It's the standard argument amongst horror aficionados - what's more effective, suspense or sluice? Do you like your fear factors blood-free, or as gruesome and gory as possible? In the post-millennial age, tainted (as some would argue) by the splatter senselessness of 'torture porn', the answer seems obvious. After all, the subtleness of Asian terror (and its eventual fad rejection) brought about this newfound fondness for vivisection and bodily fluids. But there is something to be said for a calm considered creep-out, the kind of movie that gets under your skin without subsequently ripping it from your bones. It is within this dynamic that Thom Eberhardt's Sole Survivor strives to exist. Hoping to avoid the Friday the 13th approach to dread that defined the '80s, this eerie little effort hopes to transcend the times to deliver something different. Instead, it comes across as deadly...deadly DULL, that is.
Karla Davis is a washed up actress trying for a comeback. Denise "Dee Dee" Watson is an ad executive looking for a familiar face for a coffee campaign. A noted psychic (and obvious alcoholic), the former star senses that her potential employer is in danger. She predicts - rightly so - that she will survive a horrific plane crash, the only one on board who walks away alive. Sure enough, Dee Dee finds herself in the hospital, under the care of considerate (and quite single) Dr. Brian Richardson. Hoping for a hook-up, our marketing maven makes a play for the physician. While he's initially resistant, they soon become a couple. Still, Dee Dee is haunted by a feeling that things aren't settled. Soon, she is being attacked by random strangers who want to do her harm. Karla seems to think it has something to do with "death", and how Dee Dee cheated the Grim Reaper by not dying. Indeed, from all accounts, corpses are coming back from the dead and targeting this Sole Survivor of the crash, hoping to count her among their number.
Sole Survivor should be re-titled Slow Survivor. This so-called horror movie meanders along at such a sluggish snail's pace that the elderly laugh at its laborious tempo as they lap it. While there is something to be said about old school scares that eschew gore and gratuity, writer/director Thom Eberhardt (responsible for the far superior Night of the Comet) appears to be auto piloting a gradually sinking ship. Between the dull psychic subplot and the uninvolving main narrative thread, there is nothing to save us. By the time he gets to a decent denouement, a moment when all the hints and clues come together, the audience is comatose. Thanks to a combination of factors - weak casting, lame acting, a lack of supernatural specialness - what could have been a workmanlike thriller comes across as a bad B-movie, or worse, a made-for-TV time waster. Granted, one has to give the movie some credit. Shot on a limited budget ($350K) and helmed by a man more accustomed to making documentaries than full blown movie macabre, the film avoids many of the era's single-minded slice and dice ideals. Still, when all is said and done, being different doesn't necessarily mean being better.
Part of the problem lies in the premise. Thanks to the Final Destination films - which more or less rip off Survivor's storyline - the notion of 'death' setting things right post-catastrophe is far too familiar to be effective. Unless Eberhardt brings something new to the mix (and he doesn't), we can't shake the bountiful blood and guts provided by those recent Rube Goldberg gross-outs. Even worse, there is far too much subtext muddying things up. Just when Dee Dee is in for another visit from her underworld assassins, we get circumvented by the doctor/patient romance, the slutty teen from across the street, and endless scenes of a tired old actress messing up a commercial shoot. Are you shivering yet? Sure, once we get beyond all the ancillary narrative, there are some sequences that try to deliver the dread. But one of Sole Survivor's biggest problems is its inability to keep us engaged. Since we really don't connect with anyone onscreen, their potential death fails to resonate. And without any significant chemistry between the characters, or reason for us to root for their salvation, we are left on the outside looking in. And just like any sloppy spectator sport, a lack of invested interest leads to monotony.
And it's not like the movie lacks potential shivers. The site of undead assassins, their pale corpse façades lumbering toward an individual's horrific fate, recalls the best of basic zombie lore. The plane crash opening, with its dead bodies and random bloodshed, has a nice eerie quality. Even better, the movie doesn't cop out by trying to deliver a happy ending. When we do get to the finale, there is a sense of closure that completes most of the open ended elements that subvert the rest of the film, and one does recognize the time and talent put in by those behind the camera. This movie doesn't look like it cost less than half a million dollars to make, the cinematography and visual approach attempting to create as much mood and atmosphere as possible. But with a hole in the center of the story that's almost impossible to overcome, and a dated quality that reminds us of better examples within the genre, Sole Survivor just can't compete. And what's most frustrating about this film is our desire to have it work. We can see what Eberhardt and the gang are going for. That they fail to achieve it becomes the film's most aggravating aspect. It is also its eventual undoing.
Considering its age, cost, and relative rarity, Sole Survivor looks very good on DVD. Sure, the image is grainy during the night scenes, and there is a lack of real clarity when it comes to contrasts and details. But the colors are bright, and the lighting is professional and perfect for each sequence. Overall, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is above average and quite accomplished.
Tinny and rather limited in ambience, the basic Dolby Digital Stereo mix is of minor concern. The lack of anything remotely resembling immersion is understandable, due to the film's technological and budgetary limits, and Eberhardt does try to liven things up with an 'electronic pulse' that appears anytime something sinister is on the horizon. But in general, the dialogue is discernible and the minimal score solid.
While the director is absent from the added content, star Caren Larkey (drunken ex-star psychic Karla Davis) and producer Sal Romeo are on hand for both a sit down Q&A and a full length audio commentary. They have fond memories of this movie, and provide a little backstage dirt dishing in the process. For the most part, however, this is a typical 'return to fortunes' discussion, the genial participants (with help from moderators Jeff McKay and Jeff Burr) using the opportunity to get reacquainted with forgotten friends and to share personal memories. If you're interested in actual production dynamics, this is not the conversation for you. Otherwise, both bonuses are a nice walk down memory lane. Aside from a series of trailers, and some linear notes by Stephen Thrower, that's all the additional material there is. While the DVD could be more fleshed out, supplement wise, this is a generally decent presentation.
As someone who supports all manner of horror - the gory and the gratuitous, the purely suspenseful and the splendidly splattery - this critic really wanted to like Sole Survivor. In his mind, there is nothing more satisfying than a good old fashioned creep-out, and with Night of the Comet, Thom Eberhardt accomplished that rare '80s epiphany - he managed a wonderfully weird and completely cult take on the post-apocalyptic social meltdown. Sadly, this slow-poked picture was just too protracted to keep yours truly engaged. However, it doesn't deserve an outright dismissal either. Perhaps the best bet would be to grant it a Rent It and let fans of fright decide for themselves. While his career has been rather hit or miss since the Reagan era, it is clear that Eberhardt was one of the unsung heroes of Greed decade dread. It's just too bad he didn't have more opportunities to shine. Sole Survivor doesn't tarnish his intriguing image. It doesn't help it, either.
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