Filmmaker Roger Christian has experienced extreme highs and lows throughout his career in Tinseltown. In 1978 he won an Oscar for Best Art/Set Decoration for STAR WARS, and was nominated two years later, in the same category, for his work on ALIEN. Yet as he entered the new millennium, such accolades would come full circle, as he was awarded a Razzie, the anti-Oscar, for directing John Travolta in BATTLEFIELD EARTH. THE SENDER, his first feature film, falls somewhere in the middle of this rollercoaster of recognition. A psychological thriller that was a favorite of the late film critic Roger Ebert, THE SENDER now arrives on HD courtesy of Olive Films.
Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold, THE HUNTER) has just been assigned a new patient: a depressed young man (Zeljko Ivanek, DONNIE BRASCO) who suffers from amnesia after having attempted to drown himself by walking into a public lake with his jacket pockets full of rocks. With no wallet or identifiable information, the man is given the name John Doe #83 and committed to the local mental hospital for further study. Reluctantly, John attempts to integrate himself into the facility but finds it difficult to relate to his fellow residences, especially a hostile patient known as The Messiah (Sean Hewitt, THINNER), who finds his status as savior challenged by Mr. Doe. As Dr. Farmer begins to make some minor progress connecting with John, her mind is shaken by a number of strange encounters outside of the office. She keeps seeing John Doe throughout her day to day activities, even calling in the authorities one night, believing that John had somehow escaped the facility and broken into her home. Upon calling work, Gail is shocked to discover that John is indeed not a fugitive but is instead sound asleep in his hospital bed.
Taking note of the strange, walking hallucinations, Gail begins to notice a pattern of communication. Almost as if John Doe is projecting his dreams into her reality. Dr. Farmer’s mission to discover John’s true identity takes an even more bewildering turn, when a woman claiming to be his mother (Shirley Knight, HOUSE OF WOMEN) arrives at the hospital. The woman urges Gail to release John back into her custody, but offers no clear evidence of her maternal claims, and disappears before the doctor can introduce her to any of her colleagues. With little progress made in improving John’s current condition, Gail’s boss, Dr. Denman (Paul Freeman, Dr. Rene Belloq in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) orders John to undergo shock therapy as a means to alleviate his battle with severe depression. The procedure packs more of a punch than the doctor could have anticipated; as the moment John’s brain is stimulated, the entire room erupts in a blowback of psychic energy that tosses the faculty around the room like paper dolls in a hurricane. His subconscious now fully awaked, John begins to let his personality open up, but as Gail digs deeper into his past, she discovers that John Doe may not be as innocent as his quiet demeanor suggests.
Only briefly mentioned in the film itself, the idea behind “sending” is that there is a psychological bond between a parent, usually the mother, and a child that allows for thoughts and feeling to be expressed and shared, rooms apart. This sensory connection tends to fade as the child grows older and can probably be traced back to that old chestnut, “A mother always knows.” Being the father of two young children, I completely relate to and acknowledge the concept of “sending”, as my youngest, 18 months, seems to wake up every night without fail the moment my head hits my bedroom pillow. A unique twist on telepathy, THE SENDER never fully exploits this concept to its fullest. While there are a number of notable scenes that establish the potential of John Doe’s powers, such as one in which a bathroom mirror cracks violently and oozes blood, these distinguished outbursts do little to advance the mystery of his true identity. One episode finds Gail stranded in a bedroom filled with rats and a lifeless body. After examining the body lying limp on the bedroom floor, the doctor is startled by a rat making a graphic escape from the figures mouth. A shocking scene, sure, but it offers no clear relevance to John Doe. Did his mother torture him with rats or was she just a poor housekeeper? It becomes frustrating trying to keep up, as some episodes make clear connections in unraveling the mystery behind John Doe, whereas others bare no clear significance to the plot whatsoever.
For his first headlining role, Slovenian-born Zeljko Ivanek (now a popular TV actor) is certainly creepy enough as John Doe #83, though at time it can be difficult for the viewer to fully invest in his journey. Such is also the case with Dr. Farmer. As her discovery into John Doe’s past progressed, I found myself more interested in the next wacky psychic eruption than in figuring out John Doe’s motivations, if he had any. While Thomas Baum’s script does makes it obvious that John Doe’s fragile mental state is the direct result of an overprotective, probably insane mother, it does so nonchalantly. If his mother was so terrible, why didn’t he leave years ago? Were the conditions unlivable? Was he abused physically or sexual? The only thing that is clear is that his mother led him to believe that he was the product of Immaculate Conception. Being raised to believe that your father was the Holy Ghost is bound to mess up anybody's childhood, but when John's mother is finally introduced, she comes across as anything but domineering or cruel. It’s these conflicts within the story that leave you scratching your head as to what you’re actually supposed to believe, so it’s left ambiguous whether John Doe’s mother was real, a ghost or the product of an overactive pituitary gland.
Previously available on DVD through Legend Films, Olive Films picks up this Paramount Pictures U.K. production (which was shot at Shepperton Studios, with most of the interiors done on location in Georgia) for Blu-ray, with a pleasing 1.78:1 1080p HD transfer. A noticeable improvement over the Legend DVD, this is a very decent looking transfer, with only minimal age related debris to the elements. Detail is sharp, the grain on display is never heavy, and colors are solid with accurate fleshtones and deep black levels. The DTS-HD audio 2.0 mono mix is generally very good, though volumes tend to jump dramatically at times, usually during one of John’s episodes, but this appears to be the film's original sound design and not an issue with the transfer itself. Otherwise the dialogue, music and sound effects are crystal clear. No subtitle option or extras are included the disc. THE SENDER has a small legion of fans that have undoubtedly been looking forward to seeing a proper HD release, and Olive Films has certainly answered the call. (Jason McElreath)
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