As The Sender begins, a young man wakes up in the woods, walks to a crowded nearby lake, fills his pockets with rocks, and tries to drown himself. In this tense scene, the camera faces him as he walks in, and just as his head goes under, we finally hear the scream of a witness who identifies the act as a suicide attempt. He is transferred to the state mental hospital where he rejects his psychiatrist’s initial attempts to help, even claiming to have amnesia. However, when he goes to sleep that night, he projects his consciousness into the doctor’s home, making her think at first that he has escaped and broken into her house.
But no, our John Doe #83 has never left the hospital. He is the sender to whom the title refers. He is able to manifest his fears by making other people hallucinate. Of course, at first his doctor is the only person who believes this, and John won’t admit it. The head doctor, evil old Belloq from Raiders, wants to give John shock treatment, but as soon as the juice comes on, he messes up everyone in the treatment room. Then his mother shows up at the hospital, and things really get weird. Eventually, large numbers of people, patients and employees alike, experience the hallucinations, with one standout scene for me being a section involving a TV that won’t turn off even after it is destroyed. This is literally the stuff of my nightmares.
Most of The Sender is a nearly perfect film. The opening scene where John almost completes suicide is echoed several times for suspense. At several points, especially in the sections of the film involving his mother, and the parts where the doctor was home alone, I was almost afraid to keep watching. This is a nuanced film: subtle and disturbing, but with a few great shocking scares, and even a bit of humor involving John putting the whammy on another patient; the only trouble is that the ending is slightly unsatisfying in that it raises three big questions, one being whether this is merely one of those “gotcha” endings that horror filmmakers seem unable to resist. I also think more could have been done with a certain religious angle to the film (Luke 1:31), but maybe the lack of a resolution to that was intentionally mysterious as well.
With the exteriors filmed here in the great state of Georgia, but the hospital scenes done in a studio in England, there is a natural surrealism added by the feelings of displacement which accidentally result from the inability to make the film seem as American as the director perhaps would have liked. The hospital does not feel as horrible as a public American hospital for the indigent would feel, I suppose, but then that’s partly me being 100% jealous of the rest of the civilized world’s national health care.
The film raises larger questions as well, such as your opinion of such sticky subjects as the treatment of the mentally ill, surely a hot topic in 1982 America when the mental hospitals had been so recently emptied out. I also think that perhaps it touches on the question of a person’s right to die. How many times should you stop a person from killing himself, especially if you are living in a horror movie in which you know larger forces are at work?
I would put The Sender down as an essential, but it’s a bit challenging for that distinction. Some people will no doubt be bothered by the fact that we never get a complete explanation for What’s All This Then, and that the ending is either left for your interpretation or perhaps is poorly written (it’s hard to tell with surreal horror, as you know). You will just have to watch it and decide whether you think it belongs on the must-see list. I know it is one of my all-time favorites, and I think it deserves a look from the die-hard psychological horror fans.