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Episode guide: K09- Phase IV

Movie: (1974) An astronomical event endows an ant colony in the Arizona desert with sentience. Two scientists are sent to investigate, but who’s testing whom?

First shown: 1/15/89
Opening: The Mads are running low on funding
Host segment 1: Joel discusses Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics
Host segment 2: J&tB discuss the first thing they plan to do when they get to Earth
Host segment 3: A game of “I spy” becomes a performance of “Wipeout.”
End: Joel programs Crow and Gypsy to recite a new robotic law
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (133 votes, average: 4.16 out of 5)


• This episode is the first episode (not counting KTMA episodes 1-3) to feature a non-Gamera movie, and the first episode featuring a movie that would not be riffed on the show later. As such I will, with this entry, begin the “Cast and Crew Roundup” feature (I will do the Sandy Frank titles when they come back around in season 3).
• There’s lots going on in the opening. It’s the first time the show has started with The Mads instead of Joel. It’s also the first time we get a sense that there is somebody with authority over The Mads (btw, the nickname “Old Leadbottom” is from a ’60s TV show called “McHale’s Navy.” Look it up, kids!). We also get the first mention of “the madscientist-mobile,” which would come up again.
• Also this is the first time, as far as we know, that Joel did the “getting run down by Cambot” routine, which both he and Mike would do again in the future.
• One thing that has surprised me is: there’s been no explicit mention so far of Gizmonic Institute! Clearly The Mads are transmitting FROM Gizmonic Institute during KTMA (Joel once directly confirmed that to me). I guess he had not come up with the name yet?
• I saw this movie when it first came out. I thought it was a pretty good little sci-fi thriller and I still do. The ant photography, as well-done as it is, goes on a little long and slows the pace down too much, and the acting by the humans is pretty low-key, but it’s not really a “cheesy” movie.
• The Brains must have thought so too. They seem to get into it. Several times they say something like “uh-oh” when a plot development unfolds, a sure sign they are caught up.
• However, Josh never seems to quite get the premise of the movie. “Yes, because most ants have the power of reasoning…” he says sarcastically when the movie suggests that they do. Later he yells: “They’re ants!!” when a character suggests that there is an intelligence behind their actions. That’s the premise of the movie, Josh!
• A segment of riffing in the theater, starting at about 7 minutes into the episode (not counting commercials), was included on the pitch tape that was used to sell the show to the Comedy Channel. That tape was included included on the MST3K Scrapbook tape. Question: Was that really the most sparkling few minutes of riffing the whole season?
• Servo extends his head again in the theater.
• Another first in segment 2: The first time a bot mentions his “load pan.”
• Now-dated reference: When a high-pitched sound makes some glass break, Crow says “Ella!” That’s a reference to a then-popular Memorex commercial featuring jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.
• Uh, could Segment 3 get any more random? It’s completely stream-of-consciousness. Were they are just killing time?
• At one point in the theater somebody drops something and it makes a rather large noise, so loud the performers feel they can’t ignore it, so they acknowledge that it happened. Then there is a strange scraping noise, which they don’t acknowledge. Was someone dragging whatever it was away?
• Movie observation: For a science lab that was just built, it sure has a lot of shelves full of spare parts laying around, like a warehouse that has been sitting there for years.
• Joel calls Gypsy Gipsum again.
• Cast and Crew Roundup: Screenwriter Mayo Simon also wrote “Space Travelers. Camera operator Jack Mills also worked on “Gorgo.” In front of the camera, Alan Gifford was also in “Devil Doll.”
• Fave riff: Meanwhile Grandma and Grandpa are patty melts out on the lawn. Honorable mention: Hope nobody’s eating rice at this point…

75 comments to Episode guide: K09- Phase IV

  • 51
    jaybird3rd says:

    Unfortunately, my copy of this episode has badly muffled audio, so I don’t have much to say about the riffing. The episode also seems to have disappeared from YouTube (where there was once a copy with much cleaner audio), so I’ll have to pick it up from CheesyFlix.

    One of the older comments mentioned the “lost” alternate ending by director Saul Bass. In the four years since this episode was last in the rotation, that ending has been found, and it was screened along with the film at a Los Angeles festival in 2012:

    [SPOILER ALERT] Starting with the same shots as in the theatrical version, Michael Murphy’s character James descends into the ants’ hive expecting to blow it up, ending the war with humankind’s insect adversaries. Instead, he enters a room where Kendra (Lynne Fredrick), the girl he and his partner rescued from insecticide poisoning earlier in the film, is lying in a pool of sand. She rises and approaches him, as he realizes that the ants want to join – or merge – with humanity, prompting a new evolutionary development in both species. James and Kendra find themselves running through a gauntlet of geometric structures, eventually ending up in a maze where they are tested and observed in the same way that mankind tested the insects.

    In a dizzying and often disturbing montage of imagery, James and Kendra become an embodiment of all mankind as a new species is created. Emerging from their transformation, the pair gazes out onto a sunset-stained landscape, realizing that humanity has reached a new level in its evolution: “Phase IV.” [END SPOILERS]

    I agree that “Phase IV” is a pretty good film, but it’s too hard to enjoy it in its muddy and muffled K09 incarnation, so it’s one of two or three of the KTMA movies that I’m going to add to my library in their un-MSTed form. I was tempted to wait until a restored edition with the original ending, but that doesn’t seem likely for such a relatively obscure film, so I’ll probably just pick up the theatrical edition.


  • 52
    jaybird3rd says:

    Another interesting feature on “Phase IV” and Saul Bass, this one from the WSJ:

    August 7, 2012, 9:21 p.m. ET

    Leaving His Logo On Hollywood


    Bronx-born graphic designer Saul Bass (1920-96) literally left his mark on everything from airplanes to tissue boxes. His iconic logos for United Airlines, Quaker Oats, AT&T and Minolta, to name a few, set the standard in the postwar era of design. But today they remain cloaked in the long shadow cast by the pioneering title sequences, storyboards and other visual services he provided to filmmakers like Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and, most famously, Alfred Hitchcock. Bass helped plan the shower scene in “Psycho,” designed the poster for “Anatomy of a Murder,” and created classic title sequences for “Vertigo,” “West Side Story,” Goodfellas” and many more.

    “He became the most famous graphic designer in the world because of those title sequences,” said Pat Kirkham, a professor at the Bard Graduate Center and the co-author of “Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design.” “He was making graphics move. It was sort of modern art on the screen.”

    When Bass tried his hand at filmmaking, his debut, “Why Man Creates,” won the 1969 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. But his sole feature-length directing credit, “Phase IV,” is largely forgotten. Released in 1974, the visually unique, allegorical tale of two scientists (Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport) and a local girl (Lynne Frederick) under siege by an army of sentient ants, was plagued by production crises and critically panned.

    “I think that was a new experience for him,” said the director’s son, anthropologist Jeffrey Bass. “Everything else he’d done until then was widely recognized as being great.”

    “Phase IV,” which will screen Thursday at 92YTribeca as part of the venue’s “Bastards of Hitch” series, was intended to be “an extension of all the types of film art Saul was interested in,” Ms. Kirkham said. To that end, Bass assembled a dream team of collaborators including future Oscar-winning “Star Wars” production designer John Barry, screenwriter Mayo Simon, and actor Michael Murphy, known for his roles in Robert Altman’s films.

    But the production saddled Bass with an arduous education in the realities of studio long-form filmmaking. “I think he was flummoxed by the group-think,” Mr. Murphy said. “Saul was used to coming in and saying, ‘OK, we’re going to make a big red ‘U’ on the back of your plane. If you don’t get it, go somewhere else.’ He had that kind of clout in the [design] world but he didn’t really have it in the movie business because it was his first picture.”

    “Phase IV” was made under a co-production agreement dictating that the cast, crew and production locales be part of the British Commonwealth. “It was quite a deal,” said Mr. Murphy, the film’s sole American actor. “The picture was set in Arizona but we shot in the Rift Valley in Kenya. Then we went to London to do the interiors.”

    The financial advantages were offset by the handicap of spreading a modest budget over 1,000 miles. “It was a logistical nightmare,” Jeffrey Bass said. “They had pieces of that production going on in three continents at the same time.”

    Spectacular and eerie ant photography, undertaken by insect footage specialist Ken Middleham within his suburban California workshop, was largely supervised via airmail. Despite being bitten by a local ant on set in London, Mr. Murphy had nothing but praise for his six-legged co-stars.

    “My feeling was that the ants were great and we weren’t so great,” he said. “I’ll take half the credit for not being wonderful in it.” He said that post-recording the film’s dialogue—a choice that, like the fictional ant intelligence, was apparently of an unknown origin—proved fatal to his performance. “Saul went home as I recall and I went in and looped every line in the picture,” he said. “I was from the Robert Altman school where you didn’t loop a line unless you fell down on the set or something. Ultimately we sound sort of disembodied.”

    A disastrous preview and subsequent altered ending further frustrated Bass. Perhaps most perplexing, though, was that the world’s foremost designer wasn’t allowed to sell his own film. “Saul wanted to do the ad campaign,” Ms. Kirkham said. Instead, “Phase IV” was marketed with a poster illustration featuring a disembodied hand with an ant crawling from it and the words “The Day the Earth Was Turned Into a Cemetery!” hovering above.

    “It’s just so ironic,” Mr. Murphy said. “What an offensive thing for a guy like that. That was not what that movie was about. ”

    Nevertheless, the curious, hypnotic appeal of “Phase IV” remains difficult to shake. “There is a real strangeness about it,” Mr. Murphy said. “People look back on it now and say, ‘Well, this is sort of weirdly part of another era.”

    Jeffrey Bass offered that the film’s central theme of “how do we view the other,” and “the assumption of superiority” arguably harkens back to his father’s Bronx childhood. “Maybe it had something to with growing up Jewish in New York in the ’30s,” he said. “Your perspective on authority is different.”

    For Mr. Murphy, mixed feelings about the film itself are unrelated to his perspective on Bass’s power as a visual artist: “He’d never really dealt with actors before,” he said. “If I had been blue paint, maybe it would’ve been great, you know?”


  • 53
    schippers says:

    The 1970s are all over Phase IV, but unlike any other eco-horror movie from that time period, this one is intelligent.

    Also, the macro photography, as others have noted, is absolutely incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it equaled.

    All in all, a poor choice for MST fodder, but hey, it was KTMA, making it up as they go along. Gotta cut em some slack.


  • 54
    jaybird3rd says:

    The 1970s seem to have been the perfect years for strange films like “Phase IV”; the bleakness of these films reflected the overall bleakness of that decade, and it somehow made the films more effective.

    Inspired by the part they played in inspiring MST3K, I recently added “Silent Running” (1972) and “The Omega Man” (1971) to my movie collection, along with “Westworld” (1973) and “The Andromeda Strain” (1971). They’re all very much cut from the same 70s cloth, especially visually; I don’t think they would have been the same movies if they had been made in the 60s or in the 80s.


  • 55
    eegah says:

    I don’t know if anyone cares, but I cleaned up the audio a bit and made an mp3 (ala Rifftrax) that syncs with the VHS:


  • 56
    trickymutha says:

    Send me the ant movie. I wish I had a pristine copy of this experiment. A watchable film, with, pretty good riffing by the guys.


  • 57
    Tarlcabot says:

    The alternate-full crazy ending of Phase IV is on Youtube. It’s…something else.
    Watch it here.</a>


  • 58
    pondoscp says:

    If only they had gotten to riff that alternate ending! I feel like I just watched The Matrix… or Teenagers From Outer Space, with the forced perspective and all.

    So Gizmonics Institute is KTMA. That makes sense when Season One starts and they’ve moved to Deep 13.


  • 59
    jaybird3rd says:

    @#57: Thanks for the link! One of the YouTube commenters said it best: “Exactly how I like my sci-fi. Trippy, subversive and dreamlike.” I can’t stand it when movies try to explain everything to you; they’re sometimes so hermetically sealed with dialogue and exposition, out of a fear that “people won’t get it”, that there’s nothing left for the imagination.

    They definitely should have kept that ending in the film.


  • 60
    wonderfly says:

    The true start of the KTMA era, and the start of the episodes I’ve watched (I refuse to watch the KTMA Gamora episodes – why do that, when I can enjoy them in their full glory in Season 3?)

    On the topic of bleak 1970’s sci-fi films, I give you Family Guy’s take on it:


  • 61
    FordPrefect says:

    I was never convinced that The Mads were at Gizmonic Institute during the KTMA series. The word “Gizmonic” was never used until the first episode of Season One. Also, Joel once stated that the reason his character and Dr. F do invention exchanges is because that’s something they used to do at Gizmonic Institute. The invention exchanges didn’t start till the first episode of Season One either. Ah well, KTMA isn’t canon with the official seasons anyway.


  • 62
    Cornjob says:

    My old posts can be found around #21, #31, and #40. I love this movie and this episode. I’ve been beaten to the punch (and lemonade) about the news regarding the lost ending being found. Like the rest of the movie I don’t think that the ending makes any sense. But it makes no sense in a spectacular, beautiful (sort of) and interesting way.

    Whoever released this film with the ending chopped off, like the movie had been run into a ditch and abandoned instead of ended, must have had even more rocks in his head than most executives. Why not release 2001 without its ending you knob?
    The deleted end of Phase 4 not only contains the philosophical core of the film, but also it’s the most interesting visually, conceptually, cinematicly etc. The theatrically released version not only had its heart ripped out, but its head cut off as well in a way that made the poor filmmaker look like a chowder head. I really felt bad for Saul Bass. I don’t know of any other movie that was so totally ruined by the studio.

    Check out this tribute site to Lynne Frederick.


  • 63
    Cornjob says:

    And even if they were smart enough, how did the ants learn about the construction of state of the art mobile laboratory’s and how to precisely sabotage them? Did they take Votech classes or just read the manual with their compound eyes after studying remedial English at the local community college?


  • 64
    Michael D. says:

    BIG thanks to jaybird3rd and Tarlcabot for pointing out and sharing the original ending of Phase IV! I really hope this overlooked gem gets a decent DVD release with a remastered version of the original (and much better) ending.


  • 65
    Cornjob says:

    The heart of the confusion in this movie stems from looking at an insect colony/hive and musing about how wonderful a human society could be if it was modeled on an insect one. The mistake here is that an insect colony is not analogous to a human society, but a human body, with individual ants/bees/termites being analogous to individual cells.

    The vast majority of ants are workers who lack reproductive organs and spend their entire lives doing simple repetitive tasks. Furthermore individual ants are even more expendable than individual skin or blood cells. An ant colony can survive the destruction of the majority of its workers much better than a human can withstand the loss of the majority of its tissue. Ants mourning the loss of their individual dead would be like every living cell in a human body pausing for a moment of silence whenever a skin cell died.

    And individuals are free to pursue their own interests. Individual ants deciding they didn’t want to spend their short existence reinforcing tunnel walls and becoming performance artists would undo the colony. Just as individual biological cells deciding they wanted to do their own thing would reduce a human being to a puddle of uncooperative one celled organisms.

    And any human society based on an insect model would largely consist of expendable workers born to do one simple repetitive task and who lacked genitalia. The only community members with reproductive organs would be one gigantic immobile woman that excretes offspring all day long and her intimidated attendants. If this is utopia I’m going back to Thunderdome. So if anyone reading this is considering creating a human society modeled on an insect colony, don’t.


  • 66
    Cornjob says:

    Anyone have any idea how the solar eclipse or whatever at the beginning made some ants hyper intelligent?


  • 67
    Cornjob says:

    Although ants abandoning their colony to become performance artists might ruin the nest, it could make for an interesting Pixar movie.


  • 68
    Sitting Duck says:

    Personally, I thought A Bug’s Life has always been a bit underrated (and Finding Nemo is hugely overrated). I particularly liked how it took the basic concepts of The Seven Samurai and twisted them.

    BTW that’s some good stuff you wrote up in post #65. Brings to mind the Robert Heinlein quote on all the things a human should be capable of doing, while noting that specialization is for insects.


  • 69
    Cornjob says:

    Thanks Sitting Duck (any relation to Sitting Bull?). I love the way this movie makes you think.

    I also have a thing for the character of Kendra. She has the appearance of a demure Pre-Raphaelite nature spirit that stepped out of a John Waterhouse painting and shucked her diaphanous gown for jeans and a shirt. She seems like she never said or did a mean thing that wasn’t warranted. But she has some steel in her. She gave the ants what for when she started to realize what had happened. And she sacrificed herself to save the others (in a scene Tomservo made hilarious with the whole “Take me, ravage me” bit). The actress Lynne Fredrick had a rather sad life that ended early and with few friends. Check the above link and the whole internet for more details.

    Watching again now I’m wondering how the ants got Kendra from where we thought they killed her to the sand pit at the end. Did they convince her to join up and walk barefoot through the desert for miles? Did they slip her a roofie? Hit her with a taser they built? Tie her up carry her away like a giant chicken leg? Why didn’t we get to see any of that?

    And Hubbs. Aside from the callous disregard for humanity. Scientists are supposed to study and learn about nature. Not manipulate it and put it in its place. That’s what technology is for.


  • 70
    Cornjob says:

    I know. I just love this episode too much. The movie definitely needs a restored director’s cut DVD, and if only one KTMA MST episode is released it needs to be this one.


  • 71
    Sitting Duck says:

    I’m his lesser known cousin who, along with Crazy Quilt, whalloped the 6 7/8 Cavalry at the Battle of the Medium-Sized Horn. Razz Actually I’m from Virginia and haven’t been further west than Michigan (except the one time I visited my brother when he was stationed in Alaska).


  • 72
    touches no one's life, then leaves says:


    And yet the 1970s was also when “Star Wars” was made. Lots of levels of study there.


  • 73

    My original comments are @ #41

    In the opening,
    Larry: “We sold your Dodge.”
    Joel: “Not the Slant Six Swinger!”

    Joel and the Bots do a “ducking away from the screen” gag here, when they’re
    trying to figure out what the out-of-focus object heading toward them is,
    “Oh.., it’s a truck. It’s a truck! DUCK!!”

    during a smoky part,
    Joel: “Somebody threw some doobs down there.”

    Crow: “Ants make your party mix more lively.” Party

    There are 3 local KTMA commercials on my copy of this ep.
    The first is a Club Travel ad that features Kevin (he only has a couple lines, sits in a chair most of the time).
    That is directly followed by an ad for Joel’s standup act at Comedy Gallery Riverplace, featuring a couple of his bits.
    The third is later, during the last commercial break, and is the Pizza N’ Pasta Pizza ad with the Mads. “Yummy sounds.”

    I still like the Host Segment #3 version of “Wipeout” that Joel and Servo slap out on the table.

    This is an okay-ish movie, a little dry, but trippy.
    Still, it’s a KTMA episode of MST3k.
    1 out of 5 ant-stars.


  • 74
    Mnenoch says:

    It’s kind of fun to watch how Joel & the bots kind of get sucked into the movie while they are riffing on it. Definitely a better movie then they would usually watch. Although I will say I’m not a fan of these 70’s movies that are dark and drab. Still an interesting idea for a movie, sounds like the original ending was more explanatory then the ending that got used. Overall pretty good KTMA episode.


  • 75
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