John Doe (Zeljko Ivanek), a young, pale and sweaty man, wakes in a small stand of trees, confused and bleary-eyed. He rises and walks out to find he’s at a beach. He proceeds to load his jacket up with rocks and walks out into the water, as gathered people watch. They rescue him and he gets sent to a psych hospital for his attempted suicide. Here he meets Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) who is very interested in his condition and in helping him. John Doe doesn’t remember his name or where he comes from or even why he tried to kill himself. He just knows that he’s miserable. Shortly after his arrival, Gail starts to see strange things. She sees John Doe break into her apartment and steal a necklace, only he was never there, and the necklace never went anywhere. Soon, she finds that her and John Doe are linked by their minds, and whenever he’s having nightmares he sends her images of what he’s seeing. Powerful and intense, this connection threatens Gail’s sanity until her boss questions her fitness for the job. That is, until they decide to give John Doe a little shock treatment and the pain of this causes him to blast the minds of all around with various and personal images of suffering and torment. Now Gail and her team can try to officially get to the bottom of this psychic weirdness, and solve the mystery of John Doe, The Sender!
Here’s one of those pseudo-scientific horror thrillers from the late 70s/early 80s that tries to treat psychic phenomena with series and intellectual study. Much like Exorcist II, The Fury, or even The Dead Zone, we find people confronting an odd reality with a grim sort of acceptance and a belief that science can show them the way to deal with it. This was pretty unique to that time period, hearkening back to the 50s somewhat, and The Sender is another in that line of inquisitive, mature, “adult” films. That’s not to say this one doesn’t get its hands dirty, because it does. Although there’s not much death (I can’t recall anyone dying), there’s certainly a lot of weirdness going on, and the visions and images that John Doe sends out to others can be downright creepy at times. This movie plays with fear in an under-the-skin kind of way. There aren’t really any jump scares here; the real horror is just beneath the surface, lurking, flaring up on occasion. Harrold is great in her role and Ivanek is terrifically odd as John Doe. Like all movies of this time, there’s something about the filming and the film stock and the cameras that make everything so big, so magical. I don’t know how to describe it, but movies made in the 70s and early 80s had something special about them, just in their look. This one has that in spades.
The Sender isn’t the kind of movie to make you cheer or jump or scream. It works beneath the surface. It’s more creepy than scary, and it unsettles in a much more understated way. If you come to this looking for atmosphere and some sincere gravitas, you’ll be quite pleased. Now, there are a few shocking moments, so don’t think it’s all just mood and lighting, but mostly it’s a pretty quiet film. Also, the writing is superb, with characters that are interesting and compelling, even the side ones. They don’t make horror movies much like this anymore, so we should treasure the few that we already have.