By ALEX DELLER
Starring Kathryn Harrold, Željko Ivanek, Shirley Knight, Paul Freeman
Directed by Roger Christian
Written by Thomas Baum
Cruelly flopping on release in 1982, THE SENDER is a lesser-known take on the psychic-powers-gone-awry microgenre that trades the straight-up shocks of PSYCHIC KILLER, CARRIE and PATRICK for hallucinatory arthouse smarts.
The films follows a hollow-eyed John Doe (Željko Ivanek, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET) who’s transferred to a state mental hospital after wandering into the water with stones in his pockets. Our Doe is detached, prickly and suffering from a walloping case of amnesia, and institutional life sees him being baited or befriended by the likes of a wild-eyed ‘Messiah’ (Sean Hewitt, CRIMSON PEAK), a cracked Vietnam vet (Al Matthews, ALIENS) and steely but sympathetic Dr. Farmer (Kathryn Harrold, RAW DEAL and 1979 bat-attack venture NIGHTWING).
“The weirdness builds slowly with subtle twists of the reality dial.”
It soon becomes apparent is that the mysterious John Doe is a ‘sender’, capable of transmitting cryptic fragments of his thoughts, dreams and intentions to the hospital’s staff and patients. The weirdness builds slowly with subtle twists of the reality dial, but it’s not long before we’re seeing bugs, rats and plenty worse besides yet in some truly eye-popping setpieces courtesy of veteran SFX whiz Nick Allder, whose work has graced everything from ALIEN to HELLBOY and THE RITUAL.
Beyond the inventive FX, The Sender is also thoughtfully and intelligently written, and while it might be the product of a less woke era it’s heartening to see Dr. Farmer arguing the morality of electroshock therapy and holding her own whether she’s dealing with a terrifying psychic incursion or pompous, patronising colleague Dr. Denman (Paul Freeman, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). This said, however, it’s not without its shortfalls: Ivanek is great as a sullen brooder but is ultimately little more than a cypher, and, more critically, the soporific pacing robs certain sequences of their immediacy. Thankfully, though, THE SENDER rises above its minor character defects and stands as a strong and frequently unexpected chiller that worms its way into your psyche like terrifying slivers of John Doe’s nightmares.
Arrow’s reissue looks typically sumptuous, and extras include a tidbit-laden video essay from writer and horror savant Kim Newman who charts the history of psychic powers from ancient myth to FIRESTARTER and THE MIND’S EYE; an intimate interview with screenwriter and Wes Craven collaborator Tom Baum and an occasinally contradictory commentary from director Roger Christian, for whom this was a first feature after below-the-line roles on flicks like AND SOON THE DARKNESS, STAR WARS and ALIEN.