Sender (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (4th July 2019).
The Film

The Sender (Roger Christian, 1982)

Synopsis:
In front of a horrified crowd of holidaymakers, a young man (Zeljko Ivanek) tries to commit suicide by filling his pockets with stones and walking into a lake. The young man is taken to a psychiatric hospital run by Dr Denman (Paul Freeman); there, the young man is given the designator ‘John Doe 83’ and signed over to Dr Farmer (Kathryn Harrold). John Doe is an amnesiac, claiming to have no memory of his life prior to the dramatic suicide attempt.

At night, someone breaks into Dr Farmer’s house. She calls the police but sees, in a mirror, John Doe sitting on her bed, taking a necklace from her jewellery box. However, he disappears, and when the police arrive, there is no sign of him. At the hospital, Farmer learns that John Doe has not escaped and therefore could not have been in her home.

John Doe is visited by Jerolyn (Shirley Knight), a woman claiming to be his mother. Subsequently, whilst in conversation with Dr Denman, Farmer opens a medicine fridge and discovers it to be filled with a swarm of insects. She hurriedly closes the fridge but when she reopens it, she finds that the insects are not there. Later, Farmer is visited by Jerolyn, who suggests that John Doe has psychic powers: his dreams can invade reality. Terrified of her son’s psychic abilities, Jerolyn kept him locked in a cabin. However, he managed to escape before attempting suicide by drowning himself in the lake.

After a series of terrifying visions that are linked to suicide attempts by John Doe, some of which are experienced by the other staff, Farmer convinces Denman of John Doe’s psychic abilities. Denman conducts some research and discovers new evidence that suggests babies can communicate telepathically with their mothers until the age of seven months. This process is called ‘sending’. ‘We’ve got the first adult case’, Denman asserts in reference to John Doe. As John Doe’s memories begin to return, however, Farmer is forced to confront the reality of her patient’s relationship with his mother.

Critique: A film about dream states intruding on reality, The Sender predates Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) by a couple of years. With the bulk of its narrative taking place within a psychiatric hospital in which the texture of the ‘real’ is disrupted by John Doe’s dreams and nightmares, The Sender has some strong areas of similarity, in particular, with the third film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987), and a rather similar picture released a year after The Dream Warriors (and, like that picture, also starring Jennifer Rubin), Andrew Fleming’s Bad Dreams (1988). In its depiction of John Doe’s psychic abilities, The Sender also crosses thematic paths with Ray Danton’s Psychic Killer (1975).

The Sender juxtaposes quiet, serene moments with outbursts of chaos: a scene can explode into violence at any time. This contrast between the calm and the chaotic is signalled in the film’s opening moments. Quiet, serene shots of the landscape are accompanied by sweet music with an undercurrent of sorrow. John Doe is shown sleeping by a lake. He wakes up and walks along a road to a public beach, where he packs his jacket with stones and, in front of shocked onlookers, walks into the water, submerging himself before a shrill scream is heard on the soundtrack. This moment is captured in a bravura long take, presumably shot with a crane, which begins as a long shot of the beach, showing John Doe and the horrified onlookers onscreen at the same time, then carries us down to a close-up of John Doe’s face before following him under the surface of the water.

Zeljko Ivanek’s performance as the amnesiac John Doe imbues the character with an otherworldly quality, comparable to Terence Stamp’s performance in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) or David Bowie’s performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nic Roeg, 1976). Jerolyn is convinced her son is in some way messianic. When John Doe is admitted to the psychiatric hospital after his suicide attempt in the opening sequence, he tells Farmer, ‘I never had a father’. ‘Like Jesus?’, she asks him. ‘That’s right’, he responds, ‘Like Jesus’. Farmer’s first encounter with Jerolyn sets out the nature of John Doe’s condition: ‘I’m here about your patient, the one who’s driving you crazy’, Jerolyn tells Farmer, ‘Tell me you haven’t been seeing things [….] I’ve been living with it for 20 years [….] I have him perfect love [….] A mother always knows if her baby needs something [….] That’s all he is: he’s a baby. He’s crying for his mama’. Jerolyn ends the conversation by telling Farmer, ‘You’re in dangerous water; take it from me’, before disappearing when Farmer’s back is turned on her.

Later, Farmer conducts an experiment to test John Doe’s psychic ability. She gives him a deck of cards and asks him to take a card from the top of the deck; she will guess whether or not he has selected a black or red card. This happens ten times; Farmer gets the answer wrong every time. John Doe is smug; ‘Ten out of ten’, he asserts as a comment on her failure rate. ‘You know the odds against that?’, Farmer asks him, ‘About the same as getting ten out of ten [correct]. People read your mind. They think your thoughts. They see your dreams. They feel your pain’.

In its depiction of psychiatric medicine, The Sender contrasts Farmer’s sensitive, compassionate approach with Denman’s more mechanical method. Farmer builds a relationship with John Doe, acting maternally towards him. (This, the film suggests, is the reason for the psychic connection between the two.) By contrast, Denman wishes from the outset to use electro-convulsive therapy on John Doe. In one sequence, he does this with the assistance of other members of the psychiatric unit, leading to a moment in which, in extreme slow motion, the various medical professionals are thrown by an unseen force away from John Doe. Denman hurtles through a glass viewing window. Farmer rushes into the room and removes the electrodes from John Doe’s head, and as she does so the room ‘reassembles’, the shattered glass window becoming whole again (through reversal of the footage of it breaking). The participants remember the horrific supernatural event, but it seems not to be ‘real’: this is the first incident which convinces Denman and the others of John Doe’s psychic powers. Later, after Denman researches the phenomenon of ‘sending’, he sees an opportunity for glory and decides to experiment on John Doe; he performs brain surgery on the patient, using micro-electrodes to ‘stimulate the limbic system point by point [….] For the first time, we’ll be identifying the regions of the brain responsible for telepathy’. This, of course, has disastrous results. Interestingly, for a film with a female lead, The Sender bucks long-established Hollywood trends by making no attempt to establish or introduce a romantic partner for Farmer; instead, she is depicted as a devoted professional.

The Sender contains some striking imagery, all underscored by some haunting music composed by Trevor Jones. The scare scenes are effective, an element of unpredictability created by the intrusion of John Doe’s dream-state into reality, which happens largely without warning; there is enough imagery of the abject (a rat crawling out of a mouth; a stove covered in cockroaches; blood spilling out of a tap and through cracks in a mirror) to create a frisson of the taboo. However, the overriding sensation is of a film that is less than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, The Sender is certainly a memorable picture, standing in stark contrast to the popularity of slasher movies during the early 1980s.






Video

The 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec. Running for 91:45 mins and filling 26.4Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc, The Sender is presented in 1.78:1 – which would seem to be near-as-dammit to its original aspect ratio (presumably 1.85:1). The 35mm colour photography is represented very well on this HD release. Contrast levels are good, with even and balanced contrast evidenced throughout the presentation. Midtones are defined, and there is a subtle drop-off into the toe which ensures that low-light scenes aren’t plagued by ‘crushed’ shadow detail. Arrow’s press materials don’t cite a source for the presentation, which indicates an inherited master. There is a slightly ‘filtered’ look at times, with the expected grain structure of 35mm film (especially during the low light scenes where it would usually be ‘pulled out’) seeming slightly muted; this may be owing to the use of filters during the photography or could be evidence of some digital tampering during creation of the master. Nevertheless, it’s not a major issue and, certainly, the presentation has a generally film-like appearance. Colours are naturalistic and consistent throughout the presentation. Detail is very good, fine detail being present in close-ups. The encode to disc presents no problems.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.


Audio

Audio is presented through a LPCM 2.0 stereo track, in English. This audio track is fine. There is no distortion, and the track evidences good range. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and free from errors.

Extras

The disc includes:
- Audio commentary with director Roger Christian. Christian offers some vivid recollections of The Sender, discussing how the script came to come into his hands and what appealed to him about the project. He saw the film as a Hitchcockian psychological thriller, underpinned by ‘psychology where it had gone awry’. He talks about the casting of the film and what the actors brought to their roles. Christian offers some interesting reflections on how he attempted to build suspense and place emphasis on the psychological aspects of the script.

- ‘Dream Logic with Thomas Baum’ (16:40). This is a new interview with Baum, who wrote The Sender. Baum talks about how he came to be involved in filmmaking through his work as a copywriter. The origins of The Sender were in a casual conversation Baum held with a colleague (and a thruway insult, ‘You’re a sender’), and Baum suggests he build a number of semi-autobiographical elements into the picture – in terms of his own relationship with his agoraphobic mother, with whom he lived an ‘unsocialised life’. The notion that Jerolyn was a hallucination of John Doe’s came late in the writing of the project, and Baum’s script found favour at Paramount, where it was rushed into production. Baum talks about Roger Christian’s career; Baum only met with Christian once, but says that Kathryn Harrold told him Christian didn’t give the actors much direction. There was a suggestion during production that the dailies were considered ‘slow’, and Christian’s response was to state that ‘I’m not making a John Carpenter picture; I’m making an Ingmar Bergman picture’.

- ‘Into the Mind’s Eye with Kim Newman’ (27:10). Newman explores the popularity during the 1970s and 1980s of horror films focusing on ESP. Newman considers the evolution of interest in psychic phenomenon – from the perception of it as a form of magic to attempts to scientifically ‘prove’/validate such concepts – and Victorian-era stories about mesmerism/hypnosis alongside the boom in interest in Spiritualism. Newman carries his discussion of this material through a consideration of tales of ratiocination and on to films such as Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To (1976), Psychic Killer, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) and Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1981).

- Deleted Scenes from the Script (24:41). Some alternate, extended and deleted scenes from Baum’s original shooting script (dated 25th March, 1982) are presented as straight scans from the script itself.

- ‘Denman’s Diagnosis with Paul Freeman’ (2:38). Freeman’s recollections of the film are a little vague but he offers some interesting observations on the film itself.

- Gallery (13:30).

- Trailer (1:36).

Overall

After a couple of memorable short films (‘Black Angel’, 1977, and ‘The Dollar Bottom’, 1981), Roger Christian made his feature debut with The Sender. Certainly, The Sender stands out as Christian’s strongest feature as director. The Sender is rich with ambiguity: for much of the film, the viewer is left wondering as to the nature of John Doe (his ‘otherness’ and his psychic abilities suggest a non-human presence), and Christian also paints the relationship between Jerolyn and John Doe in highly ambiguous terms – are they mother and son, as Jerolyn suggests, or is there another element to their relationship? Many sequences blur the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’ to such an extent that these two categories are indistinguishable. The Sender may be patchy and uneven as a whole, but the film’s exploration of some trendy ideas within late-1970s pop psychology (the notion of a psychic bond between mother and child, for example, and the general interest in ESP) is within a framework that, interestingly, predates the more slasher-oriented A Nightmare on Elm Street by a couple of years.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray release of The Sender contains a pleasing high definition presentation of the film alongside some excellent contextual material. The interview with Baum is fascinating, and Newman’s piece on the evolution of interest in psychic phenomenon within fiction is equally good. Roger Christian’s commentary offers plenty of insight into the production, and the inclusion of scanned pages from the shooting script is to be commended also.

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