In the 1980s, slashers came in all shapes, genders, and sizes. In the 1970s, nature truly ran amok. Animals of all types that could even slightly be considered threatening (and even some that werenít) were given starring roles in their own horror films. Some animals were given only one or two films with which to do their dirty deeds (bears), while others laid claim to an entire sub-genre (sharks) of films. Among the tiniest and unlikeliest of earthís creatures to start an attack on the human race is of course, the antÖand perhaps what better subject for a science-fiction horror film. Ants have surprisingly gotten their own sub-genre. Starting in the 1950s with the classic black and white drive-in flick, Them! on through the 70s nature runs amok boom with Ants! and Empire of the Ants is this little-seen gem which many call the best ant horror film of them all. Not exactly a hard title to lay claim to, but letís take a look at Phase IV.
A pair of scientists set up a high-tech camp in the middle of the desert after unusual events involving ants have been reported occurring. Livestock, fields, even houses have felt the wrath of these suddenly, strangely powerful everyday ants. As it turns out, some type of cosmic event occurred which had an extremely adverse effect on one of earthís tiniest of species, allowing them to become stronger, smarter, and much more than youíd find at your average picnic. Soon, a girl teams up with the scientists, after her grandparents were killed in yet another vicious ant attack. With the three of them holed up inside the base area, will they be able to make it back to civilization? As the ants grow smarter, they make life increasingly difficult for the three. Can the two scientists outwit nature run amok, before its too late?
Phase IV is a really unique movie, if not altogether riveting. It was directed by Saul Bass, who you may recognize from his work in designing the memorable opening titles of classic Alfred Hitchcock films such as PsychoVertigo. What I found the most interesting about the film is that itís not really ďnature runs amokĒ. ďNature runs amokĒ implies that nature that was once tranquil has suddenly gone on the attack, or in a greater number than usual. This film differs in that the ant attackers in this film arenít just blindly attacking everything in their path. They are quite smart and grow even smarter as the film progresses. The experiment campsite is housed inside a large metal dome, so what do the ants do to cause harm to the scientists? They, along with neighboring desert animals under their mind control (yeah, they can control other creatures as wellÖremind me to mention the forced mantis suicide scene in a bit) fashion mirrors to surround the dome, thereby causing the dome to heat up intensely. This is of course, a clever reversal of the popular ďletís burn ants with a magnifying glassĒ childhood pastime. The ants can also create tall geometric sand structures that make even the most fancy of ant farms look extremely primitive.
There are only maybe five actors in the entire film, and each does their roles well, with what little some of them have. Michael Murphy is one of those character actors whom I instantly recognized in the film, although in his younger years. Looking up some of his credits, I know where Iíve seen himÖa lot of stuff. Most recently, he was in X-Men: The Last Stand, Howard Sternís Private Parts, and Magnolia. The real strong point to the film is the tension and ideas created from Saul Bassí direction. Painstaking detail was given to the ants in this film. They have so many silent sequences all on their own, that they literally become a collective character much more than just a villain. I think my favorite sequence came after the scientists sprayed the ground with a yellow poison, and one of the ants was determined to take a tiny clump of the poison back to the queen. He dies along the way. Another ant picks it up where he left off and carried it for a while. He dies along the way as well. Yet another picks it up and continues on. The entire sequences takes a couple of minutes, but showed the intelligence and persistence on the part of the ants. Itís kind of a shame that Bass manages to create more character development in this one sequence with a non-human actor, than in a lot of other horror flicks.
Saul Bass created some of the most inventive opening title sequences ever committed to film and his artistic flare is on display in this film as well. Some sequences are bathed in splashes of red or green. They add a slightly off-kilter and bizarre. Also helping the surreal atmosphere is the filmís musical score, which is compiled of some pretty decent and haunting mid-70s synth keyboard. Maybe itís due to the music, color schemes or a combination of all of the above, but certain sequences come off as slightly trippy. I can only imagine how stoners attending a drive-in in the mid-70s reacted to the film. Iím sure the film didnít do much to alleviate their paranoia either. The film could also be seen as a pre-cursor to the pseudo-documentary style of horror filmmaking that was popularized most recently by The Blair Witch Project. The opening credits of Phase IV don't come until the very end of the movie and the entire action of the movie is mostly told with the help of narrators (the two scientists), giving the proceedings the ďthis is a dramatization of the last known events of the experimentĒ type of feeling.
Despite the filmís strong points, itís really not terribly eventful. Itís more of a thinking personís horror film, and even at that, thereís more science fiction at work that true horror. The horror comes mostly from the mood generated by Bassí direction. There is very little in the way of gore. Actually, no blood that I can recall, other than a close-up of a hand with ant holes burrowed through the palm. Other than that, itís pretty dry. Fans seeking titillation through gratuitous sex or nude scenes will also have to find their thrills elsewhere. I found it a nice throw-back to the sci-fi horror films of the 1950s that the movie wasnít ďpreachyĒ. The ant problem is caused not by human means, but by something out of this world and far beyond our control.
Legend Films rescued this film from obscurity, by making a distribution deal with Paramount, but unfortunately, like other films in their deal with the studio, there are no special features on the disc. Not even so much as a trailer. That is okay, however. The audio and video transfers are pretty great, given the rarity of the film. I wasnít impressed enough to say itís a must purchase, but it is a very interesting film and definitely required viewing for those who are completists of the nature-runs-amok sub-genre. I get this odd feeling as I do sometimes (and as Iím sure you do at times as well) when you watch a certain movie, and you kind of like it, but you have a feeling itíll grow on you the more you think about. Thatís the feeling I get with this one. I enjoyed it, but I think itíll take another viewing or two to see where I really stand with the film. As for now, just Rent it!