Hands down one of the most unjustly neglected Sci-Fi flicks of the 70’s. Phase IV had a lot going for it: mysterious cosmic events, bizarre behavior of ants, alien-like constructions found in the desert… It was directed by Saul Bass, renowned title designer that worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese (which it certainly shows in the film), starred well established actors Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy, and the electronic soundtrack by Brian Gascoigne was a marvel by itself. Then how come this movie remains such an obscure gem? I believe either audiences dismissed it as just another ant attack film (a subgenre that was already exhausted back then) or maybe another portion realized this was too esoteric for their tastes. I guess when you put odd geometric shapes, people talking to ants and mystical music in a trailer you will alienate some people… LOTS of people even.
Maybe hailing it as a “new kind of a film experience” was a little too much but Phase IV is definitely a different kind of film. Yes, to say Phase IV can get surreal would be downplaying it. The movie begins with some pretentious space imagery that people who appreciate Sci-Fi of the 70’s are bound to love. Next we are taken through six whole minutes of ants doing stuff while a narrator explains the effect that certain cosmic “phases” are causing on them. That would be the nail in the coffin alright but this sequence is perfectly shot and staged with some really good closeups of ants, the kind that even Discovery Channel would applaud. We can also see the start of odd constructions that look very alien and meetings between the ants (no fake animatronics here which means extra points for the movie). The narrator tells us that scientists are observing a biological imbalance among ants of a region in Arizona where fights between species have ceased and they seem to be gathering together for unknown purposes. Even insects that used to prey on ants, such as spiders, are disappearing (you guessed it, the ants are attacking them). This entire sequence is greatly enhanced by the otherworldly soundtrack by Gascoigne which sounds definitely unique. The movie actually begins when two scientists (Davenport and Murphy) meet to investigate those issues and they find these tall, geometrically-shaped dirt towers in the desert, near an establishment of devastated and abandoned homes, which seem to look like… hives.
Phase IV blends together equal doses of suspense, surrealism and paranoia. The climax of the film is particularly eerie and thought-provoking. Mention apart deserves the style of Saul Bass, who is especially known for the design of the Psycho and Vertigo title sequences, that really stands out with some artsy shots, nods to Dali and Buñuel, strange color choices and editing… It’s an acquired taste certainly but you can’t blame the movie for attempting something different and actually succeeding. On top of it, the acting is surprisingly good and believable. Phase IV was infamously featured in one of the first chapters of Mystery Science Theater 3000, one of the very few mishaps of the show which may have given the movie some undeserved bad reputation, so here goes a small spank to Joel and the bots. The bottom line is that, if you love Sci-Fi and especially that distinct vibe of the 70’s, you can’t possibly miss Phase IV. It truly is a strange film in the best possible way.
Phase IV can be acquired from Legend Films.