Most horror fans praise 1981 as being the greatest year for the genre (or at least in the eighties), but I would say that 1982 is easily the best year for this type of film. In this year, we got a wide variety of types of horror to choose from. The slasher boom was in full swing, horror maestros like Stephen King, George Romero, John Carpenter, and more were at play, and there was a huge variety to pick from. One film I hadn’t heard of until recently (surprising, considering you’ll be hard-pressed to find a negative review of it) is a supernatural/psychological horror thriller called The Sender. With some intriguing art and a sure-fire plot dealing with dreams, I’m surprised I had never heard of this and most people still don’t.
THE SENDER (1982) Review
A man (Zeljko Ivanek) wakes up near a road, walks to a public lake, and attempts to drown himself by stuffing rocks in his shirt and wading out. The man is sent to a mental hospital and given the tag John Doe #83. Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) is chosen to take care of him and discover who he is and why he attempted to kill himself, but soon finds herself in over her head when strange going-ons begin to occur whenever he falls asleep. A mysterious woman (Shirley Knight) shows up claiming to be his mother and wants him back in her care as faucets pour blood and John Doe is seen outside the hospital when he is still locked up. Farmer begins digging deeper into his psyche and discovers the horrifying reason behind what’s happening.
When I look back on The Sender, I realize that it really shouldn’t work at all. The plot easily makes for an intriguing story, but it really shouldn’t be as scary is it is. It’s not traumatically scary, but I would be lying if I said that there weren’t parts that jolted me, or at least creeped me out. Ironically, The Sender really works because of the direction. Ironic because this is directed by Roger Christian, who also directed the infamous Battlefield Earth. Don’t worry; this movie is light years away from that in every conceivable way. It’s one of those movies that really shouldn’t work, but does due to thw talent involved. This was Zeljko Ivanek’s first starring role and he’s one of the reasons this movie’s so great. Harrold is good as Farmer (nothing terribly interesting about he role, though) and Knight puts up a good fight with Ivanek for best screen presence as John’s mother. The actors playing the other mental patients are solid and it’s nioce to see that the mental patients have some distinct characteristics (one’s a shell-shocked ‘Nam vet, another thinks he’s Jesus, etc.; I didn’t say they were original).
Even though The Sender is loaded with this great acting and some great camerawork, what really holds it together is the score. There are some striking images in the movie, but like Carpenter’s Halloween, what really makes them stand out and almost makes them disturbing (certainly unnerving) is the score. It opens and ends with this beautiful piece, but the music does a complete tonal shift when John attempts to drown himself and during the electroshock scene (maybe the best part of the movie). There’s just something unsettling about nearly every scene in this movie, and I can’t put my finger on a reason. Part of the reason The Sender is scary is that we never truly know the extent of John’s powers. We see his dreams projected into reality, but even at the end, it’s never fully explained whether these illusions can cause any serous damage, even when the line between dream and reality blur. Ivanek does do a great job of acting like a frightened child inside of a man’s body without overdoing it. Knight also manages to come off as really creepy without doing much, especially near the end. There aren’t too many other good things to say without ruining the movie, because there are some surprises to be found.
The problem with The Sender is that it can be very slow, especially the first half. It builds tension and intrigue well, but it can be a chore upon repeat viewings. There’s a scene in Farmer’s apartment that goes on a little bit longer than it should have, and most of the religious themes went nowhere. Horror fans may also be let down by how the movie is really more of a supernatural psychological thriller with some horror elements. The lack of information represents a catch-22 in that it builds on scares, but it also leaves the viewer feeling confused by the end. They also could have done so much more with the whole “dreams becoming a reality” concept, but they stuck with the basics like cockroaches in the fridge, rats in the bedroom, blood pouring from faucets, etc. Yeah, it goes with the subtle nature of the movie, but who wouldn’t have liked to see a werewolf or a zombie or a dinosaur tear up the hospital? The “twist” ending was also letdown after everything that had happened before it.
For its obscurity, The Sender is a surprisingly solid little watch. It’s got that vintage ’82 feel and definitely gets bonus points for doing something original. Of course, it’s a big help that it has good camerawork, a great score, solid acting, well-built suspense, and a few gory moments to spice things up here and there. Those who have seen it can attest for its good qualities, and thankfully, it is available on DVD from Legend Films. Nothing really to talk about there but a crisp transfer and no bonus material. Oh well; The Sender will have its time in the sun someday, preferably on Blu. Yeah, it’s got some big flaws, but the product as a whole stands the test of time and is one ripe for a fresh audience.
The Sender really isn’t a horror film more than it’s an unnerving thriller, but it’s a really good unnerving thriller. Give it a spin when you’re in the mood for a creepy slow burn.
“The Sender” (1982)
Starring: Kathryn Harrold, Zeljko Ivanek, Shirley Knight
Director: Roger Christian
Writer: Thomas Baum