Saul Bass, the genius graphic designer whose movie posters and title credits continue to impact the culture today, directed only one feature length film. That movie, 1974’s Phase IV, is a strange, stoned, bordering on surreal science fiction story about hyper-intelligent ants in the Arizona desert. It's possible that Phase IV was his only feature because the experience was so negative for him; after delivering the finished film to Paramount the studio completely excised the movie's entire reason for being, an extended psychedelic freakout at the end.
Phase IV is unfairly known as a bad movie (it was one of the earliest films mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000); while it’s not any sort of traditional film, it’s unique and odd enough to granted more critical nuance than just ‘bad.’ It's a creepily effective thriller, a heay philosophical trip and even possibly a metaphorical argument in favor of Communism.
In the opening we learn that a ‘space event’ that some thought would bring the end of the world had a more unexpected, and unnoticed effect: it gave advanced intelligence to ants. Working together, differing species of ants clear a part of the Arizona desert of their predators. This strange natural imbalance draws the attention of Dr. Hubbs, a weirdo British scientist. He enlists the help of a Dr. Lesko, a number theory mathematician who used game theory to crack the language of whale song. Together they shack up in a geodesic dome in the desert and attempt to study these insects.
It turns out that Dr. Hubbs is ready for war; he seems to know that the ants are hyper-evolved and is prepared for them to test humanity’s defenses. In the film’s weird, dreamy world those defense include ‘yellow,’ a chemical potent enough to kill humans accidentally caught in its way. It’s only ever just ‘yellow.’ When the ant queen eats some of the ‘yellow,’ producing a new breed of ‘yellow’ resistant ants, Hubbs says ‘We give them yellow chemistry and they give us yellow creatures.’ It’s really that sort of a movie.
The film is paced strangely, with odd lulls and moments of droning attention to machine noises and flipping switches. But it’s also packed with absolutely thrilling insect photography; Phase IV is like an ant holocaust, with seemingly hundreds killed for filming. They get squished, blown up, smashed, crushed, eaten and even, in the eight minute ant-only opening scene, have tiny symbols glued to their foreheads. The extraordinary ant sequences were by Ken Middleham, who did time-lapse photography in Days of Heaven and whose microphotography powers the creepy Hellstrom Chronicles.
The ant sequences are so good, so well put together, that they each tell their own stories. One scene has an ant attempting to disable the scientist’s air conditioning (go with it) by chewing through wires; Middleham’s camera slowly reveals a praying mantis stalking the ant. We watch in tense fear as the mantis attacks, and then get an incredible reversal - another warrior ant is waiting to dispatch the mantis, using its corpse to shut down the air conditioning. There are no words, but the storytelling is clear - just as in a scene where ants line up the bodies of their fallen and, I swear, MOURN them.
Mixed in with that are other strange, disturbing moments - dozens of ants crawling out of small holes in a dead man’s palm, for instance - that make Phase IV a trippy, strange experience. In the final moments of the film we come to understand what the ants’ plan is - they’ve not been attacking the scientists but rather testing them, subjecting them to a battery of experiments to determine their intelligence level... and readiness.
That’s when the titular Phase IV kicks in, where the ants induct our remaining characters into their hive mind, leapfrogging humanity evolutionarily to the next level. There’s a short, psychedelic sequence, and then the end.
That short, acidic sequence was once much longer. Saul Bass shot a far crazier montage for the transition to Phase IV, but after a test screening Paramount trimmed it out. I don’t really know why - the whole movie is leading up to this 2001-inspired payoff, and if people didn’t like the ending they certainly weren’t going to like the hour and a half prior. Trimming the ending - cutting the money shot, essentially - doesn’t do the film any favors. Looking at the poster above you can get a sense that Paramount was trying to just sell a shitty exploitation film when they were stuck with an almost experimental science fiction piece.
But putting it back in DOES. Last night The Cinefamily in Los Angeles screened - for the first time since that sneak preview in 1974 - the complete final reel of Phase IV. And it’s in that reel that the movie truly blooms, and you can understand why Bass was drawn to the project.
The evolutionary trip-out isn’t as indulgent as some of 2001’s final sequences. Instead Bass uses metaphorical imagery to underline the subtle points the film has been making. We see people trapped in mazes and cubicles, separated from each other. This is the prison of individuality, which the ants promise to break - we later see dozens of people floating together. There are shots of people running up the steps of ziggurats, a woman giving birth to the son, a boy and a chimp playing chess. There are crashing waves and giant rocks hovering over oceans. A character leaps across the sea. A naked man flies alongside a hawk.
The theatrical cut includes a tiny bit more voiceover at the end that makes explicit what the deleted bit presents visually. But there’s no question that the final freakout is thrilling and beautiful, and a complete summation of the film. I think Phase IV will always be a flawed movie - there’s a strange lack of humanity in the film - but the original ending, with its electro-psych score, would have given audiences and critics something more to chew on. I believe we would remember Phase IV very differently if that ending had been left on the film.
Now that the original ending has been discovered, Paramount MUST release the uncut movie on home video. There is a bare bones DVD of Phase IV available, but this unique and bizarre movies deserves a reconsideration - especially one in light of its return to completeness.
The Cinefamily also showed two Bass shorts last night; the first was The Solar Film, a 1980s solar energy propaganda piece that’s nicely done but not revolutionary. The second was Quest, a film written by Ray Bradbury that Bass and his wife Elaine directed nine years after Phase IV. There is imagery from Phase IV’s deleted ending that recurs in the heady, metaphorical Quest, including a sequence of a man playing futuristic chess against a caveman.
Phase IV plays again July 1st at the Cinefamily. I don't know if the original ending will play as well.