The Film: Phase IV (1974)

The Principles: Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick and lots of ants. Directed by Saul Bass.

The Premise: A planetary shift causes desert ants to form a collective intelligence and wage war on the local inhabitants. Two scientists and a young girl attempt to fight back, but the ants continue to grow smarter and smarter.

Is it good: This is one taut little science fiction film that was released amid a flood of when nature attacks flicks back in the seventies, but it’s many notches above your average angry animal/insect movie. Phase IV is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of killer ant films! The script is extremely cerebral, the pace is slow and methodical, the images are abstract and ominous, and the concepts elevate the genre by many degrees. In short, this is a very far cry from THEM! 

The movie concerns a recent change in the behavior patterns of a colony of ants in the middle of a sun-scorched American desert that have suddenly become a lot smarter and are wreaking havoc on many of the local residents in the surrounding community. Two scientists (Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport) begin to study this phenomenon in a metal bio-sphere constructed on the ant’s turf, but soon they find themselves in a deadly game of chess with the little buggers after they rescue a local farm girl (Lynne Frederick) who lost her entire family to the six-legged antagonists.

In one particularly intense scene, the ants build little pyramid mounds around the lab that reflect the sunlight towards it, causing the temperature to rise inside the complex and threaten the trio’s lives. The main scientist angers the colony by destroying a bizarre grouping of monolithic ant mounds with a grenade launcher and utilizing a yellow insecticide that kills them at first, but in an amazing bit of insect ingenuity, they bring samples of the poison back to the Queen to ingest so that the future generations will be immune. Pretty clever ants, huh?

This is the only directorial outing from the legendary Saul Bass, who was the genius responsible for some of the greatest opening title sequences ever made (including Psycho). Sadly, this film was poorly marketed as your average B-movie/drive-in/horror-flick at the time of its release and audiences didn’t respond. I saw it on television when I was about six-years-old and I’ve never looked at ants the same way again. There’s one particular close-up shot of the insects crawling out of three small holes in the palm of a dead man’s hand, that haunted my nightmares for many years after. I recently rediscovered the film on DVD and I’ve been a huge fan ever since.

The insect photography is absolutely amazing. Saul Bass did some pretty incredible things that included gluing little alpha/omega symbols on the ant’s heads, painting the bodies weird colors and using strings to puppeteer them into standing up on their back legs to look as if they’re communicating with each other.  As a result, he gets off some pretty amazing shots that look like the ants are actually acting in the film alongside the humans. There’s one scene where an ant is sent into the lab’s computer terminal to bite thru the wires and disengage the air conditioning. A praying mantis has been placed inside as security and it eats the soldier before it completes its mission. Then another ant attacks the mantis and pulls it into a circuit that fries it to death. This scene is played out, just as described, by actual insects. It’s phenomenal.

Is it worth a look: If you love intelligent science fiction that’s like the kind of mend-bending, hardcore seventies paperback type stuff that no longer exists anymore, then this is a film for you. It’s a weird, scary, trippy and extremely well made piece of genre awesomeness that desperately needs to be seen by everyone that has ever enjoyed this kind of cinema. Phase IV is a deliberately slow moving masterpiece of understatement and it requires your absolute attention. Enjoy.

Random anecdotes: There is a ten minute alternate ending that is included in the film’s trailer. It’s an abstract psychedelic light show in the vein of 2001‘s stargate sequence and it was cut from the theatrical release. It has only been seen by a few.

Cinematic soul mates: THEM!, Empire of the Ants, Kingdom of the Spiders, Bug, The Andromeda Strain.