A young man awakens in the woods, startled by a passing truck. A bit confused, he starts walking down the road. He ends up on the beach. Once there, he gathers some rocks, stuffing them in his pockets. Then, he walks towards the water. He keeps walking until he’s completely submerged.
Thanks to many witnesses, he is ultimately rescued & transported to a local psychiatric hospital. He has forgotten his own name & the circumstances that led to his suicide attempt.
That’s how The Sender begins, one of the strangest, most baffling horror films I’ve ever seen. Released in 1982, it stars longtime character actor Zeljko Ivanek as that mysterious young man. Once he checks in, he is looked after by a concerned Kathryn Harrold, one of several on-call shrinks.
Shortly after their first conversation, weird things start happening to her. While going over some work material in bed one night she suddenly hears glass breaking. Curiously not startled (she’s very stoic), it isn’t until she hears more noise that she finally decides to calmly check things out. She eventually discovers her new patient, the young man from the woods, holding and admiring a necklace she was wearing when they met. Then, he suddenly disappears.
But when the police arrive to investigate, there is no broken glass & her necklace hasn’t been stolen. Furthermore, the young man hasn’t left the hospital since he checked in.
In a later scene, after debating the pros & cons of subjecting him to possible shock therapy (her superior favours it, she rightly calls it “torture”), she opens the fridge to retrieve something only to discover some creepy crawlies, as well. Freaked out, she closes it. But when her superior opens it up again, no bugs.
What’s going on? Is Harrold going crazy?
Not at all, as it turns out. After having a conversation with the young man’s mother (Shirley Knight) who suddenly appears in her office without warning (and disappears just as quickly after their brief conversation), Harrold does a weird test with John Doe 83, the name the hospital has given her troubled son.
She asks him to pick a card and not show her. She guesses the suit. He shows her she’s wrong. She asks him to pick another card. Same deal. Then she starts guessing the colour of the suit. Every time, he reveals she’s incorrect.
Harrold tells him the odds for getting every guess wrong are the same as getting every guess right: 1000 to 1. (Did she secretly guess wrong to prove a point?) Now, how is this significant, exactly? Well, she concludes that JD is a very sensitive telepath whose dreams & nightmares are so vivid they can be seen by Harrold, and eventually, everybody in the hospital, including the usual, one-note, cartoonish mental patients in his ward. Among them, a guy who thinks he’s Jesus yet worries about being decapitated (he’s too afraid to swallow his meds) & another guy who still thinks the Vietnam War is going on while constantly swatting away at some invisible pest.
The dreams manifest themselves somehow into the real world at the slightest provocation and cannot be controlled. When Harrold’s superior learns some nonsense about how babies can mentally communicate with their mothers, he is delighted that John Doe 83 is potentially the first ever adult case. That leads to the funniest scene in the film.
After JD gets all hooked up for shock therapy, once it begins, for some reason, all the medical staff in the room start to levitate in slow motion, get thrown around and, in one case, make a ridiculously overwrought facial expression. When one character starts banging into medical supplies & ultimately goes flying through some glass, I laughed even harder.
Despite the utter failure of this experiment, the medical geniuses at this facility stubbornly decide to go ahead and perform brain surgery on this poor young man. Needless to say, it doesn’t go very well. Maybe they’re the ones who need the surgery.
The Sender was made two years before A Nightmare On Elm Street, another film that straddles the line between fantasy and reality. Although I’ve never been an Elm Street booster, at least there was no confusion about what was real, what was a nightmare and what the true motivations of Freddy Krueger were.
In The Sender, we have no fucking idea what’s going on even after we discover John Doe’s secret. The stuff involving his mother is particularly confusing. Is she really alive or is she a mental manifestation? Did he really kill her or did she off herself? Is their mother/son bond more intimate than we realize, a supernatural Psycho situation? Where’s the father and what the hell is going on with these two?
Not helping matters are the final two scenes. John Doe (we never do learn his real name) gives a taped testimonial that sort of explains how he ended up in the woods at the beginning of the film. But it’s still not completely clear what exactly happened and why. (If his mother wanted him dead, why does it appear she tried to commit suicide? Or was it a murder-suicide?) The vagueness throughout the entire picture, and not just in this one sequence, is maddening.
Then comes the moment after he’s officially discharged. Let’s just say it pretty much discredits the entire film.
The idea of encountering someone’s dreams while still awake in the real world is certainly an intriguing one for a horror film, a good horror film. The Sender is not a good horror film. It’s slow, often perplexing and in a couple of instances, completely laughable.
Despite a fine performance by Shirley Knight & a really cool shot of an exploding house seen reflecting in water, you can file this one under awful. There’s nothing remotely scary here.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, April 1, 2015