November 13, 2014
Even those who are unfamiliar with the name Saul Bass know his work. An iconic visual artist with an instantly recognizable style, Bass is responsible for the promotional posters for films like The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, and The Shining. In addition to print work, Bass also designed title sequences, crafting the memorable opening credit scenes to Alfred Hitchcock movies such as Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. For all of his Hollywood clout, Bass only got to direct one feature length film, but it was a doozy: 1973’s insect sci-fi/horror movie Phase IV.
Phase IV takes place on an Earth that has been the target of different phases of interstellar activity. A pair of scientists, Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport from Nighthawks) and Dr. James R. Lesko (McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s Michael Murphy), come to the Arizona desert to investigate the cosmic phenomenon and are greeted by a series of mysterious patterns of crop circles. Hubbs and Lesko determine that a group of highly intelligent ants are responsible for the circles, and quickly hole themselves up inside a fortified research center, complete with insecticide sprayers and hazmat-type protection suits, in order to study the insects. They quickly find out that the ants have developed an advanced method of communication. The men also learn that the ants intend to wipe out all of the humans in the area. A fleeing family crashes their truck right outside the bunker, and when the scientists investigate, they find a survivor – a teenage girl named Kendra (Lynne Frederick from Schizo). The guys take Kendra in to protect her, but they find soon themselves under attack by the clever ants. The humans have to find a way to outwit the insects before the ants take over the world.
Although it feels familiar, Phase IV is a very different kind of alien invasion movie. The screenplay was written by science fiction screenwriter Mayo Simon (Futureworld, Marooned), and it harkens back to the low-budget creature features of the fifties, giant insect movies like Them! and The Wasp Woman. However, the antagonistic ants are not actually aliens, just earth insects that have been affected by the cosmic activity, so the danger seems more real. Saul Bass’ visual style also updates the film’s look, giving it a seventies feel that is not unlike that of other sci-fi films of the time such as Silent Running or Logan’s Run. Phase IV is often overshadowed by other, more famous sci-fi/horror films, but it should go down in history as one of the creepiest insect movies ever made.
Saul Bass is, first and foremost, a visual artist, so it should come as no surprise that Phase IV is a very visually stunning film. Although some exposition is provided through voiceover narration and dialogue, much of the story is told through images rather than words. The external scenes were shot in parts of Kenya and Arizona, and the desert regions stand in jarring dichotomy to the high-tech research bunker, giving the film a very other-worldly look. Bass uses the natural lighting of the sun and sunsets to bring out the beauty in the landscapes, sometimes breaking up the monotony with ant-built monolith props. There are also several dream-like sequences that inject a bit of surrealism into the film, reminding the viewer that they’re watching a sci-fi film (in case the sentient ants weren’t enough of a clue). Saul Bass has a gift for making the abstract seem commonplace, and his direction helps turn Phase IV into a visually striking film.
There were really two cinematographers who worked on Phase IV. The actual director of photography was Dick Bush (The Legacy, The Blood on Satan’s Claw), who shot all of the human-oriented scenes, both on location in the desert and on soundstages in England. Then, there are the ant scenes. Phase IV features a great deal of macro insect photography that was done by Ken Middleham (The Hellstrom Chronicle). Middleham captures actual ants in extreme close-ups doing things like eating and laying eggs, and the footage is pieced together in a way that gives the ants character; the ants seem to cooperate and communicate, even mourn over the deaths of other ants and mobilize for combat against the humans. The human footage and the ant footage all come together to show the fight between man and insect in Phase IV.
The soundtrack to Phase IV is credited to electronic musician Brian Gascoigne (The Dark Crystal, The Emerald Forest), and much of it sounds like every other seventies science fiction score; plenty of cosmic synthesizers blare over electronic noise that somehow comes together into a coherent soundscape. There are a handful of montages where Gascoigne is aided by Japanese composer/percussionist Stomu Yamash’Ta (The Man Who Fell to Earth), and these sections lend a bit of humanity to Gascoigne’s robotics. Percussion instruments augment the electronic music in select areas so that the score pulses with life – there’s even what sounds like a stand-up bass plucking away in a few places. Gascoigne and Yamash’Ta’s collaboration gives Phase IV one of the hipper soundtracks of the seventies sci-fi/horror era.
There is a lost ending to Phase IV that was put together by Saul Bass and cut by the distributor against his wishes. The director’s intended ending was a four minute disjointed montage of what Earth would have been like under the ants’ rule. The lost ending is extremely surreal and artsy, but it puts the rest of the film into context; it’s a tripped out view of what the ants intended to do with the world. Unfortunately, the original ending was scrapped and the one that exists is ambiguous, making the theatrical film’s conclusion seem even more surreal. There are a couple of other interesting things to notice about the endings of Phase IV, both the lost and the theatrical. The first is that, although music plays an important part of the narrative, it is suspiciously and purposely absent from the closing credits of both endings – the viewer is left with just the sound of the wind blowing across the desert skies. Secondly, the ending represents the first time that the film’s title is shown onscreen, signifying that the cosmic activity has reached “Phase IV.” Both endings are memorable but, surprisingly, the original, more surreal one does make more sense in the grand scheme of the movie. (Incidentally, the original ending can be seen here on YouTube).
Phase IV was a box office bomb, so Saul Bass went back to designing posters for movies instead of directing them. In the years since its release, Phase IV has gained a healthy cult following, so Bass’ sole legacy as a director has not gone wholly unappreciated.