I’ve seen the THE SENDER so many times that its multiple gaffs stick out like Sissy Hankshaw’s thumbs, yet I’m compelled to return to it again and again. I blame its exceptional cast and unique (especially for 1982) tone. How do I describe this strange, somber, anomaly? The best I could ever do was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS (or better yet, 1988’s BAD DREAMS) as directed by IGMAR BERGMAN. I should point out though that THE SENDER played with the smudging of lines between dreams and reality before our fedora wearing pal Freddy ever did and that our director here is ROGER CHRISTIAN, who will later curse the world (or bless the world if you’re a bad movie fan) with the very less than BERGMAN-esque BATTLEFIELD EARTH.
KATHRYN HARROLD (who you might remember from NIGHTWING and the RICHARD LYNCH starring television movie VAMPIRE) stars as Dr. Gail Farmer, a woman who finds herself captivated by a recent admittance to the psychiatric hospital where she works. The patient known simply as John Doe #83 (ZELIJKO IVANEK) is an amnesiac who recently attempted a dramatic public suicide and just so happens to have the pesky habit of projecting his nightmares into people’s heads. I’m not talking about “It’s the day of the big math test and I forgot to wear pants!” kind of nightmares, I’m talking about the “Whaddya know, the refrigerator is swarming with cockroaches and a rat just crawled out of my mouth!” variety.
The doctor/patient relationship in the center of the film is absorbing enough to steer your attention away from many of the film’s imperfections. IVANEK is a convincing outcast with a believable supernatural aura (decades later he will be tapped to play a high ranking Vampire in HBO’s TRUE BLOOD) and HARROLD has an earthy, nurturing demeanor that makes me assume flowers bloom whenever she’s in the vicinity. As John Doe’s past begins to materialize so does his creepy, about as much fun as a barrel of dead monkeys, Bible quoting smother-mother ( a memorably melancholy SHIRLEY NIGHT). Dr. Gail has to basically re-parent the young man to defuse his demons as his telepathic “sending” is apparently all tied up in apron strings. Don’t feel left out, emotionless carved in stone fathers, you’re represented by shock therapy enthusiast Dr. Denman (PAUL FREEMAN a.k.a. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’s bad boy Belloq) In other words, this is horror made for TEARS FOR FEARS fans.
Though not entirely seamless, this is some legit, classy, acne-free cinema. You know I love my garish neon eighties horror movies but THE SENDER, with its muted, mostly beige color palette and candle lit climax, has a timeless quality that I find comforting. I poked a bit of fun at director ROGER CHRISTIAN’s TRAVOLT-ing Sci-Fi train wreck but let’s not forget the guy was also the art director for the endlessly influential ALIEN too. THE SENDER’s cinematographer ROGER PRATT went on to BRAZIL and 12 MONKEYS and the standout score is from the guy who did ANGEL HEART and LABYRINTH (TREVOR JONES).
THE SENDER’s noble, non-pandering stance insured that exactly one cricket bought a ticket to see it in the theaters. Over the years it has gathered a cult of followers but this ambiguous oddity I suppose, for some people, will always fall into the neither fish nor foul pile. (You know the drill, gorehounds hate chin music and eggheads tsk-tsk decapitations…what’s a stylish thriller with both to do?) As you can tell, I have plenty of room in my heart for a problem like THE SENDER, its body count may end up being a blasphemous zero but it contains the only car chase scene I’ve ever found even remotely entertaining. In fact, I’d say it’s downright hypnotic.