The Sender is one of those odd, memorable little shockers that's fallen through the cracks over the past decades, but like Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), The Other (1972), and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975), it's been in need of a proper DVD release for a long time.
As part of the Paramount package released by Legend Films, Sender makes its DVD release in a really lovely anamorphic transfer that shows off Roger Pratt's (Brazil) fine cinematography, and Malcolm Middleton's wonderful production design that fills out the 1.85:1 ratio. Gentle, often muted colours & clean sets belie the unsettling story of a young amnesiac branded John Doe (played by Zeljko Ivanek, best known for his socially challenged meanies in TV's Homicide, 24, Oz, and Damages), whose nightmares of a recent traumatic incident ‘leak' into the consciousnesses of hospital staff and fellow patients in an ‘elopement risk' ward.
Sympathetic shrink Kathryn Harrold (The Hunter, and the underrated drama Heartbreakers) ultimately bridges Doe's bouts of fantasy and reality, but she becomes deeply entangled with some new threats to safety, which include Doe's chilling mother (played by the often-underused Shirley Knight). Paul Freeman, fresh from the controversial PBS drama Death of a Princess (1980) and the blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), doesn't have all that much to do as Harrold's boss except Disbelieve and later Kind of Believe, but he gives this slow-paced thriller some added class.
Most of the roles are fairly thin, but the cast adds some emotional subtext towards archetypal doctors and familiar patient types, including an eccentric who believes he's Jesus. Thomas Baum's (Carny) script is pretty solid, although the finale is rather abrupt, and there's the question of how a specific pickup truck is entrusted to John Doe in the final scene.
Although he would go on to direct the poopey Die Hard rip-off Masterminds / aka ‘Study Hard' (1997) and the amazingly awful Battlefield Earth (2000), Christian's direction in Sender is very assured, and he handles what's basically a small character piece very well. A few shock sequences are comprised of elaborate hallucinations, but the film never goes as trippy and silly as The Manitou (1978).
Probably the most intriguing scares come from the sound design that keeps the stereo image quite simple – almost monophonic – until specific shocks mandate an aggressive sound cut, some directional effects, or Trevor Jones' eerie orchestral score at full volume. It's also intriguing to hear Jones' approach to suspense in orchestral terms, since several of his stylistic trademarks – droning bass, repeated rhythmic mobiles, and the use of trumpet solos – would soon become part of his permanent repertoire using an amalgam of orchestral and thickly rendered synths (notably in Angel Heart, Sea of Love, and Bad Influence).
Legend's DVD is straight bare bones, but it's a clean transfer that will please fans long curious if this orphaned thriller would ever resurface on home video.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan