This week’s forgotten flick is 1974’s nature-gone-wild epic Phase IV, an unforgettable combination of slow-burn eeriness, beautiful photography, and murderous, super-intelligent ants.
When I saw the gruesome poster art on Amazon (see below), I assumed it to be a 1970s low-brow bug panic schlock-fest along the lines of The Swarm or Empire of the Ants — fun, but dumb:
Man, was I wrong. Phase IV is the opposite of The Swarm: It’s highbrow, not dumb, and not really meant to be fun either. It’s a slow-paced, moody, science fiction gem that will have you asking, “How had I never heard of this movie before?”
It’s the kind of film streaming was designed for — a movie with little broad appeal that might have fallen into complete obscurity, but can now survive online, quietly not turning a profit, while waiting for weird cranks like you and me to stumble across it and fall in love.
The first clue to Phase IV’s greatness: Saul Bass directed it. Bass is best known as the graphic designer who created title sequences for Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and Stanley Kubrick. He also designed the Bell Telephone logo, and semi-directed the shower scene from Psycho, so not the type of guy to turn in some bullshit.
In his first (and only) feature, Bass’ devotion to style and composition are evident in every shot. The film is so slow-paced, it borders on ponderousness, but there’s an undercurrent of 1970s loopiness that keeps things alive, and there are a few killer ant attacks to break up the art-appreciation too… and the “real” ending is sublime. (More on that later.)
Plotwise, Phase IV begins with the revelation that a vaguely-defined cosmic event has changed the way ants behave. Adversarial ant colonies, probably angry about that thing you did with the magnifying glass, start working together, seemingly bent on the destruction of Humanity. Instead of flooding every anthill on earth with DDT and calling it a day, humans dispatch a couple of egghead scientists into the Arizona desert to figure out how to stop the mutated super-ants.
This could be the setup for any random bugs-go-nuts movie, but Phase IV is not a sensationalist excuse to show people running around screaming, covered with ants. Instead, the film is an exploration of the nature of intellect, the conflict between individualism and collectivism, and man’s prideful assumption that he’s on the top of the evolutionary heap. Before long, the bugs and humans are locked in a tense standoff — a battle of civilizations where human brainpower is pitted against an alien intelligence, with something even greater than life or death on the line.
The story is told through carefully composed shots that unfold at a deliberate pace, accompanied by brooding synthesizer drones from White Noise’s David Vorhaus. It’s creepy and off-kilter, if you have the taste for that kind of thing. Phase IV is very 70s sci fi — a “cold” movie, more concerned with ideas than people, and in that way it owes a huge debt to 2001, but unlike most movies that try to “pull a Kubrick,” this one doesn’t suffer from the comparison.
While Bass’s visual genius is evident in every shot of the outside world, in the realm of the ants, the macrophotography of Ken Middleman is king. Middleman, who also filmed the insect sequences for The Hellstrom Chronicle (another ’70s cult favorite about insect-panic), takes the viewer deep inside the alien landscape of an anthill, and brings the strange “culture” of the ants to life. He manages to make the bugs both terrifying and sympathetic, but doesn’t fall into the trap of “humanizing” them. These are not ants who think they’re people; they are an inscrutable alien “other” throughout — even though we can somewhat understand and relate to them.
All of Phase IV’s careful pacing seems to be leading up to a huge payoff… which, sadly, never comes. The film’s ending is a straight up mess — a truncated letdown that offers only vague answers to the questions the movie asks, and probably resulted in the critical and audience yawns that met the movie’s original release. It seemed to me like the ending to a different movie.
Well, it turns out it is the ending to a different movie. Apparently, the studio rejected Bass’s original vision for the end of Phase IV, lopping off around eight minutes of footage, and throwing in some cheesy explanatory dialogue, thereby neutering the impact of the movie entirely (and probably resulting in Bass never wanting to make another Hollywood feature).
Thankfully, the original footage was recently rediscovered and remastered — and it is amazing. Taking a cue from 2001, Phase IV‘s climax is pure surrealist visual poetry, where the meaning is so trippy it’s beyond the realm of language, and can only be suggested through quick cuts of mind-fuck imagery and atonal music. It’s peak seventies stoner-intellectual, and I am on board for that all day — just inject it right into my veins.
Sadly, the “free” version of Phase IV streaming on Amazon Prime does not include the original ending. The only way to see it is to purchase the digital download version from iTunes. But you should do it. It’s worth it!