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A review of "The Sender" (1982)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

The Sender was almost a good movie, but settles for just being okay.  There's a lot of merit here and some genuinely great moments, but it's ultimately kind of a flat and unmemorable film about a sad psychic.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

An unnamed depressed guy who will be known as The Sender (Zeljko Ivanek) wakes up alone in the woods.  He goes to a crowded public beach and walks into the water, attempting to kill himself.

He's quickly rescued and sent to the hospital, after which he's admitted to a psych ward for continued observation and evaluation.  There, Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) tries to figure out who he is and why he wanted to kill himself.  The Sender mopes and doesn't want to talk to her, despite her friendly demeanor and Patch Adams approach.

As Gail tries to work with The Sender more and more, she finds that she's starting to have terrible dreams and hallucinations.  She sees horrifying images like swarms of bugs and rats, and on at least one occasion she thinks she sees The Sender escaping from the ward only to find out that he never left.

She quickly puts together that he's got terrifying psychic powers: he can project his thoughts or feelings onto other people and make them see, hear, and feel his worst nightmares.

Gail brings this up to her supervisor, Dr. Denman (Paul Freeman), who immediately looks into The Sender as a case study.  Dr. Denman starts observing him with a plan to later conduct some experimentation / surgery in order to figure out how telepathy works.

Gail, however, isn't concerned about the science of this phenomenon - instead, she wants to figure out the bigger mystery of why he wanted to kill himself and try to treat him (i.e., she wants to do her job).  Unfortunately, The Sender refuses to talk about his past, so she has to figure out most of his back story by way of the psychic visions he broadcasts.  Sometimes these are totally ambiguous, but sometimes they're a little more concrete - like when he sends out a vision of his mother (Shirley Knight), who gets into long discussions with Gail about her son.

The visions go on for awhile - concurrent with a police investigation in which it appears that The Sender's mother was burned to death in a fire that he may possibly have set - until Dr. Denman has The Sender strapped down to a surgical table so they can drill hole into his head and look for the Telepathy Lobe.

Turns out that's a bad idea.  The Sender is awake during the surgery and projects psychic flames, which apparently turn into actual flames, and the operating room starts to burn down.  In the ensuing havoc, The Sender escapes from the ward and runs away.

Gail tracks him down to his mother's old house, a dilapidated spoooky manor, and figures out the source of all the distress.  Turns out The Sender's mom thought of him as a danger to society and wanted to kill him.  She managed to get so wrapped into his head that her hatred of him is a lingering presence that now makes him depressed and suicidal.  The shadow of his mom has basically "tricked" him into coming to the house and setting up a gas leak with the goal of setting him on fire.  Gail shows up just in time to save him, and they go back to the ward to subject him to further therapy.

We flash forward to some time in the future.  The Sender seems to be managing his depression well enough, so he's being released from the ward.  However, as he gets into a cab to drive away, the camera freezes on an image of his mother sitting next to him....

The Stuff I Liked

I'd like to preface all this by pointing out that The Sender was directed by Roger Christian, who is more infamously known as the director of Battlefield: Earth.  If you read my previous post about B:E, you'll know that I'm actually kind of a defender of that movie.  It's stupid as hell, but actually a surprisingly well-made and memorable movie that hits just the right notes you may want from an overblown sci-fi pseudo-epic.

The Sender is, in some ways, actually kind of a worse movie (for one, it's not nearly as memorable, for better or worse), but I think it's a good one to watch for people who are so enthralled with hyperbole that they'd dare to say B:E is the worst movie ever made.  The Sender is concrete proof that Roger Christian is a competent director who knows what he's doing.

It's got a great sense of pacing and builds up an effective mystery without becoming tedious.  Many writers of suspense will fall back on the most rudimentary form of inspiring curiosity, which is simply to throw something into the story without any context and hope you'll stick around to get the answers to your questions.  ("Why was that pair of purple shoes found at the crime scene?") I won't deny that this is an effective way of stringing along your audience - you can look at the first four seasons of Lost as proof - but it's not nearly as satisfying as suspense that's built on simply wanting to know what happens next.  ("Is the hero's sister going to escape from the killer in the purple shoes?")

The Sender is a good example of the latter because they don't make too many bones about The Sender's abilities.  There's a bit of spoooooky mysterious stuff that happens early on, but instead of dragging their feet asking How Did This Happen, they just cut to the chase and say, "Okay, this guy has psychic abilities.  Let's figure out how to treat him."

I enjoyed the breeziness of that approach and I thought it was refreshing.  It takes its subject matter and pathologizes it the way an episode of House might, so you end up with something that's more like a medical drama about a reluctant telepath than a horror slasher about a guy with creepy villain powers.  Whether that's good or bad depends on how much you wanted a horror movie, I guess.  I enjoyed it.

There's some fun effects, too.  I thought bathroom sequence (in which the mirrors crack and bleed) in particular was inventive and sufficiently terrifying.  What makes it better is that it wasn't just some random crap they thought would be gross and fun to put on screen - it's actually relevant to what's happening to The Sender at that moment (he's trying to kill himself), which is a great touch.

Unfortunately, that same amount of thought didn't quite go into the rest of the movie....

The Stuff I Didn't Like

There's basically two main problems I have, and the first one is that the moments of horror don't actually make a lot of sense most of the time.

The bleeding mirror sequence I mentioned above is stellar and sets a high mark for what you'd expect from the rest of the movie.  (The Sender is feeling something, that feeling gets projected, the world suffers.)  And at times the movie lives up to that.  There's another great moment where the entire hospital is thrown into panic as dozens of people are afflicted with hallucinations and visions of horror, and Gail calls to tell them that The Sender is having a nightmare.  (To which the nurse taking the call answers, "No shit" while screaming orderlies run behind her.  It's an excellent smash cut.)

But the rest of the time, the movie just throws out stock Scary Stuff and hopes it's enough to tide you over.  Like the first time Gail suspects something's going on: she opens a medicine refrigerator and it's full of roaches and other bugs.  Ewww!  Gross!

....but why?  Was The Sender stepping on a bug at the time and it freaked him out?  (Much later in the movie, The Sender is in the dilapidated kitchen of his mother's house and sees some roaches, so I guess you can argue that's the connection - but that's pretty thin for my taste.)

Roughly the same thing happens later when Gail sees visions of huge swarms of rats crawling all over The Sender's corpse.  Again, that's gross... but why?  How do rats specifically figure into his fears or his thoughts?

When stuff like that happens, it doesn't feel like a well-planned horror movie.  It just seems like somebody on set was like, "You know what's gross?  Bugs.  Let's put bugs in the fridge."  It comes across as a cliche and a non-presence.  That time is better spent doing something truly horrifying that involves the characters and their fears.

(While I'm on this tangent, there's a good moment of unintentional comedy toward the middle when the staff submits The Sender to electroshock therapy.  The moment they first zap him, all the staff is thrown backward in the air by an invisible explosion, and they crash through some windows in slow-motion.  It would be a really great effect, except that they cut to one guy doing a martial arts kick pose and putting on the stupidest "fear-smile" face imaginable while he very slowly flies backward.  Why'd they use that take?  The other doctors knew how to make the right face... why not show one of them instead?)

The other main problem I have is the total disregard for scientific inquiry and skepticism.

I don't mind that the premise is based on telepathy being real.  My problem is that when Gail first mentions this hypothesis to Dr. Denman, he just nods and goes, "Oh, I see.  He's a telepath.  You know, that thing that, in our world, is scientifically-validated and universally accepted as fact in contrast to the world the audience lives in where somebody in my position might want to gather some observable data first since telepathy would completely revolutionize our understanding of the universe."

There is zero effort made to have the characters approach The Sender as actual scientists.  It's not like you'd need to spend much time on it - in fact, you can turn it into a quick bit of humor.  All you really need is a moment where Gail says she thinks The Sender is a telepath, then you have Dr. Denman scoff and say, "Be serious."  Then he goes to talk to The Sender to make his own conclusion.  Cut to Dr. Denman freaking out at something imaginary, then he stops suddenly, red-faced.  He goes back to Gail, humbled, and says, "Okay.  He's a telepath."  That would only take two minutes, tops.

Without a scene like that, the movie goes from "I believe this is a real world with actual professionals doing their jobs" to "I think this is just a bunch of assholes who put on ties and call each other 'Docta' so that it sounds like they're professionals if you're not paying close attention, but actually they're totally unqualified to do anything."

The Sender ends up being in this weird little fence-sitting place where it's too well-made and takes itself too seriously to think of it as a schlocky B-level science fiction thriller, but it's just too dumb to actually be the psychological drama it wants to be.  If they went slightly in one direction or another, it would've been much more entertaining and more memorable.  As it is, I'm probably going to forget I ever watched this in another six or seven months.

Where You Can Watch

If you go to Paramount's Vault channel on Youtube, you can (legally) watch this totally for free.

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