Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As part of Horrors Week, we’re recommending some of the finest (or just weirdest) killer-animal flicks money can buy.
Saul Bass—logo specialist, title sequence stylist, poster artist, and all-around 20th century graphic design icon—made several short films, and even won a Best Documentary Short Oscar in 1968. But he directed only one feature, a creepy sci-fi flick about super-intelligent ants called Phase IV.
Bass doesn’t seem to have had much of a knack for directing actors, which would seem like a shortcoming in almost any other film, but plays into Phase IV’s sense of design. The movie belongs to a rare category: anti-humanist horror. It never attempts to get its audience to identify with its human characters, scientists who’ve holed up in a protective dome while investigating a hive-mind-like ant colony in the Arizona desert. Instead, they register as just another species, losing ground to a better-adapted foe.
To create this vision of human hubris being defeated by an unknowable—and possibly extraterrestrial—natural force, Bass pulled out all the stops: dreamlike rear projection effects; unnerving macro close-ups; prog album cover shots of geometric ant colonies at sunrise; nightmarish psychedelic sequences that drew on his background making opening titles; scenes designed around large blocks of solid color. Bass shot the exteriors in Kenya, which doesn’t necessarily make a convincing stand-in for the American Southwest, but contributes to Phase IV’s air of isolation and emptiness. It’s a movie that seems to have been designed more than directed, and edited around principles of color and line, rather than around performance or plot. Its perspective is impartial—which is what makes it so discomfiting. The soundtrack—which includes contributions from cult Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta and members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop—only heightens the sense of alienating unease.
Bass’s original cut of the film ended with a complex, Olaf Stapledon-esque sequence that depicted humans evolving in an ant-ruled world, and though the finale was removed by the studio before release, the ending that remains is just as much of a downer. The other environmental horror movies of the 1970s suggested nature striking back at human encroachment; in Phase IV, nature doesn’t care.
Availability: Phase IV can be obtained on DVD from your local video store or library, and is available for purchase or rental from the major digital outlets.