Ants have always made for the perfect threat to mankind. No matter how many cans of Raid you go through, there are always more ants waiting. There are zillions of the little bastards out there, they’re tiny, they can get in anywhere, they’re enormously powerful for their size, and they’re a hell of a lot more organized than we are. Who knows WHAT they might pull?
So it’s no surprise sinister ants have been creeping their way into literature and films for a very long time. In 1938, Carl Stephenson published his short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” which concerned an isolated plantation owner doing battle with overwhelming hordes of fire ants. The story was adapted in 1954 into the Charlton Heston adventure yarn The Naked Jungle. At the other end of the spectrum, that same year saw the release of Gordon Douglas’ Them!, which remains one of the most effective of the giant radioactive creature features of the era.
By the end of the 1950s, the age of the giant radioactive bug movie had all but skittered back under the baseboards, only to return a decade later, but in very different form. With the emergence of the ecology movement as a mainstream force in the late ‘60s, Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon, dishing out a slew of environmental disaster and Nature in Revolt films. Although radiation wasn’t always the central culprit, mankind’s ongoing tomfoolery and sloppiness in regard to the rest of nature landed him in a world of shit in the early ’70s. So along with the likes of Silent Running and No Blade of Grass, the animals started getting uppity again.
This time around, though, they remained their regular size for the most part, presenting a threat to the future of mankind through their sheer numbers and the fact our insistent polluting of the planet had ticked them off something fierce. We saw ornery amphibians menacing poor Ray Milland in Frogs and Bradford Dillman trying to come to some sort of understanding with a new breed of super intelligent fire-happy roaches in Bug. But none of them could hold a candle to the sheer mystical weirdness of Saul Bass’ 1974 treacherous ant fantasy Phase IV.
Now, Saul Bass was a weirdie in his own right. He was a graphic designer who came to prominence in the 1950s thanks to his stylized and groundbreaking credits sequences for films like The Man With the Golden Arm, North by Northwest,and Psycho.
The recognition seemed to go to his head a bit, though, as in later years he would publicly and repeatedly claim he’d directed Psycho’s unforgettable shower murder sequence himself, that Hitchcock was nowhere to be found. For the record, no one on the set at the time was ever able to corroborate this.
In the ’60s he began making arty short films, and in the early ‘70s Paramount gave him the chance to direct an honest-to-goodness feature. Given his background, that the feature would turn out to be a killer ant movie is both a head scratcher and something that makes perfect sense, somehow.
Through opening narration provided by a number theorist named James Lesko (Michael Murphy) and British entomologist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), we get the whole premise laid out, albeit in vague and sketchy terms. The whole world, we’re told, was captivated some months earlier by some strange but undisclosed phenomenon in space, leading to lots of crazy speculation about how it might impact the earth. The only one who seemed to notice the impact when it finally happened was Hubbs.
The ants in the northern Arizona desert, see, started acting all weird and screwy. Formerly antagonistic species (no pun intended) seemed to set aside their differences. They began communicating, holding rallies, and making plans. What’s more, all their natural predators seemed to suddenly vanish from the region, opening the way for a massive explosion in the ant population.
Stranger than all that, though, their little ant hills, overnight it seems, grew into towering monoliths as big as trees. If that wasn’t unnerving enough, inconceivably perfect geometric patterns began appearing in the desert sands, a full two years before the first crop circles popped up in England.
Fearing the worst, Hubbs gets a big government grant to set up a secure computerized research facility in the middle of all that crazy ant activity, hires Lesko to help him study the ant behavior close up, and, with luck, figure out how to stop their spread.
Well, things don’t necessarily go as planned. As Lesko tries to crack the code of the ant language and set up communications, Hubbs declares war on them by blowing up a few of their towering colonies. Problem is, in so doing he triggers a ground war with a massive, insidious, and extremely intelligent army well-versed in guerilla tactics. Not only are the ants motivated and highly organized, they also know exactly what wires to chew through once they get inside a computer.
But this is no standard Man vs. Nature outing. It sure as hell isn’t It Happened at Lakewood Manor (the made-for-TV marauding ant film from a couple years later), and to say any more runs the risk of ruining just how mind-boggling things get toward the end. I mean, when you’re dealing with fucking ANTS who can figure out how to immunize themselves against insecticide, you know you’re in trouble.
Think of it as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of treacherous ant movies. It seems that much was pretty deliberate on Bass’ part, maybe as a reaction against being handed a goddamn bug movie for his directorial debut. Although his career prior to this was far from distinguished, Mayo Simon’s screenplay was intelligent, thoughtful, spare, and deliberately paced, as well as well-informed about information theory and ant biology.
But as in Kubrick’s film, Bass’ visuals overwhelm any puny human goings-on, from his trademark geometrics to wildlife photographer Ken Middleham’s endless close-ups of ants going about their nefarious business. Filmed in Kenya, it’s a gorgeous and strange film to look at, accentuated by Brian Gascoigne’s sparse and eerie electronic score. It’s at times and in turns creepy and nerve-wracking and philosophical, and as in most standard Man vs. Nature films, you’re sometimes left wondering exactly who the hell you should be rooting for.
Then there’s that ending. As things stand with the original theatrical release (and all subsequent commercial editions), the influence 2001 had on the final scenes is pretty obvious. Pushing that connection farther, though, Bass initial cut included a mind-blowing four-minute montage offering a surreal glimpse into the future, and what life for mankind would be like (after a few niggling evolutionary adjustments) under our new ant overlords (whoopsies—forget I said that).
Well, among several other cuts and re-edits throughout the film made without Bass’ approval or involvement, the studio most famously lopped off the closing montage, apparently thinking it was too hippie-dippy, confusing, and just plain weird for their target audience. The footage had been feared lost forever until a full print was rediscovered in 2012, remastered, and screened at just a few select theaters. No, maybe it’s not like discovering an original director’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, but dammit, for genre fans it was still a pretty big deal. Unfortunately, at the moment there seem to be no plans to release a director’s cut commercially (though boots of the montage are available online so you can see for yourself).
Phase IV was a deeply ambitious film, one that tried really, really hard to raise itself more than a few steps above the standard lowbrow entries into the bug movie subgenre, a film that wanted to be something far more mystical, and to a degree it succeeds. Unfortunately it didn’t much succeed with audiences at the time, who went expecting another killer bug movie, not all this philosophical hoodoo about man’s place in the universe or whatever the hell it was. The film bombed, and Bass was never again allowed to direct anything beyond those arty shorts of his.