The Sender (1982)
“Your dreams will never be the same.”
Director: Roger Christian
Cast: Kathryn Harrold, Zeljko Ivanek, Shirley Knight
Synopsis: A disturbed telepathic man is able to transmit his dreams and visions into the minds of the people around him.
The Sender is something of a paradox in that for some reason it has undeservedly become a forgotten movie while other, lesser, horror movies made in the early 1980s continue to enjoy over-inflated reputations, but it also doesn’t really deserve the sometimes over-zealous promotion of its supporters. It’s a well-made, solidly constructed movie which is certainly different to other horror movies of the era, but it fails to draw the viewer in due to the fact that it’s central character — a young, suicidal loner — remains resolutely unsympathetic, largely because he becomes a peripheral character in his own story.
We never learn this character’s name — he’s referred to as John Doe #83 by the doctors at the mental hospital to which he’s committed after trying to commit suicide — but he’s played by an actor with the tongue-twisting name of Zeljko Ivanek, whom I’d never heard of, but have since learnt has appeared in every American TV show made since 1984, usually as a doctor or lawyer. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but his performance, while wholly acceptable, shows nothing to suggest that he was at the beginning of a prolific career. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harold), the doctor assigned to John Doe’s case, thinks his suicide attempt was half-hearted to say the least, and I have to agree: the movie opens with him awakening after sleeping rough in the countryside, then walking to a populous lakeside. Once there, he fills his jacket with rocks and wades into the water until it closes over his head in full view of everyone there. Now, I could be wrong, but even if there weren’t dozens of onlookers who would undoubtedly pull him from the water, the human instinct for self-preservation would pretty much make it impossible for him to succeed in his attempt. Nevertheless, it’s a well-filmed opening, with Roger Pratt’s camera preceding John Doe under the murky water to bserve his submergence.
Anyway, Farmer isn’t too thrilled to have John Doe added to her workload, but she’s a professional so she gives it her best shot. However, almost straight away, strange things start happening: at home alone one night she hears the unmistakeable sounds of someone breaking in, and while calling the police she glimpses her newest patient wandering around her flat and fingering her jewellery. However, when she phones the hospital, she’s advised that he’s been there all night. Then, while discussing the case with her boss, Dr. Denman (Paul Freeman) she sees dozens of cockroaches in the fridge which of course, aren’t really there. She also receives a visit from a woman (Shirley Knight) who claims to be John Doe’s mother, and who seems to know about Farmer’s hallucinations. Unfortunately, this mysterious woman disappears before Farmer can get her to repeat her worrying observations to anyone else, but it’s pretty obvious that something isn’t right about her from the get-go, and her vaguely ominous warnings are clearly designed to encourage Farmer to give her back her boy.
It turns out that John Doe has the ability to transfer his thoughts and dreams to those around him whenever he is scared or upset. Mostly, this unusual talent is beyond his control, often taking place when he’s dreaming, but he does possess some ability to direct thoughts at those who displease him. Messiah (Sean Hewitt), a fellow inmate who quickly instigates a confrontation with the new boy, pays the price when John has him believing that his head is loose and will fall from his shoulders if he should move it. He spends the rest of the movie walking around with his hands around his own neck to prevent his head from falling off, which is more comical than scary, but at least demonstrates the enduring power of John Doe’s gift. But it’s when he’s asleep that his unconventional powers are at their most powerful, as proven in a well-staged sequence in which the sceptical Dr Denman misguidedly decides to perform a little shock therapy on John.
The Sender is certainly a different kind of horror, aimed more at fully grown adults than teens. So there’s no sex and no romantic sub-plot, but the understated nature of the horror makes it a refreshing change from the norm, and its story is as much of a mystery as anything else. It’s difficult to really care too much about either Farmer or her patient, though, and the fact that what John Doe dreams doesn’t actually happen to his targets — they just see or hallucinate what he’s dreaming — means that there’s only limited scope for dangerous situations to be created. No danger means no suspense, and no suspense is too much of an obstacle for an already restrained horror movie to overcome. We can appreciate the many qualities of The Sender, but we never really get attached to its characters or engrossed in its plot.
(Reviewed 16th October 2013)