When I’m prompted to imagine a film about murderous insects, I think back to the atomic creature features of the 1950s. I picture close-ups of actual insects scaling miniature models of suburban homes crudely combined with shots of victims screaming for their lives in the grasp of the invader’s oversized paper mache pincers. In my imagination, the insects become monsters through massive size alone, a tradition carried down all the way from 1957’s The Deadly Mantis to 2002’s Eight Legged Freaks. A refreshing deviation from this norm, 1974’s Phase IV surprisingly makes a threat of its murderous ants without blowing them out of proportion, but instead giving them a much more dangerous attribute: intelligence.
The killer ants in Phase IV are shrewd, organized, and scarily adaptable. They attack their predators preemptively, methodically killing spiders, praying mantises, and then humans as if they’re assassins taking orders. They turn automobiles into bombs, dismantle computers, and weaponize reflected sunlight in a vengeful reflection of a bored child with a magnifying glass. When sprayed with poisons, they purposefully evolve to include the toxins in their next mutation. The nature footage the film manages to cull is very impressive. It’s rare that this brand of sci-fi schlock would be perplexing on a technical level, but Phase IV kept me guessing. Sure, there were the inevitable close-up shots of ants eating cut with images of a collapsing set, but a lot of the film had me scratching my head as to just exactly how they got their footage. Did they dye the mutant ants? Was some of the action achieved though stop-motion animation? Did they write the movie around the kind of footage they could influence? I had a lot of questions about the production of Phase IV that I normally wouldn’t have in other films of its caliber.
Of course, Phase IV has its campy charms as well. The scientists that study/go to war with the ants bring a lot of good ole sci-fi nonsense like geodesic domes, futuristic hazmat suits, decontamination steam, and very sciency bleep bloop machines along with them. The opening narration is accompanied by outer space animation that recalls the ridiculousness of The Adventures of Hercules. The film also occasionally adopts the ants’ POV through a honeycomb-patterned kaleidoscope lens probably best described as “ant cam”. The cheap Western landscape setting (which resembles the remote communities where the atom bomb was developed) gives the film an automatic otherworldly look, which combines effectively with the ants’ naturally alien features in the nature footage close-ups. The queen ant is also provided some red/blue Creepshow lighting, which does wonders for her appeal as a villain and the film’s appeal as a silly diversion. It’s easy to see why Phase IV was given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, but I feel like that brand of mockery is selling its other merits a bit short.
Visually bizarre, technically impressive, tonally unnerving, and backed by a wickedly cool soundtrack of droning synths (recently made available 40 years late by Waxwork Records), Phase IV is a thoroughly strange film. Its loose, psychedelic ending was apparently cut short by butchers at Paramount Pictures (with some of the more bizarre surviving footage thankfully preserved in the trailer and elsewhere on YouTube), but the remaining effect is an open-ended conclusion that’s rare for this genre & era. The film isn’t exactly on an Under the Skin level of obfuscation & psychedelia, but it’s not far off. As far as sci-fi schlock about murderous insects goes, Phase IV is an impressive oddity with a killer soundtrack and some highly effective nature footage backing up its inherently campy appeal. It’s tempting to brush it off as a silly trifle based on premise alone, but there’s something much more peculiar going on here. It’s a shame that first-time director Saul Bass, known mostly as a graphic designer in his work on movie posters & title sequences, would never follow it up with a second feature. He had a great knack for striking visuals & eerie moods that could’ve translated into a long, interesting career if given the chance to flourish.