Synopsis: In this psychological horror film, Zeljko Ivanek (TV’s Damages, Argo) stars as John Doe #83, a patient admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. When Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold, TV’s The Rockford Files, The Hunter), the psychiatrist assigned to his case, begins experiencing vivid hallucinations, she suspects that she may be telepathically connected to her new patient, envisioning what he is experiencing in real time.
As terrifying, dream-like episodes escalate, the audience is drawn into a realm that lies between the waking anding world.
Rounding out the cast in the Roger Christian (Bandido, Prisoners Of The Sun) directed film are Paul Freeman (Raiders of the Lost Ark) as Dr. Denman, Dr. Farmer’s skeptical colleague, and Shirley Knight (As Good As It Gets) as Jerolyn, a woman who holds the clue to the identity of The Sender.
The Sender 7.75
eyelights: its intriguing genre hybrid. its mystery. its chills. its effective score.
eyesores: its plausibility. some of its directorial choices.
“When I came to, I couldn’t remember anything. Except…”
At first glance, ‘The Sender’ will seem like nothing special. The 1982 picture, which was barely released, is mired by a cheap-o horror poster and tagline. And its plot about a mental patient exhibiting strange abilities may seem trite.
But it’s surprisingly effective.
And effectively surprising.
For starters, the thriller is a hybrid of themes that don’t frequently blend (and poorly when they do): parapsychology and the supernatural. It also blends reality and surreality equally, purposely confounding the two.
Yet… somehow, it works.
Though ‘The Sender’ is a low budget picture that’s made by a first-time director (Roger Christian, who later got suckered into helming the brutal ‘Battlefield Earth‘), it manages to overcome its limitations by being cryptic.
The motion picture follows Dr. Gail Farmer, a psychiatrist who has been assigned an unidentified young man who attempted to drown himself in a lake. Nicknaming him “John Doe #83”, she tries to get past his defenses.
However, as she does, odd things start to happen to her and she begins to distrust her senses – the horrible things she’s experiencing seem to only be in her mind. And that’s before she’s visited by his mother, confusing things more.
But Dr. Farmer is intent on solving the mystery of her John Doe.
No matter the cost.
Over time, she becomes more and more attuned to the young man, and learns how to decipher the visions she’s having – and can intervene when he’s having spells. Given the risk, it’s an intriguing but slightly unsettling dynamic.
What’s terrific about ‘The Sender’ is that it doesn’t explain itself to its audience. Instead of catering to viewers, it leads them into each bewildering moment and leaves them to absorb it – much as Dr. Farmer is forced to do herself.
Personally, I’m a big fan of any fiction in which my curiosity is piqued but not immediately satisfied – where you’re forced to either piece together the puzzle or wait until someone does it for you. So this was very appealing to me.
I also really enjoyed ‘The Sender’s nightmarish sequences because they had that slightly surrealistic quality that I am also very fond of. Though you eventually come to recognize these moments as deception, they remain a lot of fun.
And they have an unintended consequence: because of the uncertainty created by these more abstract sequences, we give the rest of the picture a little more slack – even if some of it is slightly unlikely, we’re not as quick to judge.
After all, is it reality or fantasy?
The picture is truly a smorgasbord of unforgettable set pieces.
There’s this really terrific scene in which Grace tries to follow JD83’s mother and finds herself following a driver-less pick-up truck, seeing coded messages along the way. It was only mildly spooky, but it was pleasantly dream-like.
On the other side of the spectrum, though, is a sequence where Grace’s supervisor decides to give JD83 electroshocks, causing the whole clinical team to experience a collective psychokinetic trauma. It was quite the dramatic moment.
And that’s just for starters.
Where the picture doesn’t work is in the presentation of a few scenes, most notably the opening and closing bits. Being Christian’s debut film, it’s not at all surprising that there are a few wobbly moments along the way. That’s normal.
But it’s unfortunate that the bookends aren’t stronger, as they are the first and last impression audiences will have. The opening, for instance, suggested a tongue-in-cheek b-movie and the sketchy finale felt like a hurried knock-off.
And yet ‘The Sender’ is neither. Though it would certainly have benefitted from a greater budget and a more experienced team, it’s original and creative enough (or at least it was at the time!) to overcome many of its limitations.
Wrapped up as it is in veils of mystery, and punched up by mildly surrealistic imagery, it’s a picture that makes an impression – and one that lasts long after the end credits have rolled. It may not be brilliant, but it can be crafty.
I look forward to seeing it again.
Date of viewing: January 31, 2017