Phase IV 4K

by Glenn Erickson Mar 26, 2024

The celebrated filmic designer Saul Bass took on a tall cinematic challenge, directing a cerebral sci-fi thriller designed to rely heavily on his graphic communication technique. He lost the faith of a studio along the way, and perhaps his own sense of ‘directorial imperative.’ What’s left of his unique, post-2001 mindblower barely holds together, even as we recognize the genius in its conception. The 4K Ultra HD encoding of Ken Middleham’s insect macrocinematography still amazes; a second, longer HD of Saul Bass’s Preview Version restores the legendary, lost end montage.

Phase IV 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
Vinegar Syndrome
1974 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 84, 89 min. / Street Date March 26, 2024 / Available from Vinegar Syndrome / 62.98
Starring: Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick, Alan Gifford
Cinematography: Dick Bush
Insect sequences: Ken Middleham
Art Direction: John Barry
Film Editor: Willy Kemplen
Original Music: Brian Gascoigne
Written by Mayo Simon
Produced by Paul B. Radin
Directed by
Saul Bass

Scientists fight a losing battle against ants, in a biological invasion from within!

That’s one way to look at Saul Bass’s Phase IV, and it’s the way it was sold, with freaky exploitation graphics crossing Bert I. Gordon killer insects with a classic Luis Buñuel surreal image.

The exploitation route was not what Saul Bass originally had in mind for his film directing debut. Perhaps inspired by Kubrick’s  2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted to take audiences on a non-verbal journey into an eerie future, with a ‘conquest’ that knocks Homo Sapiens down a few notches in the evolutionary chart. Yes, ants are involved, but they’re not the atomic giants of an earlier age of sci-fi thrills. New, intelligent ant colonies acquire the ability to strategize on a giant scale. The scientists think they are doing research, but they’re really guinea pigs for an ant experiment — the ants are now in charge.

Sci-fi after 2001 didn’t stay in high gear. Robert Wise’s  The Andromeda Strain managed to dramatize wall-to-wall technical matters, but Universal shelved Joseph Sargent’s exciting  Colossus The Forbin Project for over a year, despite its hot-topic focus on a killer computer. That same studio turned to a young guru of special effects, Douglas Trumbull for  Silent Running. The genre also spun its wheels with uninspiring pictures like  Demon Seed and  Logan’s Run. George Lucas would then hijack the genre, and the movie industry itself, with his Star Wars franchise.

But Saul Bass and Phase IV operated on a different, quasi-commercial wavelength. Bass was the celebrated king of feature title sequences and special visual montages, that often told little self-contained stories. His ‘different’ ant invasion would have actors and a script, but his intention was to communicate as many ideas as possible through graphic images. Saul Bass sold Paramount Pictures on a Kubrick- like odyssey into the unknown, but somehow the studio expected a matinee suspense-horror thriller.


When the show was released in 1974, we never suspected that it had undergone a rough post-production period, to change a movie that ‘in’t working’ into something more commercial. Frank Jackson’s  Cinefantastique review (Volume 03 No 4 1974) is unaware of an editorial conflict, but a different story began to unfold from subsequent Saul Bass interviews. He alluded to a longer, more abstract ending montage that had been finished for the film, and then deleted. In at least one interview Bass suggested that he had removed it himself.

Author John Brosnan described the unused ending in his 1978 book Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction:  “Bass originally filmed a spectacular, surreal montage lasting four minutes, showing what life would be like on the ‘new’ Earth, but this was cut by the distributor.”

The rumored lost montage finale remained a mystery all the way until 2012, when it was surfaced at a special showing of Phase IV at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily theater. Charlie Schmidlin wrote it up in an Indiewire article from June 26 of that year. The alternate ending was screened separate from the full feature. CineSavant associate Darren Gross attended and reported that the audience loved the trippy, psychedelic new five or so minutes of film. Paramount should have recognized Phase IV as a potential cult head-trip movie, left it intact, and proceeded to make it available for midnight shows forever. How much imagination does that take?


Fifty years later, Vinegar Syndrome finally brings back Saul Bass’s Preview Cut of Phase IV, with two separate audio tracks for its now-legendary graphic montage finale.

Phase IV dares to be serious post- 2001 science fiction, loaded with knockout visuals. The thriller proposes ants that are smart instead of big, and generates its fair share of tension before resolving in a welter of murky mysticism … not your annoying art-film mysticism, but the far-out deep-think variety. The days of humanity are numbered, it seems. Mankind will be stepping aside to make way for the next species to inherit the planet.

Stepping behind the cameras of a feature film for the first time, Bass takes an unusual approach to his ecological Sci-Fi picture. His optical effects may have dated somewhat, but their design is always superior. The many insect microphotography sequences (by specialist Ken Middleham) have yet to be bettered.


The Birds The Ants Is Coming.

From the beginning Bass’s style relies on a heightened graphic sense. A celestial incident bathes the Earth in energy waves of an undisclosed nature. The incident passes harmlessly until scientist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) discovers odd happenings in Arizona: ant species are changing their basic social natures, ceasing to fight among themselves and banding together to wipe out their natural predators. Hordes of ants have already driven some farmers off their land. Hubbs sets up a research lab in a sealed-off dome and invites cryptographer and communications specialist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) to join him.

The experiment has barely gotten underway when the lab is under siege as well. Hubbs and Lesko fight back with pesticides, to no avail. Survivor Kendra Eldrige (Lynne Frederick) arrives and is given shelter. Hubbs doesn’t report her status or the other killings because he doesn’t want his experiment shut down. The communal ant mind has analyzed the dome’s defenses: saboteur ants infiltrate the dome to gnaw away at crucial lab wiring, with the aim of knocking out its power generators. The super-intelligent ants then build towering dirt-obelisks with reflective surfaces that focus sunlight on the dome, burdening the defenders’ air conditioning system. Hubbs determines to fight to the bitter end, but Lesko takes a longer view. He believes that the ants will eventually prevail, and mankind’s only chance is to communicate with them.


No filmmaker has been able to repeat Stanley Kubrick’s ethereal melding of Science Fiction and experimental cinema. Several ecological thrillers with apocalyptic scenarios weren’t exactly feel-good escapism — Richard Fleischer’s  Soylent Green, Trumbull’s sentimental  Silent Running, Cornel Wilde’s ugly  No Blade of Grass.

Phase IV avoids those pitfalls while inventing a few of its own. It begins with a pair of scientists fighting a familiar threat, but their resistance eventually morphs into a species surrender. The dramatics are not particularly polished. Hubbs behaves a bit like Quint in the next year’s  Jaws. When he realizes he’s no match for the ant horde, he goes berserk. Cool customer Lesko works on defense strategies with Hubbs, but wisely puts his energy into his communication effort. Director Bass shows even less finesse with actors than had Douglas Trumbull. Davenport and Murphy offer good performances, but Lynne Frederick is all but cast adrift. The disc essay by Sean Savage suggests that Bass scripted but then did not film more erotic content between Murphy and Frederick. After selling the picture as horror exploitation, Paramount reportedly removed moments of gore as well.

The ant colonies constitute a vast communal creature, and have developed a mass intelligence. Individual insects are like cells of this body, reasons Hubbs. Each is an expendable suicide fighter. When Hubbs wipes out hundreds of thousands of attacking ants with a yellow foam, we see a series of ants dragging a piece of the foam back to their queen, each dying in turn from its poison. The queen processes the yellow goop, and then proceeds to pump out yellow, poison-resistant ant larvae. The adaptation is an overnight phenomenon. The next generation of ants will be that much closer to victory.


Were the writers of Phase IV influenced by earlier science fiction thrillers?  The ants’ strategy of surrounding Hubbs’ dome with those heat-focusing towers is identical to that employed against alien invaders in Ishiro Honda’s sci-fi epic  Chikyu Boeigun, from 1957. To lay siege to the alien base — also a dome — our Earth Defense Force surrounds it with siege towers towers topped with futuristic ray cannon.

Individually insignificant, but in their millions exponentially intelligent.

The concept of a communal multi-organism creature was proposed in Nigel Kneale’s truly seminal Sci-Fi film  Quatermass 2, with its giant, sentient blob-monsters. Saul Bass’s ant species band together for the common goal of world domination, the same coalition strategy employed by Alfred Hitchcock’s  The Birds. Inter-species unity is what guarantees victory for the formicidae.  The inabiility to form lasting social organizations between tribes is of course mankind’s Achilles Heel. The key to everything is communication. When Lesko breaks down the ants’ mechanical language, the film harmonizes to a degree with  Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The collective ant intelligence is sensitive to humanity, and genuinely curious about us as well. They seem to know that James Lesko there to parlay, not fight.


Phase IV has no shortage of fascinating visuals. As seen in his famous title sequence designs, Saul Bass’s key talent is effective visual communication. His optical tricks conjure up weird space phenomena, strange silhouetted shapes on the horizon, and a few impressive (if dated) surreal images. The real wonder of the film are Ken Middleham’s incredibly good macro-cinematographic views of the ants and other insects going about their business. Many shots are over-cranked in beautiful slow motion. The film could easily have employed a number of generic ‘bugs milling about’ shots, and just told us what was happening with explanatory narration. These images are planned, choreographed and executed for maximum graphic appeal.


How’d they do that?

Macro-cinematographer Ken Middleham’s claim to fame just prior to Phase IV was his fantastic trick camerawork for The Hellstrom Chronicle, a rather hysterical apocalyptic pseudo-documentary. The movie’s success may have been what made Paramount believe that an exciting thriller could be made from the idea of insects taking over the earth. We see ants arranging the bodies of their dead in long funeral rows, a chilling vision. What looks like a multi-phyla, multi-tribe meeting shows a number of incredibly enlarged ants, each with a distinctive badge on its forehead. The little emblems can’t be bigger than pinheads.

The proof that Phase IV is working is that we follow the strategies of these clever little bugs with a minimum of verbal cues. We can understand what they’re doing, as some of us deal with ants on a daily basis. Our household is on a permanent war footing against ants that have colonized our kitchen. After Phase IV it’s very easy to imagine them setting some kind of diabolical trap for me.

Movies rise or fall primarily on audience identification, and the characters in this drama are left rather undefined. Hubbs becomes irrational after an ant bite swells his hand to twice its size — with makeup that yet again reminds us of a  Quatermass movie. Lynne Frederick, Davenport’s co-star from No Blade of Grass, helps stave off monotony, but her Kendra ultimately becomes irrelevant, unless she and Lesko are meant to be a sort of Adam and Eve ambassador-to-the-ants duo. This disc finally lets us hear what actor Michael Murphy has to say about his work at this time, when he had featured roles Robert Altman pictures, yet was also volunteering for all manner of oddball feature film roles, like the fairly dire Count Yorga, Vampire. The mostly British crew made this low budget movie at Pinewood, with Kenya standing in for Arizona. All in all, it’s an impressive and offbeat little movie.

The ending of the Theatrical Version incorporates visuals that remind us of the later Altered States. When James and Ernest examine the body of a dead farmer, they find disturbing ant-holes carved into his palm. Bass can’t resist restaging Luis Buñuel’s signature surreal image, of ants crawling from a hole in a man’s hand.

An ‘Ethereal Cereal’ graphics orgy.

That weird montage that concludes the Preview Cut of Phase IV is really quite an achievement. It attempts to show, or more accurately suggest, the acceptance of Lesko and Kendra into the mass ant hive, and the assimilation of their spirits or consciousnesses into the New Ant Order.  Nope, the future of humanity doesn’t look at all promising.



Vinegar Syndrome’s K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Phase IV 4K is yet another case of a ‘disc boutique’ Blu-ray company engaging in movie preservation work that no longer interests the major film studios. The buying public of film collectors must have made these special editions economically feasible, for the last few years have given us one can’t-believe-we-get-to-see-this revelation after another.

VS’s 3-disc set contains one 4K disc and two standard Blu-rays. On the main 4K disc is the Theatrical Version, the standard 84-minute cut of the film, newly scanned & restored from its 35mm original camera negative. The Theatrical version is repeated on a Blu-ray disc and accompanied by a reconstruction of Saul Bass’s Preview Version, which is 89 minutes in duration. It carries two English Mono soundtracks, one with extra narration and one without. There is no 4K encoding of the pieced-together Preview Version.

The old Olive Films disc looked okay, but this remastered 4K transfer and encoding is a big step up in quality: cleaner, more detail, better color, etc. The cleaner image comes across in the HD encoding on the Blu-ray as well, a big improvement.


As for the Extended Cut, the additional material is taken from a surviving print of the Preview Version, so the quality dips somewhat when new footage appears. If one is interested, they provide a road map to what was added. One extra is a brief compilation of short shots that were not restored and reinstated due to poor quality or damage. Most have nasty splices indicating missing frames, rendering some dialogue incoherent. The material would seem to be slight extensions to existing scenes, and thus not a tragic loss.

Two soundtracks are offered for the Preview Version. One contains no Michael Murphy narration. If we remember correctly, this narration-free track is what is heard in the bootleg version of the Extended Version ending montage that long ago surfaced on YouTube.

The other track has the Michael Murphy narration familiar from the Theatrical Cut, plus a ton of rambling, unwelcome voiceover poured over the final montage. It smacks of nervous studio executives trying to make a vague, confusing ending more accessible to a mainstream audience based upon confused focus group whining. Thus Murphy prattles on and on, distracting us from the visuals with talk about how he tried to fight the willpower of the ants. He tells us that he was given ‘glimpses of the future,’ and was shown ‘unnatural hybrids,’ yadda yadda. He just won’t shut up!

Other than the ending montage, the extra footage we noticed on a first pass was a slight extension to the scene with the old couple early in the film, just a few extra dialogue lines about insect spray. We’re told that little bits of extra footage are salted elsewhere in the film, too.


Once again, Vinegar Sydrome is generous with the extras. The old Olive disc had no extras at all.

The commentary by Matthey Asprey is on the Theatrical Version. It contains plenty of good information, and refrains from padding the track with too many lists of IMDB credits, etc.. The best extra is a longform making-of documentary, which includes interviews with screenwriter Mayo Simon, Michael Murphy, Saul Bass’s son and a couple of Bass experts. There are also archival interview excerpts with Bass, and clips from a vintage featurette with behind-the-scenes footage and sound bites from Nigel Davenport and Lynne Frederick. We wish that the full featurette had been included. Bass’s son tells us that he and his sister are the figures with writing on their faces in the original ending. Bass himself has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the montage as well.

The one area that disappoints is the extras’ coverage of cameraman Ken Middleham’s contribution to Phase IV. When we see what he’s done with the tiny ants, we’re amazed … it would seem that using enough light to get Middleham’s depth of field, would be too hot for the insects. Middleham is of course mentioned and praised for his work, but few details are discussed. It might lead some viewers to track down the vintage Cinefx magazine coverage.

We don’t recall having seen the trailer before. It’s no wonder that Phase IV had a rough time at the box office, as Paramount had no clue as to how to market the film.

Thanks to Edward Sullivan and Bruce Holecheck for their research and opinions,
and to Gary Teetzel for help with the disc evaluation.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Phase IV 4K
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good, and Excellent for its Sci-fi concepts.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Commentary track with film historian Matthew Asprey Gear
Elijah Drenner’s documentary Evolutions: The Making of Phase IV (48 min) with Jeffrey Bass, Michael Murphy, screenwriter Mayo Simon, archivist Sean Savage and Saul Bass biographer Pat Kirkham
Featurette Formicidae Sinfonia: The Music and Sounds of Phase IV (15 min) with composer Brian Gascoigne and electronic music artist David Vorhaus
Deleted shots and sequences (2 min)
Raw footage from Saul Bass’ original ending montage sequence (16 min)
Theatrical trailer, Still gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
March 24, 2024

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Chas Speed

I could never get into this film when seeing it on TV, but it always interested me. It seems like I got a one sheet poster of it somewhere just because Saul Bass directed it and I would love to see the 4K version if I could rent it out, but I guess those days are long gone.


Always enjoyed “PhaseIV”. Read Barry Maltzberg’s novel adaption of the Mayo Simon script.

Steve Johnson

One of the revelations of the original ending is the similarity in many of the shots to the stylized love scenes in The Man Who Fell to Earth, including images of divers and the couples facing off.

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