The Sender

Director: Roger Christian              
Kathryn Harrold, Shirley Knight, Paul Freeman

I think many people will agree with me that Battlefield Earth is the Heaven's Gate of our time. Or the Ishtar of our time. Or the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band of our time. Or... I think you've got the point by now. In other words, a big movie that fails so completely that you cannot help but constantly hear bad reports about it - which in turn perks up your curiosity enough that you have to check out the movie yourself. Admit it - you've seen Battlefield Earth. So did I - terrible, wasn't it? The critics sure were right about its awfulness, and I can certainly understand and Imagine - a full grown man wetting his pants!sympathize with their attacks against director Roger Christian. Though reading their reviews, I did notice more than once that one of their comments concerning Christian was actually unfounded. That comment was to the effect that Christian - who had previously filmed a lengthy string of critical and financial bombs like Masterminds and Nostrodamus - seemed to have no concept as to how to properly direct a movie. Though he has indeed made a number of turkeys, his career isn't just one big blemish, and this can be proved by looking at the obscure 1982 horror movie The Sender. Not only is this movie Christian's directorial debut, while it is definitely an uneven piece of work, there are a number of times when Christian does get it right. In fact, he gets it right enough time that I could accept the whole package, flaws and all.

The Sender, released during the height of the horror movie craze in the early '80s, differs from not being one of the typical splatters of the era - it can be considered more akin to movies like The Fury or Scanners. Not just in the subject matter, but that it takes its premise much more seriously than many other horror movies. It's also not content to present things in a conventional manner, which it does right from the opening, where a mysterious young man (Zeljko Ivanek, of the TV show Oz, and who recently appeared in Black Hawk Down) is seen waking up after spending the night sleeping by a highway. With something obviously troubling him (though we don't know what), we see him start walking down the highway, until he gets to a public beach. Then in front of everyone at the beach, the mysterious young man attempts suicide - and the camera forces us to look at every painful step of the process, with an unblinking eye and no reaction cuts to anyone else at the beach. Even when the young man goes under the surface of the water, we are not spared from seeing what is happening to him. An unforgettable opening, and one that gives us the first hint that this movie is going to be filled with the unexpected.

The young man is rescued (offscreen), and is transported to a mental hospital. Like in the opening of the movie, we still don't know where we are (the hospital itself is never given a name clearer than "State Mental Hospital".) The movie's stubborn refusal to give us something to hold onto so we can be assured that something we've seen before will happen here continues when Dr. Farmer (Harrold, of TV's Chicago Hope) labels this new amnesia-suffering patient of hers "John Doe #83" (which he is referred to as for the rest of the movie.) As well, the other patients in the ward are also never referred to by their actual names - for example, the patient who is a Jesus freak is always called "The Messiah", even by the staff.

Plunged into such an unfamiliar environment where normal procedures don't
seem to be happening, it's quite an unsettling experience. So you can imagine how it must feel This is what happens when you don't use soap that's 99 44/00% purewhen really strange events things start to occur not long after John Doe #83 is checked in. That night, alone in her home, Dr. Farmer sees and hears John break into her home and steal her necklace, but calling the hospital afterwards reveals that John is still fast asleep there, and the police find her missing necklace on her nightstand. Strange things start happening at the hospital - she finds a swarm of cockroaches in a medical refrigerator which disappear seconds later, and a mysterious woman (Shirley Knight) claiming to be John's mother mysteriously appears to give Dr. Framer warnings to the effect that it's dangerous to keep her son in the hospital.

Dr. Farmer's reactions to these and the other bizarre phenomenon she encounters are related to one of the things that I found refreshing about The Sender, in how it treats its characters with respect and intelligence. In another movie, Dr. Farmer would spend most of the movie in the dark about what is going on, but in this movie she has a pretty good theory as to the cause of these incidents around the time of the second occurrence. This is a smart woman - we could see that even before the bizarre phenomenon, when (in a very good scene) she interviewed the reluctant John and was successfully able to press some sensitive buttons he thought he was keeping hidden.

I should point out that a lot of the credit to making Dr. Farmer come across well comes from actress Harrold herself. She plays the doctor as one who is very curious, but at the same time always acts professional - you never expect this doctor to be so compassionate that she'll treat her patients like her friends, which is just how a doctor is supposed to act in real life. Dr. Farmer's colleagues are also acted/written not only with professionalism in mind, but also without some clichés you may think will be brought up again. When Dr. Farmer brings up the theory that John Doe might have some kind of psychic power, their reaction is more receptive than you might think. Though they do eventually go against Dr. Farmer's wishes, you can actually see reason behind why they decide to do what they do (to their regret, of course - but I won't get into that.) Even the patients on the ward have been written with respect and intelligence. The movie's other exceptional performance (and one that is more subtle) comes from Ivanek as John Doe, who manages the difficult task of showing his character's mental anguish with very little dialogue. (And going away from the usual convention, his character is not seen as a villain.) Even the other patients on the ward have not been forgotten about. Though clearly mentally ill, you can still see the human being in them. There is some comic relief that comes from them, but it never comes across as mocking. You almost wish the movie spent more time with these interesting people.

Though most of us do want our horror movies to have characters that are interesting enough, I think we can all admit that the primary reason we see horror movies is to satisfy our gut instincts to be entertained by the base material to be found in these movies. This movie does have a share of bloody moments, but they come across with a different tone. For one thing, they are far less gruesome than you'd think. (Though rated R at the time, if this movie came out today I wouldn't be surprised if it got a PG-13 rating.) Also, the gore in itself is not the heart of the shocks in these sequences, but is used to give a slight boost to these shocks. Though the gore is fleeting and sporadic, that's what makes it work. For a long period we are gently treated, then all of a sudden the suspense starts and keeps building until WHAM - we are startled by what we see.

Some cynics might say that the lack of gore is due to the movie's obvious low budget. Though Christian didn't have a lot of money to make any elaborate setpieces, he uses a lot of low-cost yet effective Rat - the other white meat!techniques to stretch every dollar. The big sequence when the other doctors finally learn of John Doe's talent uses several such techniques - among them slow motion, a dreamy atmosphere (parts of this movie really capture what a dream is like), characters expressing horror with facial expressions instead with their voices, and the Trevor Jones musical score. (Creepy throughout, the score also wisely knows when to shut up when a particular scene will be more frightening in silence.) It's not just using these techniques that makes a scene work, but using these techniques well - it's obvious that a lot of work went into choreographing and positioning everything and everyone just right, so instead of looking hokey and planned, it looks natural and scary.

What also makes the movie's scary sequences really work is the movie constantly flirting with placing a disturbing tone in itself, even if a particular sequence isn't meant to have any shocks. As we eventually learn along with Dr. Farmer, psychic powers aren't always a blessing - they can be a bitter curse, not just for those on the receiving end, but for the sender as well. Clearly, John Doe is overwhelmed by his powers, and he obviously isn't enjoying what he places himself (and others) through. It's also clear that he cannot voluntarily stop doing what he does, and the fact that this horror is coming from a seemingly unstoppable source is disturbing in its own right.

The movie manages to find a number of ways to keep giving the audience chills and shocks, though when it comes to properly explaining everything and tying up every running thread to lead into a satisfying ending, it falls short. To begin with, the climactic sequence just isn't that. Though the events that subsequently happen after it supposedly came because of what previously happened, I simply could not see how the events in this climax managed to subsequently change things. The status quo just isn't affected. As well, what actually happens in this climax is rather underwhelming; the movie had been leading up to a big explosion of some kind, yet just before hitting the dynamite, the flame on the fuse hits a soggy section and completely fizzles out. You cannot help but think, "That's it???"

The other big problem in the movie is that it leads a lot of questions that are never answered. I, for one, can accept a reasonable amount of mystery in a horror movie - Harrold shows Ivanek every bit of dialogue he'll have to say in this movieafter all, it didn't matter why the dead were rising in Night Of The Living Dead. But the mysteries that go unanswered in The Sender are waved in our face in a way that indicates they will eventually be answered - and they aren't. For example, what is the significance of "1963"? And who did that telephone number belong to? These and several other questions are never properly dealt with. It eventually proves to be quite frustrating, especially when more questions of these types start occurring to you after the movie is over. Still, while the movie is a kind of trip to nowhere, it does at least provide a lot of interesting diversions along the way. As sloppy and unfinished as things are, I think there's enough decent material here to make a rental worthwhile, as long as at the time you're accepting of a movie that'll make you think, "Cool - though it sure could have been better."

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See also: The Doorway, The Other, Voodoo