Phase IV - Phase IV(Blu Ray) [101 Films - 2020]During the 1970’s the ‘when animal/insects attack’ genre was huge- be it films or pulp paperback fiction- we had people eating rats, giant limb ripping crabs, flesh-eating slugs, killer sharks, flesh feasting worms,or amassed & swarming bees- much of this genre was very tongue-in-cheek, or downright silly. One of the few films in this genre that took a more serious, uneasy, bleak, and at times cryptic/ trippy take was Phase IV. The early 1970’s film focuses in on a small group of scientists under attack from a group of highly intelligent ants in the Arizona Desert. From 101 films, and part of their Black Label series which sees the ultimate edition of cult films- here's a two Blu Ray & booklet set release of this classic slice of ‘when insects attack’/ intelligent-yet-grim Sci-Fi. The set takes in a great new scan of the film, alternative ending, short films by the same director, a new commentary, and more
Phase IV appeared in 1974 and was the only feature-length film directed by respected & acclaimed graphic designer who had worked on the likes of Psycho, The Shinning, Goodfellas, Vertigo, and many more. The films was written by Mayo Simon- who penned the likes of 1969’s stranded American astronaut's thriller Marooned, Westworld sequel 1976 Futureworld, and a few episodes of 70’s sci-fi US TV show Man from Atlantis. Phase IV is set in the Arizona Desert- with much of the film runtime taking place inside the scientists claustrophobic silver biodome- as 1970’s film goes, aside from some of tech/computers the film looks largely undated. And as a feature-length debut, it’s very impressive, as Saul mixes together close-up ant footage, eerier desert-scapes, trippy insect-related imagery, and the slowly declining sanity of the inhabitants with-in the silver biodome.
The film has a very small cast of six, but only three of these taking up the main of the film- of the key characters we have bearded & overbearing middle age Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs(Nigel Davenport), younger scientist James R. Lesko(Michael Murphy), and innocent stray teen Kendra Eldridge(Lynne Frederick) who parents have been killed by the ants. The whole thing opens with a series of space pictures, then close-up of ant footage with the narrator's voice-over talking about a change in the universe, and how this affected the ants intelligence. Then we move to the film's key location Arizona Desert, to a recently abandoned & half built housing estate- near by the ants have built a series on monolithic earth towers. Here the pair set up their silver biodome…at first, the ants don’t want to play game, so Hubbs blows up their towers, and so starts the back & forth between mankind & the ants. Along the way we get unsettling imagery like ants coming out of a dead man's hand, sped-up footage of ants feasting animals- blended with the dramatic & often sweaty dramatics of the three in the dome, ant footage & grim desert landscape – all soundtracked by a blend of broodingly hovering synth craft, and sinister organ-based prog jam outs. The three main actors are all very believable & relatable, and with the very clever use of ant footage one does very much believe that the ants are working together to defeat mankind- the whole thing ends on a very downbeat-yet-cryptic note.
Moving onto this new double Blu Ray set- and on the first disc, we get the film and related extras. And on the second disc, we get a selection of six short films made by Saul Bass between 1964 & 1984. So firstly we need to talk about the new HD scan of the film- this looks marvelous compared with the TV prints I’d seen of the film in past, really great clarity of picture, especially in the ant footage. And the general color & definition looks nicely enhanced- yet it never looses that 70’s edge, which of course is great. The first extra here is a new commentary track- this brings together Allan Bryce of Darkside magazine and film historian Richard Holliss. And as tracks go it's both informative, at times amusing & chatty affair- the pair move from talking about the concept behind the film & some of its possible meaning, going onto discuss the cast, Saul Bass’s work with Hitchcock & in particular Psycho- and if or not he filmed the infamous shower scene, moving onto discuss his other art on films. Later they talk about when they first saw the film, similar films, and much more- all in all, a most worthy track.
Next, we get the twenty-minute featurette An Ants Life: Contextualising Phase IV, here we find a film writers/ critics discussing how the films a blend of 'when insects attack’ & intelligent Sci-Fi, and that it’s one of the early entries in the cosmic horror genre. They go onto talk about how it compares to 50 B films about killer ants, and general insight into the film & it’s concepts…again a very worthy extra. Lastly, on this first disc, we get Saul Bass’s original ending- with optional commentary from Bryce & Hollis- this is a real revelation, as I wasn’t aware of or had seen it before- the extended ending runs for another five or so minutes, and boy does Saul cram in a lot of surreal & tripped out imagery- really brain melting/ yet thought-provoking. So glad they added this into the release!.
Moving onto the second discs & we get the six short films from Mr. Bass- these run between nine & forty minutes, we start with 1964 film The Searching Eye- this follows a young boy out & about with a voice-over talking about the eye, by the end of the eleven minutes he’s built a complex sandcastle with a musical paper score as it’s flag. Moving on the short films go from thoughtful & at times trippy blend of imagery, nature footage, more detailed like Monty Python-like animation, and a doc about his artwork with Saul himself commenting on some of his iconic creations. The final film in the collection is 1984’s Quest- this is based on the Ray Bradbury story Frost & Fire, the thirty-three-minute film focus in on a group of humans who live in an underground complex- their lives only last eight days- as they go from babies to old age in this time. One of the newest born is sent on a quest to see if they can find longer life, and we get impressive shots of spacey landscapes, buildings & huge statutes the Explorer goes past- with the overall result been a trippy game of laser chess with a neanderthal. Again this is a great & worthy bonus to the set, within all one & twenty-seven minutes playtime over the whole disc.
Ever since I first saw Phase IV, late night in the mid-1990s on British TV, the film stands as one of my favorite 1970’s films- as it aptly blends a feeling of heady cosmic dread with tense human interaction & some great, at times brooding surreal-to- troubling imagery. So I couldn’t be happier with this film getting a classy double-disc release. Even if like me you're familiar with the film, this is very much a must-have release as all the extras are great & the collection of short films is most worthy too.Roger Batty