Review: The Sender (1982)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #752

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 22, 1982
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Roger Christian
Producer: Edward S. Feldman
Screenplay: Thomas Baum
Special Effects: Nick Allder
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Score: Trevor Jones
Editing: Alan Strachan
Studios: Paramount Pictures, Kingsmere Productions Ltd.
Distributor: United International Pictures, Paramount Pictures
Stars: Kathryn Harrold, Željko Ivanek, Shirley Knight, Paul Freeman, Sean Hewitt, Harry Ditson, Olivier Pierre, Tracy Harper, Al Matthews, Marsha Hunt, Angus MacInnes, John Stephen Hill

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

Trevor Jones “The Sender”

Picture the scene. It is the start of a brand new day. The midday sun is shining, the air is fresh and inviting, and the nearest public beach is but a few hundred yards from your coordinates. Granted, sleeping rough in the woods the night before has you feeling a little crotchety but it’s nothing a quick dip in the sea won’t soon fix right? That said, I’m not altogether sure that stuffing your jacket pockets with rocks before strolling nonchalantly into the swim fully clothed is going to cause anything other than a commotion. Couldn’t you just build a sand castle instead? Maybe if you just told me your name, I could persuade you to rethink your strategy. Not the chatty type huh? And you’re sure I couldn’t twist your arm into not attempting suicide in full view of dozens of puzzled onlookers? I take it you’re aware that it will be viewed as a simple cry for help. Fine, knock yourself out then, but I draw the line at giving you the kiss of life.

A quick stint at the state mental hospital should straighten you out and they’ve even been kind enough to lend you an identity until you remember who the hell you are. It’s funny, you don’t really look like a John Doe #83, but then, who does? Hardly empowering is it? I mean, there have evidently been 82 other John Does before you and will no doubt be 82 more after you’ve received your clean bill of health so you’d think they’d come up with something a little more inventive. Fear not, I’m sure you’ll soon make friends here. Speaking of which, I see you’ve been assigned to Dr. Farmer’s caseload and you really could have done a lot worse buddy. You see, Gail isn’t like the other white coats in this facility and has a completely different take on mental health than her associates. Her superior Dr. Denman believes the only way to kick-start a stalled subconscious entails flooding its engine with electrified juice so maybe you should count yourself lucky for this small mercy and cease being so goddamn cagey.

By the way, your mother sends her regards. I just ran into the old girl in the visitor’s lounge and she had plenty to say about her darling son. According to Jerolyn, you were a gifted child, but I have to come clean, I switched off the moment she started referring to you as the reincarnation of Christ. It’s not that I’m an atheist, but we already have this one guy who proclaims himself The Messiah and he may not take kindly to waking up in the middle of the night to find the competition washing his feet. You’ve already managed to rub him up the wrong way as it is and he’s convinced some kind of cruel hex has been placed whereby his top box will drop straight off his shoulders unless he holds it firmly in place. The last thing we need is for you to cram any more preposterous ideas into his already overcrowded head. He could do without any further encouragement.

At any rate, I was hoping you might feel ready to divulge a little more about your erratic sleeping patterns. It’s not so much the incessant tossing and turning that has us all stumped, more the effect it seems to be having on Dr. Farmer that concerns me. According to her, she has been made privy to some rare shit since they wheeled your gurney into admissions and she claims you have the ability to transmit your darkest fears to her own personal head space. Denman has a theory of course (when does he not?) and swears blind there’s a label for extreme cases such as yours. Have you heard the term “sender” on your travels? I’m merely an intern but it does sound suspiciously like you may be one such gifted individual. It’s all about transference – you feel something and pass it on to the only person in this godforsaken place you have an ounce of trust for. She should feel privileged if you ask me but it’s the nature and frequency of these facsimiles that appears to have her somewhat rattled.

Now I understand that you’re working through some shit right now and the last thing I wish to do is add to your laundry list of woes. But there’s clearly some unresolved trauma here and it’s starting to wreak havoc with others. Perhaps a quick blast of electro-shock therapy wouldn’t be so terrible after all. From what Denham tells me, it doesn’t hurt a bit. I tell you what, give it a crack, and see if that doesn’t free up a memory or two. I’ll be right there with a bedpan at the ready so you really ought not to feel the slightest bit nervous. Besides, if it doesn’t work, think of all the grief you’ll be saving John Doe #84. Where I come from it’s called taking one for the team. Here, bite down hard on this sponge and we’ll kick off with a nice low voltage to ease you in.

Too much? Is that a grin or grimace? It’s tough to know for sure so perhaps they need to crank up the power some just to clarify. Quick question? Is gurning like an infant a display of overwhelming pleasure? Never mind that, what’s more bothersome right now is the medical staff being flung around surgery like rag dolls, as though you’ve discovered a way to redistribute each jolt using only the power of your mind. May I remind you that there are ward rounds still to be completed and they’ll never get done unless you release my associates from your imperceptible grip. How about we strike a deal before things get any more unpleasant? I think it’s fair to presume that it’s a grimace you’re sporting so we’ll call it a session and chalk this one down to experience.

Listen pal, I just don’t think I’m qualified to assist you any further. However, Dr. Farmer seems to have developed something of a liking for you, despite the fact that her entire world has been gradually falling down around her ears since you turned up. I’d suggest working with her to resolve this mess as she represents your only fading hope of ever getting out of this cuckoo’s nest with any remaining marbles still in the jar. I’d ask your mother to lend a hand but she seems to ghost in and out whenever she pleases and I’m starting to wonder whether she’s actually the root of your problems. Far be it from me to judge but the general consensus is that she’s as mad as a sack of squirrels and it’s no small wonder that you were so desperate for a time out.

Astonishingly, Roger Christian’s The Sender is a film that precious few people actually know about. Despite getting a generally positive response from critics and making many of their Top Ten lists for 1982, it sank without a trace after a brief and unprofitable theatrical release and has seldom been spoken of since. It’s a crying shame as Christian’s film has rather a lot going for it, not least the fine performances of its three leads. Kathryn Harrold is exceptional as the fretful doctor haunted by her patient’s delusions, Shirley Knight gives a suitably creepy turn as his God-fearing guardian, and first-timer Željko Ivanek plays the curious stranger with an almost child-like innocence that endears him to us, even though his gift equates to everyone else’s curse. In addition, Roger Pratt’s elegant photography goes some way to creating an atmosphere, particularly during the opening when the camera follows its subject into the water until which point as it is submerged with him.

If you’re looking to draw comparisons, then Brian De Palma’s The Fury and Richard Franklin’s Patrick spring instantly to mind, in overall tone as well as theme. While clinical in its approach to mental health, Christian is careful not to bog us down with theory. Instead the impetus here is on slow-burn suspense, something that The Sender delivers in spades. The English filmmaker is best remembered for his big-budget flop Battlefield Earth and that saddens me as his full-length debut hinted at a far more intriguing trajectory that was sadly never to be released. That’s where I come in you see. No need to thank me Roger, but if our paths ever cross in the street, mine’s a rum and black mate.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: There’s precious little here in the way of grue, aside from a couple of bleeding mirrors and one instance of single punch devastation that you won’t have seen coming. That said, there are other well implemented set-pieces scattered throughout that more than make their point without needing to resort to visceral gore. 

Read The Fury Appraisal
Read Scanners Appraisal
Read Bad Dreams Appraisal
Read A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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