dir. Saul Bass
"That spring we were all watching the events in space and wondering what the final effect would be...When the effect came, it was almost unnoticed because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life."
-James R. Lesko
Seeing as Phase IV is the sole feature length directorial effort by title credits king (and Salman Rushdie alter ego) Saul Bass (Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, Psycho, Bunny Lake Is Missing), the film's credit sequence is what I anticipated most before watching Bass' picture. Bass, genius that he was, managed to subvert expectations quite cleverly here, of course. Trippy 2001 influenced images of swirling lights and colors in space greet us, while a voice-over from James R. Lesko (played by one of my all time favorite character actors Michael Murphy) informs us that strange, unexplained goings-on in space have fucked shit up, but royally, back on the little green/blue orb we like to call home. A British scientist, Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), has observed some peculiar behavior among the various species of ants in the American Southwest. For the first time in history, these different ant groups have teamed together to work toward a common cause--humanity's destruction. This opening scene would have been a perfect opportunity for Bass to treat us to an imaginative space themed credit sequence. A credit sequence, unfortunately, is something that Bass does not give us. Superimposed over the space imagery is one small, simple title card: Phase I.
Phase I? Shit, did I get the wrong movie? I didn't want to watch the first (nor, indeed, the second or third) entry in this series. Everyone knows that the fourth movie is always the best part of a quadrology. I was ready to throw in the towel, but for some inexplicable reason I decided to continue watching this credit-less, evil ant movie. Hopefully, my patience would pay off.
After an extended, voice-over heavy, outer-space sequence, Bass' film takes a terrestrial turn with a trip to the mystical, alien world of the American Southwest. In a futile attempt to report on and subvert the strange ant shenanigans in the desert, increasingly mad scientist Hubbs and level-headed young assistant Lesko set up base here in a heavily fortified lab to observe the proceedings. Surveying the abandoned town, they soon discover the Eldridges, the only family in the area that has not fled the ant infested hellscape. Although the kooky scientists warn the farm folk of impending doom, the elder Mr. Eldridge remains steadfast and cocksure in his ability to thwart the tiny insects should they try to fuck with his shit. Ol' Papa Eldridge, it seems, has set up a gasoline filled moat that he can quickly set ablaze if any of Satan's six legged spawn happen to happen upon his homestead. I'm sure his plan will work out just fine. I doubt we'll be seeing this family again.
Cue second title card: Phase II. Hey, what's going on here? These unconventional titles are leaving me confused. I wonder what Bass could be working toward here.
["Hey, look at these structures--just like that movie we saw, 2001."
"Except seven times better."]
After an extended period of inactivity from the pesky critters, Hubbs decides to shake things up a bit by shooting grenades at a series of obelisks that the ants had previously constructed. [No scientist worth his salt ever travels without his trusty grenade launcher.] And shake things up, he does. Hubbs shakes things up so much, in fact, that the ants invade the Eldridge homestead, forcing the family to flee in its beat-up pick-up--flee in the direction of the science learnin' lab. When the ants destroy the lab's generator, the backup power soon kicks in and Hubbs turns on the building's sprinkler system, spraying the surrounding area with a yellow poisonous substance known simply as yellow. Wouldn't you know it, the Eldridges just so happen to arrive at the science base as soon as the poison is released (cue sad trombone).
When the hazard-suit clad scientists survey the surrounding area the following morning, Hubbs is unfazed by the sight of the dead bodies. Lesko attempts in vain to convince Hubbs of the gravity of the situation, "People are dead back there."
Hubbs non-chalantly replies, "Yes, tragedy. I don't understand it. They accepted the order. Why should they come here? Irrational behavior."
When Hubbs changes the subject to his study of the ant behavior, Lesko becomes furious. "Hubbs, those people are dead. Don't you understand?"
"People get killed sometimes. I think this yellow should hold its potency for three or four days."
As anyone who watches enough horror movies can attest, all scientists are cold, logical robots who lack any human feelings, and are completely devoid of empathy and warmth. To them, simple human decency is an archaic throwback to an earlier primitive stage in our development, a stage which they have thankfully evolved beyond.
Much to Hubbs' chagrin, one of the Eldridges, young Kendra (Lynne Frederick), managed to survive the poison spray of the previous night after hiding in a nearby cellar. Hubbs reluctantly agrees to Lesko's request to invite the girl back to base, rather than leave here to die in the ant infested, poisonous desert. When is that young whippersnapper Lesko gonna learn that helping people will get you nowhere in life, except getting killed by evil insects? From there, all scientific plans go downhill. Every inch of progress toward understanding the ant culture and its nearly inscrutable language is met with ten miles of whup-ass from the evil insects.
Cue the third title card: Phase III. I still don't know what Bass is going for here. His methods are leaving me frightened and confused.
Believing that she is doing more harm than good, Kendra walks into the ant-filled open and disappears. Ants soon devour Hubbs. Lesko, recognizing his role as humanity's last hope, travels to the queen ant's lair to destroy the insect leader. Here he is met is met by Kendra, who emerges from the sand in the underground cave. Strange music kicks in, swirling lights happen, images become superimposed over each other, mindfuckery ensues. Instead of killing these two humans, in their eventual quest toward domination over humans, the ants opt instead to resort to psychedelic, ambiguous, super star-baby craziness. Lesko's voice-over then informs us, "They wanted us...We didn't know for what purpose, but we knew we would be told."
Cue the final title card: Phase IV. And, now that the film is over, Bass treats us to some credits. Credits. Now, I get it. It all makes sense.
Bass was one smart cookie. Recognizing his status as the legendary, world renowned, household name, title credit rock star; Bass realized that the only reason that people went to any of the movies he was involved in was to watch the credits. By waiting until the end of Phase IV to present the credits, he could ensure that viewers would stay to watch the entire movie. He would avoid the troubles that befell earlier films he was involved in.
"Hey Pam, Saul Bass has new credits coming out next week."
"What's the movie called, Frank?"
"I don't know. I think it's some sort of travelogue or something, North by Northwest."
Pam rolls her eyes and makes a dismissive wanking motion.
"Tell me about it. Why do they gotta clutter up Bass's work with all that pointless movie nonsense? Bass is the only reason anyone ever goes to see those movies."
It was perfectly fine if folks walked out of the films of such hacks as Hitchcock and Preminger after watching the opening credits, but Bass wanted to ensure that people watched his movie all the way through, goddamnit. If they wanted some goddamn credits, they'd have to wait for the goddamned end of the goddamned film to see them, goddamnit. And what an awesome, whacked out wait it would be. As with many other sole directorial efforts (Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers, James William Guercio's Electra Glide in Blue), Bass' film is the sort of one of a kind experience that leaves one hopelessly thirsting for more from that director. Wrapped in the guise of a familiar 50's Sci-Fi, B-Movie formula, Bass offers a singularly unique take on the campy set-up.
Given Bass's background in advertising and title design, it is no surprise that Phase IV is a visually striking film. Most noteworthy are the rich desert photography, and extreme closeup, ant sequences. Set to an eerie synth score, his film conveys an effectively unnerving tone. Bass manages to make the familiar seem alien. Although the science station sequences lean too far in monotonously repetitive territory for my comfort, they do further work to lend this film an otherworldly feel. The sterile environment of the science station sits metaphorically adrift in an alien space. And the scientists within attempt to make sense of, and control something which they could never hope to understand.
Phase IV is not without its faults, of course. Young farm girl Kendra exhibits the worst qualities of the cliched helpless female horror movie victim. When Kendra wakes up one night to see an especially evil, green-assed ant sitting on her hand, she is too afraid to smash it. The confused girl simply whispers, "go away." Kendra's uselessness does not end there, however. Indeed, the only time that she acts out against the evil ants, it is in such a monumentally dumb manner that even a Faulknerian idiot man child would scream out, "Why the stupid?" When she sees Hubbs' glass case containing evil ant specimens, she smashes the glass in a fit of rage, hoping to kill the insects, who predictably escape. Hubbs seals off the room, hoping to quarantine and gas the ants, but these humans' fates are sealed.
A product of the times in which it was made, Phase IV is an authority questioning, mystical bummer film packaged in familiar, cheesy sci-fi wrapping. The ant revolution acts as retribution for all of humanity's attempts to control and subjugate whatever life-forms it has happened across in an increasingly diminishing frontier. People have now become the test subjects of an even more intelligent species. Oh man's hubris, when will you ever learn?
[Side note: Although I didn't realize it when I chose to write about this movie, Phase IV was featured in an an episode of "MST3K". I am a great fan of the show but I never saw this episode. If there are any joke overlaps, I apologize. They are entirely coincidental.]
[A taste of the awesome score composed by Brian Gascoigne]