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Just when you're sure that people finally got it through their skulls that psychics are hooey of the highest order, along comes a new wave of mania to revive their interest. There will always be a Long Island Medium to pick up where John Edward left off, a Uri Geller to show the Amazing Kreskin what's what, and some charlatan to exploit the Mayan calendar for a small fortune. This applies to the movies as well, where telekinetic trends have frequently popped up throughout the years, most prominently from the late '70s and into the ensuing decade. Released in between the likes of Scanners and Firestarter was 1982's The Sender, which, to its credit, makes an effort to weave a personal story amidst those explosive set pieces meant to be excitedly recounted by horror fans for their buddies. It's a more moody piece of work than its genre roots might suggest otherwise, a movie that trades on the terror of not only possessing supernatural talents but being clueless as to their limitations or how to harness them, to boot. But rather than satisfy seekers of both visual pizazz and character introspection, The Sender instead supplies a tale that comes up disappointingly short in captivating viewers with physical and psychological frights.

The Sender
Feature
A nameless young man (Zeljko Ivanek) wakes up on the side of the road. He has no memory of who he is, yet he's nonetheless compelled to load up on rocks and try drowning himself in a lake nearby. This act lands "John Doe" a place in a state mental facility, where his supervising doctor, Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold), soon realizes that he has some rather terrifying abilities. It seems that while experiencing nightmares or periods of intense duress, he can psychically transmit vivid hallucinations into the minds of those around him. Having seen the strain these skills have put him under, Gail is determined to help John Doe learn how to control them at the very least, although doing so means facing opposition on two fronts. Of course, there are her colleagues, who aim to poke and prod the patient until they crack the mysteries of the human mind, but then there's also the man's own mother (Shirley Knight). She thinks the outside world isn't prepared for someone like her boy, demanding that the doctors release him at once...or else.

Hailed by Quentin Tarantino as the best horror movie of its year, The Sender is a chiller that has the right idea in mind but a misguided perception on how to pull it off on screen. This is one part dark character study focused on the crippling burden of possessing such an extraordinary set of powers, and it's another part visual effects bonanza, decked out with car wrecks, decapitations, and at least twenty percent of the scenery aflame at any given time. Director Roger Christian (he of then-imminent Battlefield Earth infamy) utilizes the unpredictable nature of John Doe's powers to the fullest, swiftly getting viewers to doubt if they're really seeing what they're seeing in each new scene. The veil of ambiguity deliberately shrouded over his skills is just as alarming as the visions he produces; not only are they completely out of his control, he hasn't the faintest clue as to how dangerous they can get. But despite its abundance of macabre imagery and attempts to acquaint you with the persistently paralyzing fright in which John Doe lives, The Sender doesn't ascend to the harrowing heights it so badly wants to. Eventually, the vagueness of our protagonist's abilities becomes a hindrance as often as it does an asset, as scenes frequently threaten to break creepy new ground, only for the film to instantly backpedal with the ol' "Just a dream!" switcheroo. This quickly creates a hesitance over getting very attached to anything that happens, for fear of being burned and told that what hooked your interest was a lie for the umpteenth time.

The Sender
Also high amongst The Sender's shortcomings is the sheer volume of characters who just aren't very intriguing. Obviously, John Doe's situation has him coming out looking the best, with Ivanek and his tortured turn proving an added boon. Knight also brings a great deal of low-key menace to her role as his mother, whose influence lingers in her boy's subconscious. These two definitely have their share of issues to work out, but while Christian tries to remain cryptic and less blatant about resolving their tension, the process of doing so has a clunkiness to it that makes it seem as if he's just winging things. Harrold's performance is fine, and there's something to be said for the way Gail is depicted as a consummate professional, with her concern for John Doe never forced into a hackneyed romance. Still, there's not a whole lot to the character other than fretting about her patient; whatever hopes, dreams, or personal woes she's experiencing are never brought up, and even her struggle to convince her colleagues about John Doe's talents is short-lived, as they find out the truth for themselves pretty fast. The remaining roles are doled out between doctors looking very sternly at computer monitors (led by Raiders of the Lost Ark's Paul Freeman) and the asylum's other residents. The former group is simply too boring to contribute to any kind of intimidation factor, while the latter elicit sympathy when John Doe inadvertently gives life to their worst nightmares (even if these characters feel mostly included as a cynical stab at matching the spectrum of mental patients covered by Cuckoo's Nest).

The Sender
Video
Olive Films presents The Sender in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. There are a lot of flecks and specks to be seen, but the overall sharpness of the image is in very good shape. Aside from some murkiness evident in the climax, this is one of Olive's most crisp transfers yet, quite clear but retaining enough of that distinctive, early '80s haze to do high-def justice to the ominous atmosphere fans of the film fell in love with when they first caught the flick on late-night cable decades ago.

Audio
The Sender comes with an English-only audio track and no option for subtitles. As with the image, the film's sound is terrific; Trevor Jones's unnerving score comes through just fine, and the unearthly howling of both John Doe's fellow mental patients and their doctors as their minds proceed to be messed with strike especially fearful chords. The screaming never becomes too overwhelming, and you're able to hear just fine during the picture's more hushed yet still unsettling moments.

The Sender
Extras
Your best bet is to hope John Doe transmits a trailer directly into your cerebellum, because this disc comes with zero bonus features.

Overall
Unlike the inexpilcable cult appeal of Madman and The Prowler, I can understand why a small but dedicated fanbase sprung up around an early '80s genre entry like The Sender. It valiantly tries to appease gorehounds as well as those hungry for a stirring psychological drama, but while it's an admirable enterprise, the stop-and-go pacing only ends up alienating viewers from wanting to crack the story's central mystery. Though it's leagues less skeezy than the bulk of its horror contemporaries, The Sender pulls the wool over your eyes too often for it to be much fun when all's said and done.

The Sender
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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