Phase IV (1974)

DECEMBER 7, 2008


If you ask me, some movies just aren’t suited for midnight. While not a bad film, Phase IV just doesn’t work when you’re already a bit tired. I need something with a lot of action, or a lot of goofy moments, or something I’ve seen enough to be able to doze off for a few minutes without being “lost” when I wake up. Over The Top, for example, is the perfect midnight movie – it’s ridiculous, it has a really annoying kid to laugh at, and plenty of big rock songs and truck driving footage to keep you from heading off to sleepytown.

The obscure Phase IV, on the other hand, is a terrible choice for me. It’s a killer ant movie, but they are normal sized ants, which means no goofy effects. And there’s only like 3 people in the entire movie, so they don’t do a heck of a lot of killing until the final 10 minutes. And instead of rock songs, you get Brian Eno-y moody electronic stuff. Needless to say, I was “resting my eyes” a bit more than I liked (even my wife was dozing off, and she NEVER falls asleep at the movies), but I was able to catch up thanks to MST3k, as it was one of the movies featured on the very first season of the show, which aired on a Minnesota based public access channel.

But it’s not a bad movie. You gotta admire the idea of making an artsy movie about mankind’s perceived dominance and setting it during a Chosen Survivors style end of the world story. And adding killer ants. It’s very talky and slow, but it’s strangely alluring too, in the same way that The Keep and 2001 are. And damned if the ant footage (which is pretty goddamn incredible at times – the movie may work better as a documentary) doesn’t contain some excitement, like when an ant tries to bring poison to the queen (I guess if she eats it she will be immune, or something). He gets it to a certain point and then dies from the poison, so another ant comes along gets it a bit further before it dies as well. This continues until the ants get it to the queen. Awesome. Also, the ants somehow make some solar panels that bake the scientists inside their lab.

As you may not have cared, the movie stars Michael Murphy, who is rather Tom Jane-y here. He’s a guy I like to see in movies, but rarely actually do. Interestingly enough (to me anyway) he is given 2nd billing behind Nigel Davenport, despite the fact that he has way more screen time. Murphy would take his revenge 15 years later though, taking top billing in Shocker over (actual star) Peter Berg. He narrates a lot of the movie, and some of his stuff is baffling (the ending is woefully underexplained), but he’s a nice sane balance to Davenport’s rather batshit fellow scientist. I like the bit where he figures out a way to determine the anthills' (giant anthills!) weakness – he bounces every sound in the world at the structure, and only one is absorbed instead of bouncing back. Cool idea, even if a bit bullshit (I guarantee his sound database did not include the sound of me gargling mouth wash).

Most surprising about the movie is that it was directed by Saul Bass, who is best known for creating kick ass title sequences (this was his only feature length directorial gig). Even more surprising, the movie doesn’t even HAVE opening credits, and the ones at the end are rather minimal. Speaking of credits – when the hell does Phase III start in the movie? I missed it both times.

So if you can catch it on cable or whatever, by all means check it out. It’s a nice little curio. But at midnight? Absolutely not. Call me when they are showing Road House.

(Road House will show on February 28th)

What say you?


  1. Somewhere in Space this may all be happening right now!

    I think the voice over guy for Phase IV trailer is the one and same for the Star Wars IV.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Been trying to figure out the name of this one.
    At the end doesn't the lead have to breath through a cone made of paper so the ants don't get in his mouth?

  4. This flick also left me wanting more. I thought the ending was far too rushed and didn't really give much of a pay off to the audience.

    The one scientist had a gross swollen hand and nothing came of it. I wanted that thing to burst or have ants start pouring out of it for no reason other than to have the ants attack people. Something. Also when that guy bites it we're to believe he's swarmed by a horde of ants, which would have been an awesome visual, but instead we get a cut away to brainiac number two's reaction... While I can handle the less is more philosphy when it comes to violence, this just felt like a cop out.

    The macro ant stuff was golden though.

    I was sifting through the litterbox on IMDB and found that apparently the producers hacked up the ending to make the movie shorter. Lopping off like 15 minutes of what not. So that explains the weird ending.

    Phil mentioned Edgar Wright being a fan of this flick, and he's slated to direct Ant-Man for Marvel. So it'll be interesting to see this flick's influence on that when it comes down the pipe...

  5. Actually this is one of the most intelligent science fiction films of its decade.

    Two mutually alien intelligences are seen in the beginnings of a serious war. It is really more about how each side collects information about the other and uses its physical differences against the other. Ants somehow develop a gestalt mind and prepare to make themselves the masters of the world. Visually very striking with direction by visual artist Saul Bass (best known for creating arresting title sequences for other directors' films). There is also some terrific insect photography.

    Hope you can see it again when you are in better condition.

  6. I've just started reading HMAD habitually after discovering you at bloody-disgusting. How cool it is to get to read these write-ups of some of the new bev shows? What a small world. Finding this piece was especially nice since it's one of my fondest memories of going to the New Bev with my girlfriend. We go all the time, but rarely stay for midnight movies. We had to make an exception in this case since her mom was one of those 3 people in the entire movie. She still has her Phase IV button pinned to her purse! One day I hope to shake your hand before a show.


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