2018 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 2: Phase IV (1974)

We’re on day 2 of the Scarecrow Video Psychotronic Challenge! The rules for today? DAY 2: SHE BITES: Scientists should not fool with mother nature but they do and bad things happen.

I’ve always wanted to watch Phase IV, the lone directorial effort of famed graphic designer and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Saul Bass. Bass was best known for his title sequences, including the animated cut-outs Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm and his groundbreaking graphic design work on Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Psycho. He also designed some of the most iconic logos in history, including AT&T, Warner Brothers and United Airlines.

Starting in the 1960’s, Bass moved beyond creating title sequences for films to visualizing, storyboarding and even directing key scenes and sequences. He’d get a strange credit for this: visual or pictorial consultant. On some films (like Spartacus, where he designed the gladiator school and storyboarded the final battle) he simply set things up for the director. On others, like West Side Story, where he filmed the prologue, storyboarded the opening dance and created the end titles, he set up the full direction the film would take. And on Psycho, Bass was integrally involved in that films shower murder sequence, going so far to create the boards and test footage that convinced Hitchcock how the scene should be shot.

This leads us to the only movie that Bass would direct on his own, 1974’s Phase IV. A failure upon release, it finally found an audience via television and video. It’s also the first film to depict a geometric crop circle, predating the first crop circles that were found in the UK.

A cosmic event has caused ants to undergo rapid evolution and a hive mind that scientists are struggling to investigate. Within the desert, those ants have created large towers and geometrically perfect designs that force the locals to abandon the area, except for one family.

Scientists James Lesko (frequent Robert Altman actor Michael Murphy) and Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, the original voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey) have set up a sealed dome to study the ants, as well as house the aforementioned family that has not left. Soon, they are at war with the much more organized and effective ants.

After the ants invade the lab, one of the townspeople, Kendra (Peter Sellers’ widow Lynne Frederick, who also appears in Schizo and Four of the Apocalypse) becomes convinced that the ants are angry at her. Bass was obsessed with ensuring that Frederick had no trace of her British accent in this film, making her run her lines over and over again. She also had to wear a tight corset so that she could appear sixteen years old instead of her real age, twenty. Also of note, Linda Blair was almost cast in the film but the budget couldn’t afford her.

Kendra abandons the lab, sacrificing herself to save everyone else as Hubbs and Lesko argue over how to best deal with the ants. Lesko wants to communicate with them while Hubbs wants to destroy them before being stung to death and falling into a hole. Lesko decides to follow Hubbs plan and destroy the queen, but instead, he finds Kendra alive. He decides that the ants don’t want to destroy the human race, but instead make their two worlds work together.

Originally, Bass filmed a four-minute long montage sequence that ended the film, showing what life on new Earth would be like and how evolution would change Lesko and Kendra. This was cut by the distributor and would not be seen until 2012.

This is the kind of movie that could only be made in 1974. This is a pre-blockbuster big movie unafraid to suddenly have long moments of gorgeous music and long elegiac shots of insects going about their daily lives. The moments of human interaction feel boring by comparison. From the posters for the film, audiences were probably expecting a Bert I. Gordon style film and were rewarded with a trippy meditation about mankind’s place in the cosmic consciousness.

Obviously, this film is a major influence on Panos Cosmatos’ first film, Beyond the Black Rainbow. It was also one of the first movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 during the KTMA era.

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