Survivor, The (1981)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-04-20 07:44

Written by: David Ambrose (screenplay), James Herbert (novel)
Directed by: David Hemmings
Starring: Robert Powell, Jenny Agutter and Joseph Cotten

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

Pilot error...or supernatural terror?

If thereís a plane crash in a horror movie, thereís a good chance at least one person is going to survive it, have a little bout with survivorís guilt, then start to get a little spooked about it when weird things start happening. Final Destination crystallized this formula, and many were quick to point out that it was a riff on Sole Survivor, but David Hemmings (better known for his acting turns in stuff like Deep Red, and for good reason) directed The Survivor a couple of years before that film. An adaptation of James Herbertís novel of the same name, it doesnít exactly follow the same pattern as those later films, but the skeletal plot is a little bit similar.

When a 747 mysteriously crashes, it kills everyone on board, save for the pilot, Keller (Robert Powell). Somehow, he emerges from the wreckage without so much as a scratch, which everyone finds a little weird. An investigation is launched, and Keller broods as a bunch of people sift through rubble and charred bodies. Soap-operatic affairs and bad police procedural beats are hit. A local woman (Jenny Agutter) is hanging around, seemingly acting like she knows more than sheís letting on. Eventually, the requisite weird shit kicks in with the appearance of some creepy kids and the mysterious deaths of people that are kind-of-sort-of connected with the crash.

The worst part of The Survivor is that you donít know what type of movie it really is. Hemmings doesnít just craft an intentionally obtuse tale--thereís obviously a mystery at the center--but he also never clues audiences in on any sort of modality. Is it a creepy kid flick? Is it a tale of supernatural revenge from beyond the grave? Or is it just one big old conspiracy plot that needs to be unraveled by Keller and company? We eventually discover that the accident was no accident at all, so a complicated web is woven in the most languid, sluggish way imaginable. And Iím usually not one to really question why Jenny Agutter is just sort of wandering around in a movie (just look at her!), butÖreally, just what in the hell is she doing in this movie?

You donít find out until about an hour in, but this is after she comes this close to discussing things with Keller about fifteen minutes earlier. Of course, heís too busy brooding and feeling bad, so sheís rebuffed, thus tediously drawing out her purpose. Iíd like to say it all makes sense, but itís all quite garbled and dumb. Somehow, the film does manage to prefigure not one, but two M. Night Shyamalan movies--which is to say, yes, thereís a twist! You could probably have more fun trying to figure out which flicks Iím talking about than you will with The Survivorís own mystery (the good news is that it will remind you of two good of the good Shayamalan movies). Frankly, Iím still not quite sure I even get the motivations of at least one character, and the contrived nature of the final twist is ludicrous.

And Hemmings of course doesnít know that itís ludicrous, so The Survivor is mostly grim and boring. While the opening plane crash is rather spectacular and believable, the film slows to a crawl and never really comes to life until the handful of murder and death sequences. Some instances of creepy imagery, such as the roasted corpses, are unsettling, and the lily white-clad children economically convey a spectral eeriness. That something very strange is afoot is never really in question--youíre just kind of left wishing The Survivor would find its groove, and it never does. Instead, you have decently acted and well-shot film with no real pulse. The cast is quite impressive; despite being an Australian production, Powell, Agutter, and Joseph Cotton, who shows up as a priest in a glorified cameo role, are all imported in. Though hailed as an ďOzploitationĒ film, it perhaps feels a little too sleek to earn that title, as DP John Seale (who would go on to have an impressive career) captures some crisp images that are in stark contrast to the more rugged Australian films of the era.

Having not read the original novel, I canít say if something got lost in translation from page to screen, but it sure feels that way. The Survivor unfolds listlessly and episodically, not unlike some novels, and Hemmings never quite gets a grip on the center of the tale. An interesting concept thatís poorly told, this formula would be refined by later passes with somewhat similar angles. Scorpion Releasing has thrived on this kind of mid-range, nondescript stuff lately, but, as always, their presentation is great. Their anamorphic transfer isnít without the slightest hint of acceptable print damage, and their mono track is a little muffled but adequate. An audio commentary with producer Tony Ginnae join the filmís trailer and the Katarinaís Nightmare Theater format as special features. Their packaging also amusingly refers to James Herbert as the writer of The Fog, but not that movie; instead, he wrote a novel with the same title, which Iím guessing would be a more interesting read than The Survivor if this film is any indication. Rent it!

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