Roger Christian has had few directorial successes, but his first was arguably one of his best films. 1982’s The Sender is relatively obscure, and one would probably not label it a critical hit; but this film about a telepath unable to control the power of sending his increasingly violent dreams to others is a taut psychological thriller, one that utilizes the eerie qualities of mental hospitals and the dangers of claustrophobic familial relationships. Christian, working with Thomas Baum’s screenplay, manages to glean quite a bit from the simplicity of the plot.
Zeljko Ivanek stars as the Sender, also known as John Doe 83, in an early role for the actor, and he brings a haunting performance to the character. Ivanek’s sunken, tired eyes stand out here, especially when Christian explores the Sender’s turbulent home life; the nuanced portrayal is effective, and Ivanek is able to carry the weight of the character without even having to be on-screen very often.
That’s because much of The Sender is about the presence of John Doe, not necessarily his appearance. The idea that his ability allows him to alter reality for hospital psychiatrist Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) affords Christian the option to mess with the viewer’s head as well as his characters, and the film often takes that chance. As Gail becomes more entranced with John Doe’s story, her perception of reality and visions shared with John Doe become distorted to the point where nearly anything can happen. One scene in particular, when John Doe breaks into her home to steal a piece of jewelry only to disappear into thin air, is creepy because the telepathy aspect hasn’t been fully revealed.
Christian infuses The Sender with suspense, and as the movie shifts to include the entire mental hospital in the empathic emotions of John Doe, what’s real and what’s imagined becomes even fuzzier. The film includes appearances from John Doe’s mother Jerolyn (Shirley Knight), always mysteriously popping up in Gail’s room while she’s out. The Sender refrains from exposing John Doe’s backstory all at once, and instead allows Gail and the viewer to piece the puzzle together from Biblical references and the information Jerolyn delivers.
What it amounts to, though, is a story about a mother unwilling to let her son go, especially because she believes him to be the next Christ. The Sender never explains Jerolyn’s presence despite noting that she died before Gail even meets her in the film; it’s unclear, purposely, whether Jerolyn is truly a ghost or just another part of John Doe’s mind. It’s best left this way, though the film telegraphs Jerolyn’s death a bit too early – it’s easy to foresee that she’s not really alive because of how the film treats her character.
The Sender is a fairly strong film with a number of effectively chilling scenes, and its religious overtones and Freudian oedipal complex keep it entertaining throughout. Both Ivanek and Harrold put in good performances, and The Sender remarks somewhat scathingly on the use of electroshock therapy in mentally ill patients. And the film, despite its initial treatment of John Doe, has an empathy for its telepathic character that other films with similar themes lack. It all amounts to a dark and impacting study of telepathy and religion that manages to worm its way into the viewer’s head.
Olive Films presents The Sender on Blu-Ray for the first time with no special features. It is a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with a good transfer. It doesn’t look like there has been much change to the original lighting or coloring of the film; no crushed blacks, but night scenes do result in some noticeable grain. The audio is also very good, but unfortunately there are no English subtitles.