Netflix in the UK is currently showing an obscure little horror film from 1982 called The Sender. Directed by Roger Christian, the film tells the story of a young man taken to a mental hospital after trying to drown himself. Whilst there, the doctors attempt to find out who the man is, why he tried to commit suicide and what role his strange mother has to play in his story. Unlike many horror films from the period, this avoids the stalk and slash formula, opting for a mystery/thriller approach instead, but wrapped up in a packaging that is unmistakably horror. The script is intelligent, the direction solid but unflashy, and the acting above-average for a horror film of the period.
These issues alone, along with its obscurity, would make the film worth seeking out while you can. However, there is more of interest here to the horror fan than just a decent movie. Indeed, it seems clear that this is a predecessor and inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street. The horror element of the film is tied up in the fact that the young man at the centre of the narrative can “send” his thoughts and dreams to others around him, making them think and feel what he is thinking and feeling. It’s telepathy, but almost in reverse. It’s also Freddy Kreuger, but in reverse: rather than entering other people’s dreams, he can make people enter his. The whole feel of the film is very similar to Elm Street, from the invasion of dreams scenario to the eerie musical soundtrack which clearly bears similarities to the later film. The “if I die before I wake” prayer even plays a prominent part here, too. The connections are too many to be coincidental – and that’s before you take into account the even greater similarities between this film and the third in the Elm Street franchise.
Also of interest is that I have written a few times about the negative ways in which those with mental health conditions are portrayed in horror films. Here, though, the portayals of patients are generally inoffensive – that’s not to say they are ideal, but for a film made thirty years ago, The Sender was clearly somewhat ahead of its time in this regard. The young man at the centre of the story, for example, might unintentionally injure others thanks to his “sending” capabilities, and yet he is presented to us in a sympathetic way – he is shown to be a victim, not mass murderer who goes on the rampage.
All in all, this is a film that deserves to be better known, and quite why it isn’t is something of a mystery. Even Quentin Tarantino is quoted as saying it was one of his favourite horror films of the early 1980s. Its great to see Netflix presenting it over here in the UK (there has never been a UK DVD release), in HD no less. These films are not often permanent fixtures, and so grab it while you can.