AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 17th June, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 91 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A young man is placed in the state mental hospital after he attempts to commit suicide by walking into a lake with stones in his pocket. With no memory, he is listed as a John Doe and assigned to psychologist Gail Farmer. However, John then begins to appear and mysteriously disappear inside Gail’s house and she and others begin to experience hallucinations. Could John Doe be a broadcasting telepath, and why does he seem to be so scared of his mother when she comes to take him home?….
Like I’m sure many others, my interest is still always piqued when Quentin Tarantino mentions a film that he loves or thinks very highly of, even if there have been a few occasions when I’ve gone and watched something based on his recommendation and wondered if I saw a different film to the one he did. But quite often I do find that I agree with him, and in terms of horror he was certainly right about the Australian chiller Next Of Kin which came out a few months ago and was reviewed by yours truly back then. He calls The Sender his favourite horror movie of 1982. I can’t say that I agree: while I’m not very strong on remembering dates, off the top of my head I can think of five films [The Thing, Poltergeist, The Entity, The Living Dead Girl and Cat People] that I like more myself and also consider to be better films, and if I went and looked up ‘horror films of 1982’ I’d probably find a couple more. But The Sender is still certainly worth your time. A variation on the telekinesis-employing likes of Carrie and especially Patrick, it’s also a forerunner to the Nightmare On Elm Street films with its characters frequently finding themselves in dreams and not always knowing it, though handled in a more sombre manner. It’s quite downbeat really, and some may find it to be more of a psychological thriller than a full-blown chiller, but despite containing little actual violence there are some memorable horror moments with imagery that has cropped up in a lot of stuff since, and a story line that’s certainly involving – this film isn’t just a series of set pieces – though as I type I haven’t yet decided if the way some stuff is left unexplained and/or up in the air works for the film or not!
So again it’s straight into the review proper, and the film starts with a very tranquil opening set to a plaintive music theme by Trevor Jones with some beautiful wood photography and a very slow camera pan to reveal our particular ‘John Doe’, asleep. He’s woken up by a truck passing on the road nearby and then attempts to drown himself at a nearby beach, an event shot largely with the camera operator further out in the water so we then drown with him. Or not as the case may be, because of course this doesn’t work [we don’t see the rescue], and he awakes in a mental hospital with amnesia, leaving us already thinking that his supposed try at taking his own life in such a public place was more a cry for help. He doesn’t like talking much, answers to questions tending to be either hostile, matter of fact or dismissive. One has to chuckle at his answer to, “where do you live”?, “in a house”, while just a bit of humour is introduced in the form of two patients. One thinks that the Vietnam war is still on, the other thinks he’s ‘The Chosen One’ and sees John as a rival. John responds by threatening mentally to decapitate him, causing him to stand perfectly still because he thinks he’s been guillotined and is worried that his head will fall off. I could have actually done with a bit more footage devoted to the patients just to enhance the environment, and it seems like some material concerning a female patient has been removed as you feel that she’s important but you don’ t know why – she even gets a kiss at one point in a really pleasing moment that just comes out of the blue. Gail is immediately full of compassion for John, but I’ll tell you know – there’s no corny romance in this film, and that’s really refreshing. It’s also interesting that we’re never given any indication of where we’re supposed to be, fictitious or not.
Back in her house, Gail hears a window smash and then hears someone walking about in her house which turns out to John when she sees him in her bedroom taking a necklace. However, a quick call to the hospital reveals that John never left the place and it seems that no windows were actually damaged at all. Some more hallucinations later and it becomes apparent that only is John the one causing people to experience them but that he’s sending them his dreams, though this aspect is a bit confusing because some folk see their own nightmares become reality, while in some cases one is not sure at all what to make of what we’re seeing expect that the filmmakers thought it would be scary. A few cases are connections in unraveling the mystery behind John Doe, but I wasn’t sure how, for example, rats fit in to it all. One episode finds Gail stranded in a bedroom filled with rats and a lifeless body. After examining the body lying limp on the bedroom floor, she’s startled by two rats making a graphic escape from the person’s mouth. It’s effective and ends with a good shocker as long as you don’t focus on the fake head too much [it’s not at all one of the best], but I don’t see how it fits into the mystery even when it’s unraveled [or most of it]. I don’t want to explain exactly why it doesn’t seem to fit in because I’ll have to give too much of the plot away if I do, but I’m sure that you’ll see what I mean. You also get to see things like maggots, mirrors and walls cracking and bleeding, and a TV that plays the same channel and just won’t shut up even when being bashed in, while when they try to give John shock treatment his powers hurl everyone around the room in slow motion – which makes one wonder why they decide to do a similar thing to him later, though in general things reel relatively authentic in this place. Gail is at odds with her boss Dr. Denman who favours shock treatment which she feels is unethical, but you never get the impression that this guy is nasty, it’s just what he feels is best.
All this is actually based on something that’s been accepted by some, ‘sending’ supposedly being a psychological bond between a parent, usually the mother, and a child which allows for thoughts and feelings to be expressed and shared, rooms apart. This sensory connection tends to fade and is usually gone before the child is one years old. The film does briefly refer to this though of course then runs with the idea. However, the sense of danger can’t help but lessen when we find out that all these scary events aren’t real, though Jason Voorhees fans will enjoy seeing a forerunner to the classic [if for the wrong reasons] kill when he punches somebody’s head off its shoulders. However, The Sender fortunately has something else up its sleeve to keep viewers at least a bit scared – and this is in the form of one of the creepiest mothers in the history of horror, a genre that’s given us so many. Called Jerolyn, she first shows us at the hospital wanting her son to come home, and Gail talks to her, but after the conversation the camera slowly passes Gail to reveal where Jerolyn is supposedly sitting – only that she’s now gone! This may not sound much but it’s really rather shivery because of the way it’s calmly done, and Jerolyn then proceeds to show up every now and again in moments which often pack a chill. Shirley Knight is truly sinister in the role, sometimes going for Piper Laurie-type scenery chewing [well, she is another religious freak] but more often being restrained and all the better for it. What also makes her linger in the mind is that, without going into things too much, her exact nature is never explained, though there are certainly two possibilities.
Zeljko Ivanek has an appealing vulnerability as the highly introverted John yet he still manages to look very disturbed, though I don’t feel that we’re taken close enough to the character. Kathryn Harrold as Gail is fine too, very good at giving the impression that her character is curious and kind, but never so compassionate that she’ll treat her patients like her friends, which is just how a doctor is supposed to act in real life. Now then – If you’ve heard of the director, it’s most likely as the guy who made Battlefield Earth [a film which I’ll admit is poor but which I also think has been somewhat picked on and is outdone in badness by many other films every year], while the rest of his resume looks to be pretty undistinguished. But he shows a real knack for horror here, knowing how to set up and pull off scares very well, and he’s greatly helped by the fine cinematography of Roger Pratt, who really makes an effort to make the film look good, just look in particular at a car chase that goes into an underground car park which is lit by blue and turquoise on either side. Jones’s mostly electronic score is usually highly effective and tends to emphasise the emotional side, it being interesting the number of major sequences that go un-scored. Special effects are highly convincing too, especially some shots involving smashed glass which often don’t look too good in movies.
There’s a real’idiot’ moment to laugh at during the so-so climax so the threat of a big explosion can go ahead, and I could have personally done without the final shot. It still leaves us in the dark, but I doubt that it’ll chill as you’re probably know it’s coming quite a number of seconds before it does, and it would have been more of a surprise if we hadn’t have had it at all, or at least finished with something else. I’m not sure that all the biblical references work too well either as not enough is really done with them. But The Sender, if falling a bit short of being an unacknowledged classic to my eyes, still has a lot of qualities and manages to leave us with quite an impression, and one which, rather like Carrie [once the shock of that film’s ending has abated], is more one of sadness and compassion despite all its fireworks.
The Sender receives a fine presentation on Region ‘B’ Blu-ray from Arrow. The mostly muted colours still look good and dark scenes still have plenty of detail, while the grain is very evenly managed. The odd soft shot is only to be expected in a film of this vintage. It’s probable that Arrow are using the same scan that was on the Region ‘A’ Blu-ray from Olive Films, but that had no special features whatsoever. Arrow have rewarded fans of the film by including with some good extras which makes their release probably worth buying even if you own the previous version.
Director Roger Christian provides a very relaxed audio commentary that’s interesting except for when he tells you what’s happening on screen. Otherwise though he doesn’t need a prompter as he explains his aims with the film [realism and believability were a must, though you may argue with how well he succeeded], how many of the special effects were done, etc. – basically most of the things you want to hear about. You learn some intriguing stuff, like how the original ending actually concluded things on a romantic note [though I wasn’t too keen on the new ending Christian thought up, it’s a darn sight better than that!], and how Tarantino, when he worked in a video shop, was so annoyed that the copy of the film his shop carried had scenes missing that he reinstated them from his TV copy. He seems proud of the film which, though I haven’t seen anywhere near all of his other work, is still probably his best.
Dream Logic has screenwriter Tom Baum discuss his beginnings in the movie business, what inspired The Sender, and provide some more interesting facts like how Christian wanted Tom Cruise or Sean Penn to star [Penn would have been good], and how it didn’t seem that Christian was giving much direction when Baum visited the set. He also mentions that he had the intriguing idea that Jesus was a sender, but it’s not in the finished film. Into The Mind’s Eye has Kim Newman discuss how the cycle of psychic horror that The Sender belongs to had its origins of ancient ideas of angels and demons, then how the idea of folk with special powers really began with the encroachment of science, mentioning important literature before moving on to films and of course superheroes. I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t say much about The Sender, but it’s an interesting chat nonetheless and most welcome. Me being me though, I was most intrigued by the deleted material from the screenplay. I’m not going to mention every snippet, but you get more of the other patients including the one who John kisses at the end, more of Denman, more of Jocelyne, a more graphic ‘head’ scene, and more clarity overall. The decision was obviously made to make things less clear, and as I come to the end of this review I think this was the right decision for the most part [though the screenplay still doesn’t explain those rats!], as it was to totally remove a love element between John and Gail, though there’s some mention of religious stuff that I think ought to have remained, and I’d have liked the extra patient stuff to have been shot too. And finally Denman’s Diagnosis [which must be a recent addition seeing as it’s not listed] is three minutes [that’s all!] of Paul Freeman [Denman, and best known as Belloq in Raiders Of The Lost Ark] just about remembering the part and how dangerous it was when acting in a scene featuring a fire.
Its director may have said he was making an Ingmar Bergman film rather than a John Carpenter one, but The Sender is a good-to-very-good horror on another quality release from Arrow. Recommended.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High Definition (1080p) Blu-Ray presentation
*Original uncompressed stereo audio
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio commentary by director Roger Christian
*Dream Logic: new interview with screenwriter Tom Baum [17 mins]
*Into The Mind’s Eye: anappreciation by critic Kim Newman [27 mins]
*Deleted scenes from the screenplay, including the original ending [25 mins]
*Denman’s Diagnosis: new interview with Paul Freeman [3 mins]
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Luke Insect
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Alan Jones and an excerpt from the novelisation by Tom Baum