The Sender Review
Imagine having an extraordinary special power, yet having no control over this unique ability, or the devastating effects it may have on those around you. That’s the simple premise of The Sender, an underrated gem that continued a cycle of successful psychic horrors. Other notable films around that time included Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), Patrick (1978) and Scanners (1981). The Sender also became a forerunner to A Nightmare on Elm Street and numerous other dream related shockers that became prevalent in the eighties.
The film opens as a deeply troubled young man (Željko Ivanek) is admitted to a psychiatric clinic for evaluation, following a dramatic suicide attempt. He’s an amnesiac who cannot remember his own name, so is referred to throughout simply as “John Doe 83”. Dedicated psychiatrist, Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold), is assigned to his case but soon starts to experience terrifying hallucinations. Hordes of squirming rats appear in her home, mirrors shatter and blood gushes inexplicably from everyday objects - and there's far worse to come. It emerges that John has the capacity to project his darkest thoughts and nightmares into the minds of others, impacting not only Farmer, but the other vulnerable patients too. As John starts to feel increasingly pressured, what he sends becomes more horrific, creating havoc around him.
The Sender marked Roger Christian's directorial feature debut, having previously won an Oscar for his impressive art direction on Star Wars. He does a terrific job here at building suspense, complemented by some stylish photography by Roger Pratt and a highly atmospheric score by Trevor Jones. The film manages to be frequently unnerving, with several standout moments – including an unforgettable electroshock sequence. While Thomas Baum’s script may incorporate familiar tropes, like the mental institution setting with its stock characters, there are still some chilling surprises in store.
It manages to stand out from the crowd thanks to some strong casting. According to Baum, both Tom Cruise and Sean Penn were initially considered for the lead role, until Jeffrey Katzenberg – then an exec at Paramount - intervened and insisted upon Ivanek instead. A shrewd choice, as the Slovenian-born actor is mesmerising here, exhibiting a suitably haunted look throughout. Harrold is great too as the sympathetic doctor determined to unravel her patient’s turbulent past. I have always considered her to be a talented actress who had the misfortune of starring in a string of crummy movies. You might remember her as leading lady in the ropey Schwarzenegger vehicle Raw Deal (1986), though perhaps not much else. No wonder she became so disillusioned with the movie business and retired early from acting, later changing direction to become a therapist. Also worthy of a mention is veteran Shirley Knight, giving a beautifully understated performance as the young man’s controlling mother Jerolyn, who shows up to confront Farmer.
Despite being set in the US and having exterior scenes filmed in Georgia, The Sender is actually a British film. Pay close attention to those hospital patients lurking in the background, as there are some very recognisable faces from British TV screens. These include comedian John Sessions and the late Gary Olsen, who would later find fame in the BBC sitcom 2 Point 4 Children.
Christian's career as director never really took off in a big way and was certainly done no favours by the disastrous Battlefield Earth (2000) - perhaps the less said about that debacle the better. By contrast, The Sender is a well crafted treat that still holds up remarkably well.
Arrow Video's release of The Sender marks its UK debut on Blu-ray disc. Surprisingly, it has never been available on DVD in this country, so the last physical release was on VHS by CIC Video back in 1986. It carried an 18 certificate at that time, as did the original UK theatrical release during 1983. The BBFC have more recently downgraded the film to a 15 rating.
The HD image, presented in a ratio of 1.78:1, is spotless with no discernible signs of damage. Colours are bright throughout and skin tones appear natural. Compared to an earlier R1 DVD released in the US, fine detail is noticeably improved.
Audio is the original uncompressed 2.0 stereo. Dialogue is distinct throughout, the haunting score by Trevor Jones is handled effectively, as is the jolting sound effects during various set pieces.
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
The Sender was released in the US on Blu-ray during 2015 by Olive Films, though that edition was barebones and region A locked. Arrow Video - currently celebrating their tenth glorious year - have typically gone that extra mile for UK collectors, putting together a grand selection of additional material.
Audio commentary by director Roger Christian.
Dream Logic (16:40): A brand new interview with screenwriter Tom Baum, who discusses his career from being a copywriter in the sixties, then going onto making underground movies, penning short stories for Playboy and eventually writing novels. He also provides some great anecdotes about the making of The Sender.
Into The Mind's Eye: (27:10): In a fascinating appreciation, critic Kim Newman guides us through key books and films associated with psychic horror.
Denman's Diagnosis (2:38): Actor Paul Freeman describes his role in The Sender and recalls it being quite a dangerous shoot.
Deleted scenes from the screenplay (24:41): An opportunity to read deleted and extended scenes from Thomas Baum's shooting script (including the original ending).
Theatrical trailer (1:36): A great teaser for the film!
Image gallery (13:30): Production stills, behind the scenes, storyboards, press books, poster and VHS art.
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Luke Insect.
Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Alan Jones and an excerpt from the novelisation by Tom Baum (first pressing only and not available for review).