The doors to the Nightmare on Film Street Video Vault are open once again, and in just the nick of time it seems. The world outside seems to be falling apart in front of our very eyes and if the Video Vault can be used for anything, other than a really groovy place to find great vintage horror videos, it should be a place for refuge from the apocalypse. I mean it was converted out of an old 1950’s nuclear fallout shelter so it is rather fitting.
While you’re here, I’ll fire up the generator and we can settle in with a film that we think fits the End of Days motif that the masterminds of the podcast have cooked up for this month’s theme. It’s a film that steadily leans on the psychedelia hangover from the late ’60’s and borrows liberally from the paranoid heights of the 1950’s Cold War era America. It’s a horror/sci-fi/doomsday picture that will literally make your senses tingle, your mind alter and your skin crawl. I give you the late Saul Bass’ mid ’70’s classic, Phase IV (1974).
BACK OF THE BOX REVIEW
Following a mysterious celestial event, there seems to be a strange disturbance in the planet’s ant population. Two scientists, tasked with researching a desert colony in Arizona soon find that their subjects are ammassing a huge, highly intelligent collective to wage war against mankind. When a nearby farm is attacked by the newly formed ant army, a young girl seeks refuge with the scientists in their facilty. It is there that the three must find a way to stop these hordes of insects before they take over the Earth.
COLONY OF CHARACTERS
Heading up the two man research team is the egotistical and overtly arrogant Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs played by the late Nigel Davenport (Nighthawks, 1981). With him is James R. Lesko, a far more amiable fellow with code breaking skills and linguistics specialties played by Michael Murphy (Shocker, 1989). The two study, what they believe to be a typical ant colony in the desert.
Just down the road from the remote research hub is a farm and the last remaining residence of a neighborhood called Paradise City is a quaint elderly couple and their granddaughter. Mr. Eldridge, played by the late Alan Gifford (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) is the patriarch of the family and runs the farm with the help of his wife Mildred, played by the late Helen Horton (Alien, 1979). The couple care for their orphaned granddaughter Kendra Edridge, played by the late Lynne Frederick (Schizo, 1976), in the wake of her parent’s untimely death.
To say that the making of Phase IV was a cake walk would be a gross overstatement. It seemed everything that director Saul Bass, a title designer by trade, tried to accomplish on this shoot was met with some kind of resistance. Whether it came from him or others remains unknown as most of the parties involved in making the film have since passed away, but it seemed that Bass had a very specific vision for his post-apocalyptic ant invasion film and he went to great lengths to achieve his artistic aspirations.
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He began with hiring wildlife cinematographer Ken Middleham (Bug, 1975), a National Geographic photographer who lensed the fascinating ant sequences used extensively throughout the film. These sequences would be the centerpiece to the film’s central plot and they are stunning to watch.
Bass’ first choice for the role of Kendra was none other than Linda Blair who was hot off of the success of another 1974 mega-horror hit William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Blair auditioned, impressing Bass and was even asked back to several callbacks and a screen test for. Ultimately, producers found the starlette to be too young, also adding that due to the film’s limited budget they couldn’t afford the big star’s salary at the time. Actor Nigel Davenport, Dr. Hubbs in the film recommended Fredricks for the role after working with her on No Blade of Grass (1970) and Bass, along with producers found the actress to be a better fit and she was ultimately cast in the role.
ATTACK THE QUEEN: SAUL BASS VS LYNN FREDRICKS
Bass seemed to zero in on several aspects of actress Lynn Fredricks which, for reasons unknown, gave the director concern. First and foremost was her figure. The character of Kendra was to be portrayed as a sixteen-year-old. Fredricks was twenty at the time of filming, and Bass found Fredricks too voluptuous for the role. He had the actress wear a painful iron-clad corset to bind her breasts so that she would look closer to the age of the character. It was also suggested by Bass that the actress stick to a strict diet of chicken broth and black coffee for the duration of filming.
He also had concerns about the British-born actress’s ability to carry an American accent. With the film being set in Arizona, an American accent was imperative. The director would sit and run lines with Fredricks, listening for any hints of her native British lilt. It makes one wonder if Fredericks had a moment’s peace on this set.
HACK, SLASH & RESURRECT
Bass had also filmed a montage that featured a surreal aftermath of what life on Earth would be like after the ants uprising and ultimate conquest of mankind. The sequence suggested that this new world would see the next evolutionary step for humans and the effect this would have on life on our planet as a whole but the scene was cut by the film’s distributor against director Bass’ wishes. Parts of this sequence can be seen in the film’s theatrical trailer.
In 2012 in at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, Phase IV was shown with the newly unearthed sequence digitally scanned back into the print of the movie. Also included in this screening was the film’s original ending which depicted (SPOILER ALERT) the survivors of the film trapped in a maze where they themselves were now being observed by the ants.
Fun fact: The scene involving the crop circles in which the ants create, is the first cinematic depiction of the phenomena and it even predates the first modern reports of crop circles by more than two years. It has been questioned whether the film had influence on many of the hoax circles that cropped (pardon the pun) up in the years and decades following Phase IV’s release.
HOME VIDEO VESTIGE
Upon Phase IV’s theatrical release the film was met with mixed reviews. While it was generally received as a smart film with a nightmare-inducing point of view, general audiences didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Bass’ glib yet uplifting imagery.
Over time though, Phase IV has become something of both a cult classic and a major influence to the science fiction genre as a whole. Released originally on VHS by Paramount Pictures, the film enjoyed better reception in the home entertainment market. A DVD was released in 2008 by Legend Films which was unfortunately a bare-bones disc with zero special features. A version containing all of the previously edited, recently restored scenes is available on iTunes Extras released for the 45th Anniversary of the film and in early 2020, the UK based 101 Films released a two disc limited Blu-ray set that included all of the excised scenes plus several short films directed by Bass.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
The cult classic status of Phase IV is bigger than most realize. Not only has it been an attributed influence on the crop circle phenomena, it has also held significant sway on the careers of many a film director. Argentine director Nicolas Goldbart (Phase 7, 2010) sites the film as being a massive inspiration. In fact, Goldbart’s 2010 film Phase 7 pays homage the Bass’ film by featuring a scene where Phase IV is playing on the television set of the film’s main character. Director Panos Cosmatos (Mandy, 2018) also claims Phase IV as a giant influence and admits the film’s aesthetic is refected in his own film Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010).
It isn’t just film directors that Bass’ ant-pocalypse epic has affected. The band Yeasayer released a video for their 2009 single Ambling Alp that pays tribute to Phase IV but using similar imagery and elements employed by Bass including the spherical hive-like research facility, the yellow insecticide used against the ants, and a rocky desert setting. See the Yeasayer video for yourself here and compare it with the trailer below. Be forewarned, this video is NSFW.
Some films have a slow rise to prominence and Phase IV is definitely one of those pictures. From the surreal images of dreamy foresights to the murky subject matter, Phase IV manages to deliver an abundance of dread with minimal cast and minimal budget, but optimal heart. It’s a story that, despite its nihilistic point of view, preaches hope for the future of humanity and its planet but only if we open our minds and look beyond our own arrogance.
And that’s our recomendation for Phase VI– wait. You’re leaving? But it’s unlawful chaos out there. Okay, okay, if you really must go be sure to keep up on everything apocalyptic (and horror, obvi) on our Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Subreddit and our Horror Movie Fiend page on Facebook. It may not save you from the swarms of deadly ants headed our way, but hey, you’ll get caught up on some dope horror stuff. Until next annihilation, kids, stay creepy!