Cast: Kathryn Harrold, Zeljko Ivanek, and Shirley Knight
Director: Roger Christian
92 minutes (15) 1982
Arrow Blu-ray region B
[Released 17th June]
A fine British production, this SF-horror mystery-movie is about a suicidal amnesiac with mysterious powers that mystify and terrify his clinic psychiatrist Dr Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold, Nightwing, Raw Deal). Blankly haunted while he’s locked in the hospital’s secure ward, ‘John Doe 83’ is portrayed by Slovenian-born actor, Zeljko Ivanek, making a career breakthrough with his first starring role here, and later seen in TV shows like 24, Heroes, and Damages. After the young man appears to be the cause of several weird events, the initially confused but concerned Gail investigates the stranger’s psychic connection to his creepy mother Jerolyn (Shirley Knight), and The Sender develops quickly into a cleverly composed variation on ghost stories, and horror-hospital movies with genre links to Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), and Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1978).
Alone at home, Gail hears an intruder and sees JD-83 in her bedroom, but was she really just dreaming of a stalker? Back at work, she hallucinates cockroaches in the fridge, and gets an unexpected visitation from JD’s irrational mother. Strange fantastical happenings build up, accelerate the primed narrative and rapidly conspire to undermine Gail’s sanity. There’s a ghostly car chase, a biblical reference (Luke 1:31) about Jesus, telepathic links that make Gail seem neurotic, and cracked bleeding mirrors that push her right over the edge. Gail is clearly sympathetic to patients on held on the clinic’s ‘elopement risk’ ward, and she rejects electro-shock option as treatment suggested by the chief doctor, Joseph Denman (Paul Freeman), even after J.D. profoundly disturbs another ward resident, the ‘messiah’ (Sean Hewitt, who died in June 2019).
Once prescribed, the ECT episode results in a slow-motion psychotic fantasy of telekinetic levitation and Dr Denman finds that his coldly logical and clinical attitude is challenged by Gail’s more liberal humanist approach. The doctors realise they have very first adult case of baby-and-mother communication called ‘sending’. JD’s own nightmares of dying wreck the stability of psych-ward patients. Shadows and repetitive sound effects reach a black-comedy set-piece with the ‘information’ episode, including an indestructible TV set, and a decapitation stunt. An escalation to brain surgery incites the suitably fiery climax and the finale replays tragic memories of smothering mothering.
Following his creative design work, on Star Wars (1977), and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Roger Christian made his debut as director with this outstanding feature. The Sender led to cult space opera Lorca And The Outlaws (1984), and police bomb-disposal thriller The Final Cut (1995), before critically-derided, post-apocalypse blockbuster, Battlefield Earth (2000), based on L. Ron Hubbard’s novel, failed to please enough tolerant fans of cheesy sci-fi, So, Christian’s directing career, especially for genre movies, never quite recovered.
That’s a great shame, because The Sender has a lot of fine visionary qualities, obvious in its performances, and atmospheric special effects (conjured by Nick Allder with a modest budget). The overall excellence of The Sender as a psychic thriller was undoubtedly quite influential, alongside Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome (also 1982), upon cinematic horror and dream imagery popularised by A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and the franchise it launched.