Horror Bites - Thanks, Ants

PHASE IV (1974)

Part man, part ant... wait hang on, let's back up and try that again. This is one of those sinister 1970s science fiction movies, the kind that really get under your skin. It's sort of like a demented clash between Look Around You and The Andromeda Strain. The isolated laboratory setting and the focus on testing solutions to a problem in particular remind me of Michael Crichton's space microbe story. Interestingly, it's the one feature film directed by artist and designer Saul Bass, who of course made numerous title sequences and posters for classic movies, but never made another full length release. This is a story full of striking images, eerie moments and a general sense of creeping dread. But they're just ants, what can you do outside of b-movie monster moments?

The answer of course is to be creative. After a vague introduction about cosmic events changing life on Earth in some way, the insect kingdom goes through a dramatic change. Ants of different species begin communicating, and their natural predators start to be wiped out. A lot of this is done without narration, and we're left to work out what the bugs are up to as they go through tunnels and have little meetings in the dark. This is all done without models or puppets; these are real insects, painstakingly photographed. The ant wranglers must have had a difficult time, but it's fascinating to watch as they slowly make their plans against us. The sequence showing their action against human poison is particularly engrossing.

The human element above ground tries several different approaches. Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) is the calculating scientist, concerned with finding ways to fight back. His companion James (Michael Murphy) is more human, and is a specialist in mathematics and communication, trying to use sound waves to intercept and relay messages from the colony. And what an ant hill it is. Creepy monolithic structures appear in the desert, built with geometric precision. Whatever change in habits they've gone through, the building processes have been vastly refined.

Most of the story is build up through scenes of attack and defence, as the lab team tries new ideas and the hive mind works to cripple their efforts. The desert location is used against the humans as new tests are devised and the sealed experiments dome is proven to be less than secure. Soon enough things start to become undone and the co-operation between the two human minds breaks down, as do their computer servers. The contrast between taking violent action and trying to talk with the enemy is of course a well worn idea, but the performances are solid and Davenport's deteriorating physical and mental condition provides plenty of drama.

The film has a strong claustrophobic atmosphere and a few effective set pieces, notably when the only other people still living in the area after the evacuation discover they are not safe and try to escape. It looks great with lots of interesting sets and models depicting the innards of the lab and the ant colony from the scale of the invaders. The ending doesn't entirely work and is a little out there, they should have used the intended, longer finale to make it more effective. But as tense sci-fi stories go this is weird and interesting, what else can you ask for.