For decades, an unwritten rule of the motion picture business has been that first-time filmmakers should get their careers off the ground by making a horror movie. There are lots of reasons for this, both practical and creative. On the practical side, horror is a genre that doesn’t necessitate a big budget, and in some cases benefits from being cheap, allowing for a much easier return on the film’s investment. On the creative side, horror is an infinitely malleable genre, so it can thus be hijacked by a filmmaker in order to communicate just about any message and/or demonstrate a director’s prowess behind the camera.
While there are dozens of horror films that double as debut efforts from nascent directors, there are a few that see filmmakers who were already veterans try their hand at the genre: Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear or Rob Reiner’s Misery, for example. Yet even rarer are the horror films made as a first directing effort by people who have already worked on dozens of films prior. Two such movies, 1974’s Phase IV and 1980’s Windows, have the dubious distinction of not only being directorial debuts but are also the only films directed by each artist: graphic designer Saul Bass and cinematographer Gordon Willis, respectively. While neither man intended their movie to be their one and only effort, both Phase IV and Windows have a go-for-broke quality, making their existence much more unique and noteworthy than just a piece of trivia.
Even if you don’t know the names Saul Bass and Gordon Willis, you’ve certainly seen their work before. Bass was a prolific graphic designer who was responsible for such iconography as the logos for United Airlines, AT&T and Kleenex, and he brought his skills for summing up a tone and a message in a series of impactful images to cinema by designing title sequences and movie posters for films. Some of his most famous works are the opening titles he designed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho, as well as the posters he created for Anatomy of a Murder and The Shining. Willis was a cinematographer who began shooting films for the likes of Hal Ashby and Alan J. Pakula before shooting Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and its subsequent sequels. Willis would go on to work with Pakula, Woody Allen, and James Bridges a number of times before retiring after lensing Pakula’s The Devil’s Own in the late ‘90s.
While both men had been involved with films that were either in the horror genre or adjacent to it — the Hitchcock films for Bass, Pakula’s Klute for Willis — neither Phase IV or Windows were a lateral move for them as artists. In other words, they each embarked on the films based on the visual opportunities they presented, more than for a love of horror or some such thing.
Of the two, Phase IV is more obviously ambitious. Taking place after some vague and mysterious cosmic occurrence, the film follows two scientists, Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and Lesko (Michael Murphy) along with a local young girl, Kendra (Lynne Frederick) who are attempting to discern why different species of ants have suddenly developed a hive mind and are making a bid to take over the planet from humans. The fact that swarms of regular-sized ants are a major character in the movie must’ve appealed to Bass’ sense of assembling images from moving parts, as he had done in many of his title sequences. The film is, ultimately, a riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey, with ants in place of A.I. and giant monoliths, a tale of humanity facing a basic law of nature in a new way: adapt or die.
Windows, on the other hand, is a more straightforward story about a meek New York City woman, Emily (Talia Shire), who is relentlessly obsessed over and stalked by her neighbor, Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley). Even though Andrea is in therapy and Emily makes sure to move apartments at the insistence of her new policeman boyfriend, Bob (Joe Cortese), Andrea uses her position as Emily’s friend to stay in her life and manipulate her, such as hiring a taxi driver to sexually assault Emily and record the act on cassette. The film carried with it some controversy upon release given Andrea’s homosexuality, but Windows isn’t interested in telling a story that tackles a number of hot-button issues; rather, it’s a disquieting character study in the guise of a thriller, with Andrea given as much consideration as Emily is.
While both films have elements baked into their stories that would make them unique all by themselves, Bass and Willis’ distinctive visual approaches to each film allow Phase IV and Windows to be adventurous, anomalous, and even transcendent in ways. Bass employed wildlife photographer Ken Middleham to help out with Phase IV’s lengthy sequences of real-life close-up ant footage, and what could’ve been dull inserts of insects becomes utterly beguiling as large swathes of narrative are given over to the ant scenes. Bass and cinematographer Dick Bush also make use of the director’s penchant for saturated colors (as seen in the sequence where the scientists use an insecticide on the ants) and striking compositions featuring iconic graphics (as in the scenes involving the mysterious phallic towers built by the ants which look almost like they have mouths).
Willis, meanwhile, makes Windows into a veritable feast for the eyes for those who adore his high contrast lighting and Rembrandt-esque compositions. Acting as his own cinematographer, Willis shoots much of the film in muted tones and textured darkness, letting colors pop out in very deliberate instances such as in the film’s opening title sequence where Emily travels up a hallway adorned with a spiral of bright neon lights. Willis makes sure to embrace the claustrophobia and menace of the film’s stalking plot, presenting some scenes shot nearly exclusively from the point of view of Andrea’s telescope looking into Emily’s apartment. He also isn’t afraid to let the actor’s faces live in near-total darkness: the final confrontation between Emily and Andrea is made even more disturbing and unsettling because so much of it is shown with the actors only in silhouette, making the threat of violence and danger that much more palpable.
Both Phase IV and Windows have an added mystique thanks to their respective production history leaving some key elements out of the finished films. In the case of Windows, the film was originally to be more ahead of its time (as well as more controversial) because, according to an interview with Shire and producer Mike Lobell on the film’s Blu-Ray release, the first draft of the script featured Andrea’s character as a pre-op trans woman. Phase IV, on the other hand, had an entire extended ending sequence that was shot and completed before the distributing studio for the film demanded it be removed. That sequence, in which Lesko and Kendra are taken by the ants on a surreal trip through humanity’s potential futures (one in which they’re enslaved by the ants in a very Orwellian fashion; another where they become a harmonious part of the ants’ brave new world) was preserved, and can be seen on most home video editions of the film (albeit not cut into the movie itself).
Unfortunately, Phase IV and Windows fumbled at the box office upon their releases, and their financial failure coupled with critical backlash meant that each movie marked the end of Bass and Willis’ feature film directing careers. While it’s a shame that these men didn’t get to experiment further with cinema by making more of their own movies, it’s a treat to revisit their one-and-done efforts and discover not only how the films were ahead of their time, but are completely unlike anything else in the horror genre, at least visually. Film is, after all, a visual medium, and the undeniably unique sights of Phase IV and Windows prove that axiom multiple times over.