THE SENDER (1982)
A disturbed man is unable to control his ability to transmit his dreams and visions into the minds of those around him.
Before Roger Christian started directing films, he’d already won two Academy Awards (for Star Wars and Alien), in the ‘Best Art Direction’ category. His directorial debut was a short film called Black Angel (1980), which became an instant cult classic after screening before The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I can remember sitting in the cinema, waiting with barely-contained anticipation to see the follow-up to Star Wars (1977) and being momentarily dismayed at having to first sit through “a B Movie”…
But it only took a minute or two for me to become entranced by Black Angel and its metaphysical metaphor about a medieval knight meeting a beautiful maiden in a mythic forest before facing the personification of Death. It dripped with atmosphere and would’ve been far better-suited as a double feature with John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981). Back then, I thought it was poetic and profound, and ended up being more enthusiastic about it than the main feature!
I wasn’t so keen on Christian’s follow-up, however: The Dollar Bottom (1981), about Scottish schoolboys getting caned in the 1950s and making a fortune from an inventive insurance racket. But what do I know! It won the Oscar for ‘Best Live Action Short’ and was also nominated for a BAFTA. On the strength of this and the cinematic fluency showcased in Black Angel, Edward S. Feldman, a producer at 20th Century Fox, asked Christian to direct The Sender.
The screenplay, by Thomas Baum, centred on a mysterious young man suffering from amnesia, who has the ability to project his dreams and nightmares into the real world. Through clues found in his disturbing visions, and with some sleuthing on the part of his psychiatrist, the story of his isolated and dysfunctional childhood is slowly pieced together. There are strong similarities with Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and it transpires that the man’s mother was also a Bible-quoting religious nut. However, unlike Carrie White’s mother, who attributed her daughter’s frightening psychokinesis to the Devil, his mother believes him to be a new Messiah, if not Jesus Christ himself…
Just like its lead character, The Sender had a troubled upbringing. Fox was hoping for a quasi follow-up to De Palma’s The Fury (1978)—a box office hit about another youth with devastating psychic powers—but the production floundered and was dumped before it got off the ground. It seems Christian’s approach was too arty and European for the studio’s tastes, who were already in a bad mood as they dealt with two major guild strikes involving actors and writers.
The production was, almost immediately, picked up by Paramount Pictures who, after Friday the 13th (1980) and My Bloody Valentine (1981), were looking for something else to tap the Halloween (1978) audience. However, Christian didn’t approach The Sender as a slasher-horror in the slightest and has remarked that he wanted to make a film that was “more Bergman that Carpenter.”
Pretty much from the outset, it seems that Christian and his loyal crew butted heads with studio executives who didn’t like where he was taking the project. They thought the build-up was too slow and, as production was nearing completion, it was briefly taken out of Christian’s hands and re-edited to start with the ending and tell the story in flashback. After some argument, in which editor Alan Strachan sided with the director, it was put back in the right order… but, at this point, the studio insisted on a test screening even though the film wasn’t finished. The audience response was predictably negative, bordering on hostile, and Paramount totally lost interest in the project. With no promotional campaign, The Sender was given only a limited release late in 1982.
That was almost that, but one of Christian’s foreign agents had been touting the film and it was selected to open for a major science-fiction film festival in Avoriaz, France. The Sender was well-received by the audience there and championed by George Miller (Mad Max). But it was up against Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982), which took the Grand Prize, and Luc Besson’s Le Dernier Combat/The Last Battle (1983), which won the Jury Prize. Despite the troubled production, Christian managed to pull something a little bit unusual out of the bag that’s still worth a watch today… so kudos to Arrow Video for presenting this newly restored Blu-ray edition and rescuing it from obscurity.
The opening is somewhat subdued. Shot on 1970s-style muted colour film stock, we see the body of a young man lying in woodland. Bugs crawl over him. He could be dead. Then the roar of a passing truck rouses him and we follow as he walks along an anonymous American road. It’s oddly fascinating in its slowness and the young Željko Ivanek, in his first lead role here, manages to convey a sense of suffering in his off-kilter walk and fixed stare. He walks down to a lakeshore, where families are picnicking and playing, picking up random rocks without pausing. Stuffing them into his jacket he walks on into, and under, the water…
This scene is the director’s ‘calling card’ and ingeniously uses a Louma crane on a purpose-built rig to show us an aerial view of the beach as the mysterious youth approaches. In one continuous shot, we come down from this high angle wide-shot to water level for an extreme close-up of his face and then witness his silent scream from beneath the surface! It’s a powerful and haunting visual that confirms Roger Christian’s ability to make intense images and to put them together in a memorable way.
The music, which eases us into the opening scenes, quickly builds a melancholic mood that it maintains throughout. Christian again hired his favourite composer, Trevor Jones, who had also kicked off his film career with Black Angel and scored The Dollar Bottom for him. He managed to fit in writing the music for The Sender between his work for Excalibur and The Dark Crystal.
The youth wakes up in a hospital claiming to have no memory of who he is or what led to his suicide attempt. Dr Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) is assigned his case and establishes an immediate rapport. The relationship between the boy (referred to as John Doe 83) and his psychiatrist forms The Sender’s central narrative. There are sexualised undertones that never manage to surface and sometimes it seems the boy is manipulating his doctor, sometimes it swings the other way and she manipulates him. Both play their roles with subtle honesty, building a slightly uneasy dramatic tension. It never becomes clear whether Farmer is John Doe’s mother-substitute or potential love interest.
Apparently, it was made clearer in Baum’s original script that there was a romantic frisson between them, but Christian chose to underplay this thread in favour of more interesting ambiguity. Kathryn Harrold had recently transitioned from small-screen roles and bit parts to lead roles, having just starred opposite opera star Luciano Pavarotti in the ill-conceived musical rom-com Yes, Giorgio (1982).
John Doe’s fellow inmates include a Vietnam veteran who won’t believe the war is over, played by Al Matthews, who’d just finished a stint as Grange Hill’s Mr Green for the 1979-80 season and would go on to appear in Aliens (1986) and The Fifth Element (1997) during a sporadic career that continued right up to his death in 2018.
There’s also ‘The Messiah’, who’s jealous of the attention John Doe’s getting for his Christ-like talents. He’s played by Sean Hewitt, with a great face and presence, who first worked with Christian in Canadian rep theatres on his stage show Conversation: a Review of the Works of Leonard Cohen, based on scenarios suggested by the lyrics of Cohen. He’s enjoyed a varied acting career since and worked with Christian again on the infamous Battlefield Earth (2000) and, most recently, I spotted him as a priest in Del Toro’s excellent Crimson Peak (2015). Another of the patients in the Cuckoo’s Nest-inspired long-stay ward is John Sessions, making his screen debut before he went on to become a highly-respected British character actor of stage and screen.
Fairly early on, a mystery woman turns up to visit John Doe, who turns out to be his real mother (Shirley Knight). However, as Doe’s supernatural talents become clearer, we begin to doubt the very existence of the woman and, instead, consider the possibility she’s a ghost or mental projection created by the boy.
As Dr Farmer gradually helps John Doe regain his memories, he begins to have increasingly disturbing dreams. Soon his nightmares bleed through into reality and are experienced by those around him as if happening for real. This is how the film bridges from a sombre, Hitchcock-tinged psychological thriller, into a supernatural horror more akin to Carrie. Shirley Knight was already a veteran actress of stage and screen, three decades into a career that continues to this day. She chillingly underplays the mother, who appears to have encouraged her son’s suicide. But the lines between mother and son are so blurred, it’s a challenge to work out who influenced who. Or which one is ‘real’ and which is imagined… but that’s part of the fun, so I’ll give no more away here!
The themes have strong parallels with those explored by Dennis Potter in his teleplay Schmoedipus (1974), which was later adapted for the big screen as Track 29 (1988) by Nicolas Roeg. The narrative device of having a character who may, or may not, be the figment of another character’s imagination presents plenty of potentials to question what is or isn’t important in our lives. It’s an effective method of visualising inner conflict and subconscious desires. Roeg even borrowed the image of a hitchhiker holding a surreal placard. In The Sender, Željko Ivanek’s reads ‘1963’. In Track 29 it’s a young Gary Oldman with a sign that just said “mother”.
The whole premise of the story was inspired by Baum’s own childhood, spent with an agoraphobic mother who rarely allowed him out and said very little. Yet they knew what each other felt and thought. Later, he came across some research into the bond between mother and baby that seemed to indicate a telepathic connection, suggesting that there is a level of unspoken communication for the first six months or so. The research referred to the baby as the ‘sender’ and the mother as the ‘receiver’. He wondered if this telepathic bond could perhaps last longer in unusual cases… and, what if the sender became so powerful that people around them, other than the mother, could become receivers.
This sort of pseudo-scientific research was in vogue during the 1970s and ’80s, finding numerous expressions in the literature and films of the time, with Stephen King at the vanguard. The sleeping psychic, and/or telepath-in-a-coma trope found expression in movies like Patrick (1978), Dreamscape (1984) and, of course, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). If you’re a fan of that horror sub-genre, then chances are you’ll find something to enjoy in The Sender. Incidentally, Craven was an admirer and later invited Thomas Baum to write for his Nightmare Café series (1992), crediting him as co-creator.
One of the most impressive elements in The Sender is the human-scale mechanical effects, achieved without CGI, of course, but without the use of miniature FX. At the mid-point, there’s a rather effective and intense slow-motion sequence. When Dr Denman (Paul Freeman) decides to give John Doe a dose of ECT treatment, the shocking effect feeds back to those around him, spectacularly flinging them through the air, against walls and through windows! It’s quite a major effect, using pull-wires so actors could tumble and emote at the same time, and a little unexpected for a production with a rather sedate first half!
Later on, there’s another SFX set-piece in the operating theatre, involving real fire on a real set. It had to be filmed in several short sequences and the actors were then hosed down and allowed to recover for an hour between each shot. This was only to be outdone by a full-size, purpose-built, house that had to explode. These effects were achieved by a team led by Nick Allder, whose team on Alien had won the Oscar for ‘Best Special Effects’, so he and Roger Christian already had a working relationship.
Allder had been a pioneer of special effects on the TV series Space: 1999 (1975-77) and worked on one of my favourite supernatural thrillers of the ’70s, The Medusa Touch (1978), which set the bar for such films. It was another precursor featuring a psychotic psychic who could affect the real world by thought alone, even when in a coma. Allder would go on to wow audience for many years and worked on The Empire Strikes Back, Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983), Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004), and many more…
Since I first saw Black Angel, nearly 40 years ago, I’ve been rooting for Roger. I wanted him to get better and better. The Sender was a good start, but he’s had a weirdly mixed career since, with no real hits and a few prize turkeys. Underworld (1996) would be my personal favourite of his films that followed, a quirky modern crime-noir written by Larry Bishop. That said, I haven’t seen all of Christian’s oeuvre and some I’ve deliberately avoided! Case in point would be Battlefield Earth, which Christian got to direct because Quentin Tarantino recommended him to John Travolta for the job…
Tarantino had been a fan of The Sender, citing it as his favourite film of 1982, which sounds like a bit of a back-handed compliment until you realise other horror films released that year included Paul Schrader’s Cat People, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Dario Argento’s Tenebrae. Now, for me, that’s one impressive roll call! So, not sure what Tarantino was thinking there!
The Sender is different enough to its predecessors and contemporaries to keep its own unique feel and a personality that remains interesting. Sadly, though, it hints at a huge potential that never really got realised. There’s still time, though, and it seems like he wants to start over. In 2015, Christian crowdfunded a new, feature-length version of his memorable debut Black Angel. A cast was announced, headed by Rutger Hauer, John Rhys-Davies, and Tchéky Karyo. Alas, it seems to be stuck in pre-production hell and the latest update on IMDb no longer lists Rutger. Christian also wants to remake The Sender for a modern audience, but I’m not sure there’s any need. The original may be very much of its time, but I think it works best that way.
director: Roger Christian.
writer: Thomas Baum.
starring: Kathryn Harrold, Shirley Knight, Paul Freeman & Željko Ivanek.