Color, 1974, 83 mins. 26 secs. / 89 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by Saul Bass
Starring Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, Nigel Davenport
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/RA 4K/HD), 101 Films (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Olive Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Legend Films (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Carlotta Films (Blu-ray) (France RB HD), Capelight Pictures (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

A victim of bad timing and worse Phase IVmarketing, Phase IV went down in the history book as the Phase IVonly feature film directed by Saul Bass, the legendary graphic designer whose main titles for Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger among many others broke new ground again and again. Intended as a visually experimental and heady look at a sudden shift in control involving the cosmos and nature, the film was sold as a gruesome animal attack film and went through multiple turbulent recuts following test screenings. On top of that its studio, Paramount, was putting much of its energy that year into Chinatown and The Godfather, Part II, leaving this one low on the list of priorities and famously having almost all of its daring climactic montage scrapped by the time it hit theaters. Since then the film has gone on to moderate cult status and quite a bit of reappraisal, rightfully taking its place among ambitious sci-fi speculative stories that could also play really well with a midnight movie audience.

Something strange is afoot in the deserts of Arizona following activity in the skies, with the ant population building a series of perfectly geometrical towers and banding together for some unknown purpose. Two scientists, James Lesko (Count Yorga, Vampire's Murphy) and Ernest Hubbs (No Blade of Grass' Davenport), hole up at a domed makeshift lab where the ants seem to be most concentrated, and in the process wind up taking in one of the few locals left behind, Kendra (Schizo's Frederick). A battle of wits and wills soon escalates between the humans and the ants, with the latter finding ways to adapt to poisoning attempts and sabotaging any electronics that might pose a threat. However, there's even more going on than any of either scientists could have imagined.

With its jaw-dropping macro photography, electronic soundscapes, hypnotic visuals, Phase IVand nightmarish atmosphere, Phase IV would have brought the house down had it opened a few years earlier and found the same audiences who were devouring films like El Topo and Performance. Instead it got stuck between Hollywood expectations and Bass' singular knack for creating startling, often irrational imagery, which is a shame as it absolutely fires fully on all cylinders throughout. The three principal Phase IVactors all do solid work, though it's the ant performances that often steal the show with narrative feats accomplished with their activity that can still make an audience wonder how on earth they did it.

Paramount released Phase IV on VHS back in the '80s but has mostly licensed it out to specialty labels ever since, including a bare bones DVD from Legend Films in 2008 and an equally paltry Blu-ray from Olive Films in 2015. In the interim, the Academy Film Archive (which houses an insane amount of Bass material along with The Margaret Herrick Library) unearthed the original ending in a faded print, and it was shown (not exactly with permission) by the now defunct The Cinefamily in Los Angeles. The amount of easily accessible material on the film made the lackluster nature of the U.S. Blu-ray even more inexcusable, but that was the only HD game in town for quite a while.

The first actually respectable home video release of this film came from U.K. label 101 Films with a two-disc Blu-ray release (as a limited edition in 2019 and a standard retail one in 2020) with the first disc featuring the theatrical cut of the film, commentary by Allan Bryce and Richard Holliss, the original Saul Bass ending (17m43s) with optional commentary, the trailer, and "An Ant's Life: Contextualising Phase IV" (20m26s), with Jasper Sharp and Sean Hogan on the film's influences and ties to other films like The Andromeda Strain. Disc two is devoted to Bass' short films (most sourced from SD video masters) including 1964's The Searching Eye (17m45s), 1968's Why Man Creates (24m34s), 1977's Bass on Titles (33m46s), 1978's Notes on the Popular Arts (20m15s), 1980's The Solar Film (9m35s), and a new HD restoration of 1984's striking fantasy, Quest (1984) (29m50s).

In 2024, Vinegar Syndrome delivered the most elaborate edition of the film to date with a three-disc set featuring a UHD and two Blu-rays. Both the UHD and first Blu-ray contain the theatrical cut in a new 4K scan that easily obliterates anything before it, with actual deep blacks here and much healthier, warmer colors than before as well as a big uptick in detail. (Even in 35mm prints you couldn't see how freckly Murphy's face is!) The UHD is definitely the way to go if possible thanks to HDR which makes those oranges in particular more vibrant with a broader range of shades than before. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track is in perfect condition as well, with optional English SDH Phase IVsubtitles provided. A new audio commentary by Matthew Asprey Gear parsing out the connections to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the function of the unusual music Phase IVscore, the elements of Bass' prior work that creep through here, other key works of '70s cinema, sci-fi literature including H.G. Wells, and more.

Disc two is centered around a reconstruction of Bass' "preview cut" of the film shown in London and L.A., including not only that final reel integrated back as it was originally edited but also using his editing notes to reconstruct some far more fleeting changes in the prologue and elsewhere. Running almost six minutes longer, it's playable with two audio options, the London track (listed as no narration, though less narration would probably be more accurate) and the fully narrated L.A. audio, both with optional English SDH subs. The image quality here for the restored bits is also better than ever before with the ending looking very healthy and colorful compared to the more faded element used in the past, and it's great to finally have the option to see it all stitched back together. "Evolutions: The Making of Phase IV" (47m46s) is a new featurette by Elijah Drenner featuring interviews with Murphy, Jeffrey Bass, screenwriter Mayo Simon, archivist Sean Savage, and design historian/Bass biographer Pat Kirkham (plus a bit of archival Bass interview footage) talking about the problems faced with hacking away at the film to make it more commercial, the process of uncovering the lost ending, Bass' visual and narrative intentions, and Bass' relevant background that led up to this point in his career. In "Formicidae Sinfonia: The Music and Sounds of Phase IV" (14m51s), composer Brian Gascoigne and electronic music artist David Vorhaus recall meeting Bass for the first time, their musical backgrounds, the "scary ant sci-fi sounds" required for the gig, and the process of coming up with the wild musical textures heard in the final score. Also included is a 1m59s reel of additional film fragments that didn't fit into the preview version, a truly wonderful 16m34s collection of raw and unedited material from the original ending including much longer looks at some of those stunning visual effects, the trailer, and a 1m31s still gallery.

Vinegar Syndrome (UHD)

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101 Films (Blu-ray)

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Reviewed on April 1, 2024