The Sender wants you to believe select individuals can drag regular people into their dreams. That they can share vivid nightmares with the unsuspecting. This mental power is called telekinesis and has been the crux of a handful of memorable genre flicks from classics like Carrie and David Cronenberg's Scanners, to silliness such as Firestarter and even the lousy seventh Friday the 13th entry. Amongst these efforts, The Sender is pretty obscure but what makes it stand out is the fact Thomas Baum's script tries to make our tortured protagonist sympathetic and there's a good number of striking moments amongst the semi-muddled plotting.
This grabs your attention right away as we see a young man (Zeljko Ivanek) wake up on the side of the road looking confused before he wanders to a nearby beach stuffing loose rocks into his jacket and casually strolling into the lake as part of a suicide attempt. This gets him admitted to a local mental hospital and assigned psychiatrist Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) who has to deal with the fact her new patient has no real memory of who he is or why he's there. She quickly dubs him John Doe #83 and begins to try and probe into his past.
Seeing as how Mr. Doe happens to have telepathic powers, Gail soon starts seeing things such as imagining he's broken into her house one evening, that the medicine fridge is swarming with bugs, and a strange visit from his religious zealot-like mother. All of these things are coming from John's damaged psyche and Gail desperately tries to help her new charge while dealing with an administration that doesn't seem to care as well as multiple dangerous things happening to her co-workers and other patients as a result of John's psychic outbursts. This all leads to a finale where all Hell breaks loose when Gail's bosses, tired of getting no answers, decide to give John a little dose of shock treatment.
Much like the 1978 marionette horror flick Magic, The Sender is a movie I'd repeatedly glance at in the video store during my youth before deciding on something more lurid that usually contained the word "Massacre" in the title. This was probably a good thing because my teenage mind would have found the results incredibly boring. Sure, director Roger Christian (Battlefield Earth) peppers the movie with lots of cool, horrific imagery involving bleeding mirrors and multiple exploding objects but he also gives this a deliberate pace that adds mild elements of mystery to everything and keeps his audience almost as confused as John. When shit goes down, it does go down in a pretty exciting fashion, but you have to be patient in order to get there.
In one of his earliest roles, Slovakian character actor Ivanek gets to spend a lot of the flick brooding and looking confused. This is balanced decently by Harrold's compassionate doctor who spends a lot of her time thinking she might be the crazy one and is almost as befuddled as John (if for different reasons). She's pretty convincing and gets a better chance to show her acting skills than she would in later performances - such as playing Arnold Schwarzenegger's love interest in Raw Deal. Also worth noting is veteran actress Shirley Knight as John's creepy mother and Sean Hewitt as the ranting fellow patient dubbed "The Messiah" who hates John from the get go and pays for it later on.
As a horror flick The Sender works sporadically. Its slow burn of a build up might put off a lot of viewers, as might all the confused logic within that hinders Baum's script, but when things start happening in the final third there's a lot here to like. It's a steadily made time and is worth giving a look simply because of its off-kilter delivery but it also frustrated me at times making it something I can't see myself revisiting in the future. (Chris Hartley, 7/23/13)
Directed By: Roger Christian.
Written By: Thomas Baum.
Starring: Kathryn Harrold, Shirley Knight, Paul Freeman, Zeljko Ivanek.