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Phase IV (Vinegar Syndrome) UHD/Blu-ray Review

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    Ian Jane
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  • Phase IV (Vinegar Syndrome) UHD/Blu-ray Review

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    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: March 26th, 2024.
    Director: Saul Bass
    Cast: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, Alan Gifford, Robert Henderson, Helen Horton
    Year: 1974
    Purchase From Amazon

    Phase IV – Movie Review:

    Saul Bass’ 1974 sci-fi/thriller Phase IV is an interesting blend of nature run amuck stereotypes and Natural Geographic style nature footage mixed into one delicious cocktail of suspense and psychedelia. When the film begins, it seems that ants all over the place have somehow formed a collective consciousness, and they’re not particularly happy with the world. It starts with small attacks, like a group of ants taking down a spider, but soon hits on bigger targets like a sheep before eventually moving on to mankind. When people start turning up dead, victims of ant attacks, two scientists – Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and James Lesko (Michael Murphy) – begin to investigate. These two, joined by a young woman named Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick) who lost her parents to the ants and just barely escaped with her life, will soon find themselves having to destroy the ants once and for all, but it isn’t going to be easy.

    While the plot might sound more than a little hokey, Phase IV is a fantastic movie. Making use of some mesmerizing nature footage and using real ants for almost all of the scenes, the film is a remarkably dark and even, at times, surreal take on the evil insect film. Think of this as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of killer bug films and you’re on the right track.

    The performances are well done with Murphy and Davenport turning in completely believable efforts as the two scientists in charge. They’re both fairly cold here, and quite clinical with Davenport’s Hubbs bordering on the obsessive at times, which fits his character’s fate quite nicely. Ms. Frederick isn’t given as much to do and so she’s not quite as impressive but she’s easy on the eyes and gives Murphy’s Lesko someone to latch on to. She also plays a key role in the finale and the foreshadowing that leads up to this is interesting even if the ending is… odd, but appropriately odd.

    The real reason to watch this film, however, is for the ants themselves. There are some amazing shots in this film and plenty of tight close-ups of the ants make them appear quite threatening and more than a little scary. Complimenting this is the film’s unique score and sound design, all of which combines to create some genuinely unnerving moments. Despite the fact that this PG film is completely devoid of gore, it’s so rich with atmosphere that the tension becomes very thick at times. People, for whatever reason, tend to be afraid of insects and this film plays off of that fear very effectively.

    The movie goes along at a very quick pace and the opening scene sets the stage almost perfectly for the events to come. The film was skewered in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1989 but rather unjustly so, as it plays very well as a straight picture and whatever camp value it contains is derived from the fact that it’s a seventies production, not so much from the actual content of the film itself, which really holds up as a fascinating and unique entry in the pantheon of seventies sci-fi films.

    Note that Vinegar Syndrome’s release includes the eighty-four minute Theatrical Version available on both the UHD and Blu-ray discs and the eighty-nine minute Preview Version with multiple soundtrack options included on a second Blu-ray disc.

    Phase IV – UHD Review:

    The HEVC encoded 2160p transfer, framed at 1.85.1 widescreen “newly scanned & restored in 4K from its 35mm original camera negative” with HDR. This presentation, as you’d hope, offers a huge upgrade over the previous DVD release from Olive Films (this writer’s only point of reference for the movie) with massively better detail and much stronger color reproduction. The film is naturally grainy throughout but the picture shows virtually no actual print damage. Skin tones look spot on and we get nice, deep black levels. There’s excellent depth and texture and strong shadow detail here, and all of the increased visual clarity really adds to the viewing experience. There aren’t any problems to note with obvious noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression artifacts and it’s honestly pretty tough to imagine the movie looing much better than it does on this disc.

    The only audio option provided is a 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in the film’s native English, with optional subtitles provided in English only. Audio quality is really strong here, the film’s unorthodox sound design and score really coming through with impressive clarity and providing a more enveloping experience than you’d expect a decades old mono track to be able to provide. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion at all and the levels are properly balanced throughout. It all sounds very impressive. Note that the Preview version offers up two options - the London Preview soundtrack (which features no narration) and the California Preview soundtrack (which features full narration) and optional English subtitles.

    On the UHD we get a commentary track for the Theatrical version with film historian Matthew Asprey Gear. He notes how the use of music in the opening of the movie calls back to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, how and why science fiction films in the seventies tended to be dark and sometimes mystical and were less concerned with creating escapism than in other decades. As the talk goes on, he also covers Saul Bass' life and career and provides details about the cast and crew members that worked on the film. He talks about the differences between the theatrical cut and the preview cuts as well as the narration used on the different versions, the likely influence of Wells' 'Empire Of The Ants' story, locations that were used for the production, some of the difficulties inherent in working with live ants and how the ants and other creatures featured in the fil were manipulated to get what the filmmakers needed and other details. This is a very relaxed track with a bit of dead air but it does contain some pretty interesting information about the movie's history. This same commentary is also included on the first Blu-ray disc, which also holds a 1080p version of the Theatrical version of the movie.

    The rest of the extras are on the second Blu-ray disc with the Preview versions of the movie, starting with Evolutions: The Making Of Phase IV, a new forty-eight minute documentary by Elijah Drenner featuring interviews with Jeffrey Bass, co-star Michael Murphy, screenwriter Mayo Simon, archivist Sean Savage and design historian/Saul Bass biographer Pat Kirkham. There's lots of talk here about what Saul Bass was like to work with and his thoughts on the film not being the success that he wanted it to be, the mystery that is at the core of the movie in terms of how and why what happens in the movie happens, how the distributor didn't really know what to do with the movie, plenty of biographical details about Bass' life and work, how Bass got into filmmaking and some of his early projects, the use of sound in the film and Bass' knack for sound design, how social economics affected the film business in this era, the difficulties of trying to make the audience accept ants as the lead characters in a movie and how to make them come across as ominous as they do in the movie, how the film is really about intelligence at its core, working with the cast and crew, how professional Nigel Davenport was to work with, shooting locations, the different versions of the movie that exist and why they exist in the first place, how the movie was promoted, how Bass' original ending for the movie was discovered and restored, the strength of the visuals in the movie and the film's reappraisal and cult status. There are also some nice vintage clips of Bass, Lynn Frederick and Nigel Davenport included in here as well as a load of archival clips and stills. This is really well-done and definitely worth taking the time as it’s a great exploration of the movie’s complicated history.

    Formicidae Sinfonia: The Music And Sounds Of Phase IV is a new fifteen minute featurette with composer Brian Gascoigne and electronic music artist David Vorhaus. They talk about their respective backgrounds and how they got into music and composing, how they first came to work together, what it was like collaborating with Bass and how they first met him, previous work for the BBC and having access to their equipment, what they tried to bring to the movie with their work, how the 'ant sounds' were recorded and created by recording starlings and then manipulating those recordings, the Moogs and other gear that they used for the soundtrack work, details on the studio space that they used and how they feel about the movie through a modern lens.

    Also included are two minutes’ worth of deleted shots and sequences, sixteen minutes of raw footage from Saul Bass' original ending montage sequence, a theatrical trailer, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection options.

    As to the packaging, as far as the three-disc limited edition goes (which is exclusive to the Vinegar Syndrome website and select independent retailers) all three discs in the set fit inside a clear ‘flippter’ case that also holds some reversible cover sleeve artwork and an insert booklet containing nine pages of Saul Bass’ storyboard work done for the movie. This fits inside a sturdy spot gloss hard slipcase/slipcover combo, designed by Adam Maida, that also holds a perfect-bound, full color, forty-page booklet containing an essay titled ‘A Mountain Out Of An Anthill: Phase IV From Conception To Consequent Mutations’ by Sean Savage from the Academy Film Archive that’s complimented by a nice selection of stills and marketing materials.

    Phase IV - The Final Word:

    Phase IV really holds up, it’s a completely unique mix of science fiction, horror and surrealism with some genuinely stunning camerawork and amazing sound design. Vinegar Syndrome’s UHD/Blu-ray release is impressive, presenting the movie in three versions and in beautiful condition with some interesting supplements exploring its complicated history. Highest possible recommendation! Consider this one essential.



    Click on the images below, or right click and open in a new window, for full sized screen caps from the Phase IV Blu-ray!

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