❉ A lost gem of ‘70s sci-fi, and the only film directed by Saul Bass.
“We have to show them that we will not – MAN will not – give in!”
Hollywood likes ants.
As early as 1954, tropical potboiler The Naked Jungle saw Biblical saviour Charlton Heston juggling a complex love life with the looming threat of swarming army ants. That same year, THEM! (yes, the title does include an exclamation mark) atomically supersized its ants to eight feet long, which then traumatised a luckless New Mexico community before moving on to LA and confronting the army. It became the first of a long series of B flicks about unusually sized invertebrates that became known as ‘big bug’ movies.
Phase IV is a different kind of ant movie. Conceived in the pessimistic landscape of early ‘70s gloomy sci-fi, it’s a visually stunning but often baffling prologue to a formic apocalypse, where – unusually – the ants are normal-sized. The ‘big bugs’ of THEM! Are terrifying because of their size, but really, they behave just as any normal ant would. The scary thing about the ants in Phase IV is that they don’t. Their size is average, but their intelligence is far from it; greater, it turns out, than the doomed scientists sent to investigate mysterious ant antics in Arizona.
The film was the only one ever to be directed by a man called Saul Bass. If the name is familiar to you, you’re probably a Hitchcock fan – Bass was the massively talented visual designer of many of Hitchcock’s memorable title sequences, including Psycho. Bass brings that incredible eye for visuals to this film – it’s stunning to look at, especially the breath-taking insect photography by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham. But even the non-macro visuals are striking, especially the aftermath of a pesticide battle that leaves the entire landscape suffused with yellow.
Mayo Simon’s screenplay is often maddeningly unclear (and, it has to be said, scientifically illiterate), but at its heart this is a siege movie, with two intrepid scientists (and later, a young female local) pinned down in a high tech bunker and waging a war of nerves with their pint-sized antagonists. It plays tensely – the scientists wipe out a wave of attacking ants with pesticide, the ants adapt to it and retaliate by building highly reflective towers that focus the sun onto the bunker, heating it to such an extent that it disables the scientists’ computer. And so it goes, move and counter-move being played out with both sides suffering casualties. In the end, though, there are far more ants than people.
Despite the implication that this is just a test run for the ants’ main attack on all of humanity, Phase IV actually plays out in a deliberately low-key way. This is perhaps most noticeable in a deliberately small roll call of characters (basically just three) played by a noticeably non-starry cast. Head scientist and main ant antagonist Dr Ernest Hubbs is played by the talented but never especially famous Brit actor Nigel Davenport, while his assistant James Lesko is incarnated by prolific ‘70s character actor Michael Murphy, in a rare step away from playing shadowy figures embroiled in Watergate-style conspiracies. Completing the trio, and arguably the best known of the three, is another Brit – former child star and later wife to Peter Sellers, Lynne Frederick rounds out the cast as Kendra, a traumatised survivor of an ant attack on her family farm.
All three act their socks off, Davenport in particular bringing real heft to his role as a defiant and delusional scientist despite having some very scientifically dubious dialogue. Frederick gets some hints at a love interest for Murphy, but only hints – this isn’t really the sort of movie demanding of a romance subplot.
But what’s really interesting is the way the movie treats the ants themselves as characters, not just a homogeneous mass of threat. One ant in particular, a distinct green and yellow specimen, becomes almost the audience identification figure among the hordes, even acting as an infiltrator to the scientists’ base. Ants are seen to heroically sacrifice themselves in a relay chain to bring a sample of lethal pesticide to their all-knowing queen. And after a particularly high-casualty assault by the scientists, the ants reverently collect their dead, lay them out in serried rows, and actually mourn for them, a haunting ululation playing on the typically ‘70s synth-based soundtrack, including Delia Derbyshire’s Blue Veils & Golden Sands from the ‘red’ Radiophonic Workshop’s ‘red album’.
All this gives a sense that this really is a war for dominance between two species, one utterly alien but every bit a match for humanity in intelligence. It’s arguably hamstrung by the kind of deliberately cryptic ending that was very much in vogue in the years following Kubrick’s 2001, but that doesn’t detract from the power of what has gone before it. In fact, Bass shot an even more extreme and surreal ending montage that was meant to provide some hints of what the future ant-dominated world might look like, but it was so bizarre that distributors Paramount cut it from the final film (the montage was recently rediscovered, and can be seen on YouTube, if you’re curious).
In fact, Paramount were completely baffled by the film – it’s fair to assume they were expecting another ‘big bug’ movie, and were taken by surprise by the final, cerebral product. They obviously didn’t know how to market it; the poster, with its hyperbolic declaration, “the day the Earth was turned into a cemetery!” seems to be for a different film entirely.
In fact, the film was regarded with general confusion for many years, but slowly built up a cult following including the likes of Stephen King, who was effusive in his praise for it in his 1980 non-fiction screed on horror, Danse Macabre. I first encountered it as a teenager in a late night showing on BBC2, and found myself haunted by it – I recorded it the next time it was on, and have watched it uncountable times since.
And it is a haunting film. The imagery is striking throughout, and Nigel Davenport’s powerful performance as self-appointed (and ultimately doomed) defender of humanity gives Mayo Simon’s dialogue some real gravitas. All those hints that the ants are not just intelligent, but have some real, incomprehensible culture of their own serve to make them a far more terrifying menace than a man in a rubber ant suit waiting to get electrocuted by the US military. Davenport’s character is far from sympathetic, but his despairing cries as he realises the dominance of mankind could really be at an end hammers home the very real possibility. A cheerful film this is not.
In that sense, it’s emblematic of its age. Early ‘70s sci-fi was frequently doom-laden and morose – witness also Colossus: The Forbin Project, Soylent Green, The Omega Man and many others. Sadly, Phase IV remains less well-known than those classics, and until recently pretty hard to find a copy of; there were a couple of long-deleted bare bones DVD releases, there is now a HD version available on Blu-ray, Prime Video and iTunes, including that surreal ending montage. If you can, watch it – I don’t anticipate any antipathy to the antics of the ant antagonists.
❉ ‘Phase IV (1974)’ was released on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK, with a New HD restoration, on the 101 Films Black Label, 6 April 2020. Includes the original Saul Bass ending and bonus disc SAUL BASS: SHORT FILMS. RRP £15.00. Click here to buy while stocks last.
❉ ‘Phase IV (1974)’ received its channel premiere on Talking Pictures TV, Friday 31 July @ 10.00pm BST.
❉ Simon Fernandes is an itinerant English teacher and movie fanatic currently working in Barcelona. He’s been seeking out the weird, underrated and interesting in movies, TV and music since childhood, and is unlikely to stop any time soon.