Phase IV (1974)

89

I had previously heard of Phase IV in passing. It never really struck me as something that I definitely needed to watch, because it honestly seemed like an obscure B-movie that may be memorable, but not necessarily very good. It was only when I saw Edgar Wright gushing about this film that I decided to seek it out – and considering Wright’s ill-fated passion project was a blockbuster involving ants, I was curious to see the film that may have inspired Wright to almost make Ant-Man. The film, like I said, is Phase IV, and while it may not quite be a masterpiece, it is certainly quite a strange little film.

This film is about ants. It is a science fiction horror film where the villains are not aliens or monster, but rather millions of ants. If that isn’t enough to either make you completely scoff at this film or want to desperately see it, then I am not entirely sure why this film was made. It actually is a good point – Phase IV is most certainly one of the silliest films I have ever seen – but not in the way that it is goofy or excessive – it is actually quite restrained and controlled, nor is it a parody of the B-movie genre, serving to be a straightforward science fiction film. Instead, I beg of you to consider Phase IV to be one of the most wildly oddball cinematic experiences anyone can have and something that actually needs to be seen to be believed. Trust me when I say that after seeing Phase IV, I found myself becoming very apprehensive towards the idea of ants as being just incredibly small creatures, rather than complex organisms.

It actually seems outright bizarre to sit here and try and explain a film where the antagonists are a large amount of ants. It isn’t even supposed to be this ridiculous – yet it manages to be both incredibly strange, but also wonderfully complex and well-developed. Essentially, after scientists notice that ants have started to act radically different, and the decline in predators towards which ants are the natural prey, two scientists are sent out to determine the cause of the problem for themselves. What they find is these creatures have developed a system where they are getting revenge on predators – working in stages, from other ants, to predatory insects, to larger creatures and the finally, the titular phase, where their targets are humans.

Who could’ve thought up the idea of making ants the ultimate villains in a science-fiction horror film, and how much talent did it take to actually scare the audience into being afraid of creatures that we see in our gardens and on our streets every day? It takes a special kind of mind, and Saul Bass has proven in the past that he is one of the most creative minds in cinema history, and with Phase IV, his only feature-length film, he constructed something so strange but brilliant, it is impossible to ignore. Phase IV is a film that succeeds on the strengths of the fact that it never tries to be a parody, and rather takes a dead-serious approach to the subject matter – the result isn’t some form of laughable unintentional comedy, such as we have seen before, it rather creates an unforgettably odd but also utterly fascinating science fiction film that takes its ridiculous subject matter seriously enough to actually be a good piece of cinema.

Unlike many B-grade science fiction films, Phase IV does not suffer from bad performances. There are pretty much only three actors in this entire film, and they give dedicated, if not plain and a little unremarkable, performances. Nigel Davenport plays the stock-character of the vaguely sinister British scientist that asserts his authoritarian ideologies onto the more heroic character, played by Michael Murphy, who is the dashing wunderkind scientist and main protagonist. Lynne Frederick, a lovely and charming actress, is given a role of the waifish femme fatale without much to do, other than serving as somewhat of an object of desire, or rather an object of distraction, from our protagonist. The performances are good, and they serve their purpose. They may not be particularly groundbreaking, and none of the actors do anything that hasn’t been done before. But they need to be praised for giving very understated and subtle performances, especially due to the fact that not only are they in a B-movie (a breeding ground for artificial over-acting), but they are in a science fiction film which is about ants taking over the human race. Their ability to avoid stereotypes, despite being given pretty much stock characters, is actually deserving of quite a bit of praise.

Phase IV is a film that I think deserves credit for one thing – it makes its ludicrous subject matter into something legitimately terrifying. There is very little doubt in my mind that this film is amongst the better science-fiction horror films about non-human entities threatening the human race, mainly because it takes a unique and dedicated approach to the subject matter. It treats the ants in this film as if they were gargantuan, terrifyingly otherworldly beings that could instantly bring death to the human race. Even if this film is somewhat questionable in terms of plot – the ants’ method for killing the humans is literally to surround their research facility and make the area so hot, they humans will be forced to retreat out and face the wrath of the hordes of ants ready to rip the flesh off the body of any human they come into contact with (a bit of meta-commentary on the methods of humans on how to flush ants out of their refuges, perhaps?). That isn’t even explaining the ending, which is one of the most bizarre and psychedelic endings out of any science fiction film I have seen. Phase IV manages to be properly terrifying, and a wonderfully well-constructed horror film if there ever was one.

More than anything else, Phase IV deserves praise for the way this film was made. Bass and his crew clearly went to painstaking detail to film these ants and other wildlife – the entire first part of this film is a spooky, dark portrayal of the lives of ants, and throughout the film, we get snippets into the activities of the ants and their predators – what would’ve been done with CGI and computer-rendering nowadays was done with meticulous detail and extreme precision, and it could not have been an easy task. Bass and his team took on a monumental task, and they pulled it off beautifully, and for that reason, the painstaking attention to detail, that makes Phase IV truly one-of-a-kind.

Phase IV is a great film – it is pretty obscure, and I imagine not too many people are aware of this film’s existence for some reason. I’m not entirely sure why, because it may be a slightly silly film, but it is by no means a bad film. It is one of the best science fiction films to have come out of the 1970s, so it boggles my mind that Phase IV isn’t more well-known. However, I do think this film is definitely worth a look for anyone who wants a thrilling, terrifying science fiction film that is unlike anything you will ever see. I am still bewildered by this film as a whole, but I truly loved it and hope it will reach a wider audience because it certainly deserves it.

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