There's just something about those old 60s and 70s horror and sci fi flicks which evokes morbid vintage creepy into me time and again...something modern films tend to lack (unless maybe Miike is directing). Phase IV is a 1974 film directed by Saul Bass, who has a storied history of working on interesting films (though not generally as director). This is not to be confused with the crappy, unrelated Dean Cain film of the same name (2001). Sadly, this film will be most familiar to hardcore MST3K fans, since it was the target of a 1989 episode. But don't write it off for that reason alone, or you'll be missing a simple but effective freakshow starring a myriad of talented six-legged thespians.
The plot is pretty typical and tacky science fiction: a mysterious cosmic event has triggered a rapid evolutionary growth in the intelligence of Earth ants. They don't grow to giant sizes (to both my dismay and the film's credit), but they gain the ability to engineer large structures and communicate even more rapidly with one another then they already do. The result is that the ants begin organizing to take down their natural predators, scientists take notice, and this is where our story kicks in. Nigel Davenport plays Dr. Ernest D Hubbs (I like to believe his name is a spin on cult sci-fi author E.C. Tubbs), a scientist with a one track mind who wants to study and conquer this newfound intelligenge. Michael Murphy plays James R. Lesko, a mathematician with encryption skills whose job is to study the patterns of communication between the ants. The two set up a science station in the Arizona desert, complete with all manner of biological weaponry and high tech computers (remember, this is the 70s, so mileage with the 'high tech' may vary), and under pressure from their investors, they decide to provoke the ants in order to study them.
Oh fuck, 35 year old spoilers ahead!
After refusing to evacuate their farm, the last remaining local family is driven out by an attack from the ants. The creatures not only destroy their house, but also sabotage their pickup as they're fleeing. In desperation, the family tries to get into the science station, but they've got bad timing, because in a truly creepy scene, Dr. Hubbs releases the '100% yellow' chemical just as they near, killing all except the granddaughter Kendra (played by Lynne Frederick), who manages to hide in a bulkhead. Now, let me just state here that Lynne Frederick is a thing of beauty, probably one of the most beautiful actresses we've ever had, (though not exactly talented), and she appears in only a handful of obscure films like this one. It would be almost impossible to take your eyes off her straight brown hair and doe eyes, except for one thing...
These ants VERY quickly steal the show. The intro features some scenes of their subterannean empire building, and there are some almost 'emotional' scenes throughout the film featuring the little creatures. One in particular is amazing: after being poisoned by the 100% yellow, a chain of ants sacrifices itself to bring a sample of the chemical to their queen, who can then consume it and birth a strain of ants resistant to the stuff! Far out! But watching each ant carry the poison to its own untimely death is the most provocative image in the film, a testament to the self-sacrifice and teamwork of their species. Frankly, the ants in this film were better actors than most of who we have in Hollywood today. A shame their lives were so short, this could have been the start of quite a few careers.
Essentially, the rest of the film involves the scientists and ants trying to outsmart one another. It's soon apparent who will win this conflict, to the point where the ants begin toying with the
humans when they could very quickly finish them. I won't spoil the ending, but it's pretty interesting and almost sensual (had they made it a little 'more' sensual, this film would be a bonafide cult classic). The acting is decent (except for Frederick, but but she's too hypnotic for you to care), Davenport plays the all-too-committed, inhumane science type very well and Murphy plays off him as the nice guy with his wits about him. Obviously this was done with a low budget, so many of the gadgets and 'effects' are cheesy and might hurt your eyes. No CGI circus here, the ants performed their own stunts. The film is actually pretty inventive visually, there are several striking scenes (like the grandparents succubming to 100% yellow or the interchange between Kendra and Lesko in the end). I wouldn't call the plot predictable, there may be one or two slight surprises in store for you.
Phase IV is hardly great cinema, but it's worth the time to watch once, especially if modern film has jaded you or you're a retro geek. Like many similar works of the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, there is an intangible force at play, an evocative sense of the unknown, a chill that runs up my spine when I view this stuff. It's not a bad way to kill 90 minutes. There is also a short novel version of the film by Barry Malzberg.
Verdict: Win [7/10]