with religious overtones. Is the sender the new messiah? And if so, doesn’t he know that messiahs die young? While not particularly original, it does offer a creepy premise – the sender broadcasting his dreams and fantasies (that were more effectively realized a couple of years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street.)
A great performance by Zeljko Ivanek (Oz, Live Free or Die Hard) as the mysterious John Doe #83 anchors the movie. Who is he, and what is the power he seems to possess that sends his thoughts to all of those around him? Katherine Harrold is Dr. Farmer, John Doe’s attending psychiatrist, and turns in a capable, but bland performance. In fairness she does not have a lot to work with, as her character is just a device to hang the action on. Shirley Knight as Joe Doe’s mother is supposed to be an enigma – is she Mary Madeline or an abusive mother? However, Knight is way over the top and almost painful to watch, and what should have been an intriguing character becomes comic relief.
The screenplay by Thomas Baun (Dracula: The Dark Prince, Night Visions) attempts to open up some interesting ideas, which it doesn’t really pursue, opting instead to alternate between moments of contemplative horror and kinetic mayhem. THE SENDER is stylishly directed by Roger Christian who has the distinction of winning both an Oscar for his Art Direction on Star Warsand a Razzie for directing Battlefield Earth. While working from a fairly low budget he manages to craft a good-looking film. His set-piece scene – set in an operating room where they are about to bore literally into the Sender’s mind – is quite spectacular. It is unfortunate that he did not have a more fully realized script to work with. As it is THE SENDER is still a pretty good film and keeps moving, even if it doesn’t always make sense.
Again Legend Films has done a great job in bringing it to DVD. As with The Man Who Could Cheat Death and Phase IV, it is available only as a Best Buy exclusive and has no extras except for a scene selection menu. Although they are producing a low cost package, they do not skimp on quality, and the picture and sound quality are both excellent. Flawed as it is The Sender still deserves a spot up there in the ’80s horror movie section next to The Hitcher, The Re-Animator, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Check out this week’s DVD releases below: 10,000 B.C. and THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, plus some interesting classic and cult titles such as MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN and THE EYE 3 (the U.S. DVD retitling of THE EYE 10).