Lesser sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies featuring twist endings are often described as being "like a protracted episode of The Twilight Zone." In the case of The Survivor (1981), a supernatural thriller made in Australia but directed by and starring Brits, the Twilight Zone comparison really applies. Indeed, what's supposed to be a big twist at the end is so obvious from almost the opening scenes that it would have been surprising had the film ended any other way. It's also slow moving and generally uninvolving, though clearly made by intelligent people aiming high.
Scorpion Releasing's DVD is a good one, featuring a very sharp and clear 16:9 enhanced transfer of this Panavision production, despite a lot of dirt at the head and tail of each reel. Extras include an audio commentary with producer Tony Ginnane.
Also worth noting is that this is the complete, 99-minute version, and not the shorter, 87-minute cut widely available until now.
Amusingly if perplexingly, what Scorpion sent DVD Talk appears to be a used video rental store copy. Among the stickers on the scuffed-up DVD case is one form Hollywood Video, but apparently for a different movie altogether, something called Carousel of Revenge. Further, the DVD itself seems to be a check-disc. Go figure.
The simple if meandering story more or less opens with the truly spectacular, pre-CGI crash of a 747 jumbo jet in the middle of a field on the outskirts of a large city. (It was staged on a vacant lot in Panorama, South Australia.) Most of the 350 passengers and 14 crew appear to survive some kind of mid-flight explosion and the initial crash, but moments after the rough landing (which disintegrates most of the fuselage), spilled fuel triggers a massive fireball and all are burned alive.
However, as rescuers and witnesses rush to the scene, everyone's astonished to see the 747's pilot, Keller (Robert Powell, at this point in his career looking like a young Peter Cushing with curly hair) walk away from the rubble stunned and ashen-faced but without so much as a single scratch. An investigation into the accident is immediately launched while Keller experiences strange visions. For instance, while flying over the crash site in a small plane, all the debris has mysteriously vanished.
Elsewhere, psychic Hobbs (Jenny Agutter) begins receiving strong and disturbing messages from beyond the grave, which to the audience's ears sounds like the wailing of the doomed passengers. She comes to believe they're asking her to find out what happened to them. Desperate for answers she approaches Keller, but he's suffering from retrograde amnesia and doesn't remember anything about the crash.
In other, more conventional scenes that don't really jibe with the tone of the rest of the film, the spirits of the deceased wreak vengeance upon those that would exploit the tragedy. A professional photographer and his wife, for instance, who as luck would have it live next-door to where the jetliner crashes, make a beeline to the site, grimly determined to build a reputation on ghoulish photographs of the charred remains. When, for instance, the wife tries to develop some of these headshots, the victims' eyes appear to open and the wife, mostly offscreen, apparently chops herself up with a paper slicer.
Iconic, handsome '60s leading man David Hemmings, star of Blow-Up and Deep Red, and who made a comeback of sorts in Gladiator (at least 150 pounds heavier and nearly unrecognizable) directed The Survivor. His was an undeniably eclectic career. Not many can claim to have appeared in movies directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, Martin Scorsese, Tony Richardson, and in several episodes of Airwolf. In fact, he directed more episodes of Airwolf than he appeared, along with lots of other American TV shows. He began directing with Running Scared (1972), a British feature that starred Robert Powell. A few years later he directed and co-starred in Just a Gigolo (1978), starring David Bowie and, in her last screen appearance (and first in 17 years), Marlene Dietrich. Shortly before directing The Survivor Hemmings had appeared in several Australian movies, including Thirst (1979) and Harlequin (1980), the latter co-starring Powell. Agutter, for her part, had famously starred in Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, also filmed there.
Though it doesn't really come together, The Survivor shows a lot of imagination and intelligence throughout. The jetliner crash, done entirely full-scale with no miniatures or opticals, is quite spectacular and unnervingly authentic for a modestly produced feature (AUS $1.1 million). There are little touches of verisimilitude throughout suggesting that the filmmakers (or perhaps writer James Herbert, from whose novel this was adapted) did their research.
For instance, there's a cutaway to some nearby trees, choking with articles of clothing obviously blown into the branches from disintegrated luggage compartments. Hemmings seems drawn to effects that can be staged by means of simple lighting and sound effects. When, for example, Keller returns to his burned-out shell of a cockpit, he experiences a flashback of the crash. Hemmings stages this by having the blackened instrument panel gradually light up as it did prior to the crash, its primary colors slowly reflected off Keller's facial features. It's an effective idea.
However, both Keller and Hobbs (Do we ever learn their first names? I don't believe so) are too enigmatic and inexpressive to make a lasting impression, and the supporting characters are all but blanks, including Joseph Cotten, who has two brief scenes as a (again unnamed in the credits) priest.
Video & Audio
The Survivor is a region-free disc featuring an eye-pleasing 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer of this Panavision-Eastman Color production. As stated above there's dirt galore for a second or two at the beginning and end of each reel (along with reel change cues) but I don't object to this at all as it replicates the 35mm viewing experience of yore. The English mono audio (no subtitles) is adequate.
Viewers can experience the film on its own or as part of "Katarina's Nightmare Theater," an inoffensive horror movie show-host affair starring Katarina Leigh Waters, who also moderates the audio commentary track with producer Tony Ginnane. A trailer is included as well.
Unsatisfying but still very interesting, The Survivor was totally unknown to this reviewer until now, and despite its slow pace I'm glad I saw it. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.