In an isolated area of the American southwest desert, a small research station has been quickly set up to study some disturbing trends among the ant population. Ants of different species have not only stopped fighting against each other, they have begun to communicate and work together – building geometric ‘ant skyscrapers’ and driving out the human population British biologist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and “numbers man” James Lesko (Michael Murphy) soon find themselves in a battle of wills with the insects, with each side striking at the other until it becomes clear that science is going to be no match for the ants’ newly supercharged brains.
Downbeat Sci-Fi was all the rage when PHASVE IV was released, coming on the heels of apocalyptic downers like SOYLENT GREEN, SILENT RUNNING, and THE OMEGA MAN. It seems audiences held little hope of a future without hunger, rampant overpopulation, and ecological catastrophe on a global scale. But PHASVE IV’s release also dovetails nicely with the ‘nature run amok’ movement that was just getting started at a lower pedigree level with FROGS, but would soon hit its stride with GRIZZLY, THE SWARM, and FOOD OF THE GODS.
PHASVE IV is typically (and rightly) set apart from the pack, as it’s a far more thought provoking take on an often exploitative subject. For a brief period in the late ’60s and early ’70s, horror films with artistic aspirations were plentiful and roamed freely across the nation. Acclaimed filmmaker Roman Polanski took Ira Levin’s pot boiler about modern day Devil worshipers and crafted ROSEMARY’S BABY – turning it into both a critical and box office sensation. William Friedkin, who was able to make any film he wanted after the FRENCH CONNECTION Oscar sweep, chose William Peter Blatty’s tale of possession and redemption, THE EXORCIST, scoring another batch of nominations and becoming one of the top grossing films of all time. The trickledown effect of these behemoths was considerable, and many other filmmakers had a shot at getting edgier and more difficult material financed as long as there was some marketable horror content.
It’s no surprise that Bass’ visuals are stunning; Bass was one of the more highly coveted graphic designers, and his work can easily be found in design museums all over the world, or in your own home (Quaker Oates and Minolta are just two of his more famous corporate logos). From the ’50s up through the early ’90s, renowned commercial designer Saul Bass was steadily employed by many filmmakers from Otto Preminger right up to Martin Scorsese to design title sequences and promotional artwork. But Bass also worked with several famously demanding directors like John Frankenheimer and Alfred Hitchcock on narrative content as well; Bass assisted with the photography and editing of numerous sequences. But Bass’ command of narrative caught many by surprise – the palpable feeling of both fear and fascination on the part of the scientists is presented credibly and realistically.
But it also must be said that the film could not exist without the absolutely stunning macro-photography by Ken Middleham, who had done similarly breathtaking work 3 years earlier on THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE – a fictional documentary about the feasibility of an insect takeover of the world. The information that Bass and Middleham are able to impart is truly impressive; lengthy silent takes show the workings of the ant world, including a multi-species war council that ought to be the envy of every nature show in existence, and one superbly detailed sequence showing how the ants move a chunk of the poison that was used to attack them down to their Queen in order to render future generations immune.
Events (and their conclusions) are left wonderfully vague; so much so, that when we learn through Murphy’s voiceover that a cosmic event has triggered the ant behavior, it almost plays as the result of a studio note asking that certain things be more clearly spelled out. Giving the audience too much information – particularly in this genre – almost never works. We don’t need the scientists to tell us what the ants are doing because thanks to Middleham’s camerawork and Bass’ guidance, we always know what we need to. It’s an almost forgotten fact that in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD George Romero laid the problem at the door of a passing meteorite. In the ensuing years, realizing that ambiguity can work for you, Romero dropped any further reference to it, removing a layer of security and gaining a layer of dread in the process.
With the ants soaking up much of the film’s spotlight, there’s not much left for Davenport and Murphy, but both acquit themselves well. Murphy, a Robert Altman stock player who also had a nice genre turn in 1970’s COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, makes an acceptably egg-headed young hero; his Lesko is a numbers cruncher who has no idea what he’s up against until it’s too late, and Murphy applies just the right layer of naiveté while not letting the audience forget that he’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist.
Nigel Davenport is one of many British actors of his generation whose name doesn’t come easily for the average movie-goer (he places somewhere between James Mason and Barry Foster on the recognizability scale) but whose presence elevates even the most mundane programmer (he’s by far the most interesting thing on screen in the 1977 remake of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU). Davenport’s character has the more interesting arc of the two leads, as we watch him move believably from scientific detachment to childish anger as he nearly destroys the lab attempting to capture a single ant.
I admit to smelling a rat when Lynne Fredrick (Davenport’s co-star 4 years earlier in Cornel Wilde’s end-of-civilization tale, NO BLADE OF GRASS, which is still MIA on DVD) arrives at the research station, the only surviving member of a family driven off their land and killed by the ants. You could almost see the memo from a cigar chomping Paramount executive to “get a cute broad in there”, and though her flirtation with Murphy threatens to slow the proceedings to a crawl, Bass has other plans, and uses their budding romance as a foundation for a nicely disturbing finale.
PHASVE IV is being released on DVD (finally!) by Legend Films as part of their distribution deal with Paramount – a studio that has been famously negligent in regards to releasing their hundreds of catalog titles. The last few months have been a genre enthusiast’s dream come true, as titles that we had given up hope of ever seeing appear on disc began showing up, including THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, THE SKULL, even THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY!
PHASVE IV is definitely one of the more eagerly awaited titles, so it’s a shame that Legend has decided to make it a Best Buy exclusive. Now, they’re not the first to do it (Universal frustrated many fans by releasing two box sets of classic Horror and Sci-Fi this way), but a glance at any discussion board would reveal nothing but frustration at attempting to purchase one of these exclusives: you can never find them on Best Buy’s website; they are rarely shelved; and when asked, employees never seem to have heard of them. The entire process seems geared to create an eBay black market.
If you can find it, you’ll be pleased by a strong, anamorphic transfer in a presumably accurate 1.78×1 ratio. The colors are strong for a nearly 35 year old film (especially one shot on a low budget) and the brief signs of age shouldn’t discourage anyone. As with the rest of the Paramount titles being released by Legend, there are no extras – and I mean none, the menu options are ‘Play’ and ‘Chapters’ – which is a shame. Bass passed away over a decade ago, but presumably his estate still has material on the production (Bass’ only theatrical feature as a director) and it would be up to Paramount to get them, as Legend can only release what Paramount gives them.
Rumors of a longer cut persist (apparently, a cut that ran over 90min was released theatrically, only to be pulled back and re-edited to its current 84 minute running time) and for those interested in investigating the missing material, the film’s theatrical trailer contained some of the excised elements, and can be found on Synapse’s terrific trailer collection, 42nd Street Forever Vol 3.