Roger Christian’s icy, mysterious chiller from 1982 evokes all the panic and drama that you would expect from an ‘80s horror film, but packs a psychological punch to go with the usual jumps and thrills.
Starring a very young (and underrated) Zeljko Ivanek, The Sender is the story of a disoriented young man (Ivanek) who wakes up in a mental institution after he tries to drown himself in a lake at a public beach. Simply referred to as “John Doe”, the young man is quickly put under the care of a psychiatrist named Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harold), who believes that her peculiar patient is hiding significant information that has seriously put his life in jeopardy. When bizarre incidents soon take over the hospital as well as her home life, Dr. Farmer begins to suspect that John Doe’s problems are not so much psychosomatic as they are psychic.
Pretty soon the hospital is engulfed in a horrific phantasmagoria of blood-dripping mirrors, scampering cockroaches, decapitated heads and bodies being lifted and thrown through the air. So what, exactly, is happening? Dr. Farmer’s first important clue is the strange woman who visits the hospital (played by an understated Shirley Knight). She claims to be the mother of the John Doe who is under the care of Dr. Farmer. The woman insists that her son is dangerous and that keeping him amongst the other patients in the hospital can only have tragic consequences. Dr. Farmer cannot fully grasp the sense of danger implied because just as soon as she appears, the woman mysteriously vanishes.
Dr. Farmer soon figures out just what John Doe’s supposed mother means; it appears that the hospital’s newest resident has a terrifying ability to manifest his surrealistically deadly dreams into the external reality in which all surrounding people are unwilling participants. Just what kind of fearsome power is this sender of dark dreams under?
The Sender distinguishes itself from the slew of horror films which populated the first half of the ‘80s in that it isn’t, quite simply, a slasher. While the dawning of the slasher film introduced moviegoers to an outlandish display of dismembered limbs and blood, few films opted to turn off the road and detour into more subdued and subtle territories. Perhaps more in line with Altered States than A Nightmare on Elm Street (a film that essentially built upon The Sender’s dream-laden storyline), The Sender explores the more tonal spaces of horror, drawing its power from what is withheld from the viewer rather than the more ostentatious ideas of fear.
At times, the story comes across a little disjointed and its rhythm seems to be slightly turbulent; some parts of the story breeze by in a fashion that sometimes adds a deflated sense of believability to the film (Dr. Farmer comes to fully understand John Doe’s mysterious power with very little guesswork or research). But in a way, this slightly uneven unfolding of the narrative adds to the understated charm; you begin to champion the missteps simply because, as a result, your focus becomes invested in the characters, which are far more compelling than all the parts of the story put together.
Visually, the film is pretty static. There’s no fancy camerawork or breathtaking cinematography. Filmmaker Christian chooses economy over style and it really doesn’t hurt the film in any way. Once again, this is a film in which the constraints actually help the story and allow the viewers to give their full attention to the characters (from which the plot mostly derives).
Olive Films’ release offers a solid transfer that presents an earthy palette of colours; reds are richly saturated (though they never bleed) and the darker hues like brown and blue glow in the moody textures of the shadowed frames. The only point of concern is the audio; dialogue comes through clearly but seems mixed a little low. Ambient sounds, on the other hand, ring through shrilly at times, which forces you to play around with the volume control. What you get is an eerily quiet film that sometimes erupts with a startling burst of angry noise. This, however, might have been intentional. There are no extras to speak of.
Ivanek is the classic character actor; he’s been in numerous films and TV series, playing slightly-off men with psychological complexes. Many viewers know his face, but often not his name. Curiously, The Sender was the film that was meant to break Ivanek into mainstream success. Reportedly, Tom Cruise and Sean Penn were also up for the role but director Christian insisted on Ivanek, who plays his role with sensitivity and nuance.
The Sender did alright for a limited release, grossing over a million at the box office the year of its release, but it has since faded into obscurity, undoubtedly due to its preference of subtlety over flair. It may not be as memorable as some of the other horrendous schlock that have maintained their popularity throughout the years, but The Sender‘s brooding atmosphere and modest charms work their way slowly under the skin.