Wednesday, March 24, 2010

REVIEW: Sole Survivor

Sole Survivor
Director: Thom Eberhardt
Year 1983

I heard a lot of good things about Sole Survivor prior to actually obtaining the Code Red dvd that came out in 2009, and I wasn't disappointed when I popped this baby into the old dvd player. This film in many respects is where the concept of the Final Destination franchise originated from because much like those movies, it follows a very similar outline of a single survivor of a devastating accident being hunted down by death. Sole Survivor is actually a remake of a 1981 Australian movie entitled The Survivor, but I think that film was kind of vague on the idea that death was reclaiming its lost victim, or at least the director of that film approached the material with an abstract plot in mind. Either way, the original Australian movie is interesting in its own right and I'd recommend checking it out as a comparison on how one simple plot can be produced with two entirely different outcomes, but back to Sole Survivor.

There is a distinct difference between the plot in Sole Survivor and the plot in the Final Destination series. In the Final Destination films, it is actually death stalking the victims, but in Sole Survivor we have various recently dead people showing up and attempting to take our main character's life. I like this idea the best because it leans more towards a zombie like premise, but without the flesh eating and actual walking corpses. These dead are more physical ghost-like beings that come and go at whim and to me that gives off a creepier vibe and gives the impression that once we are dead, we are basically puppets for death to control.

The film opens up with what is first presented as a dream or nightmare. We are given an overhead view of a field with corpses and debris scattered everywhere. The camera continues along in an almost graceful fashion and then we have a shot of our main character Denise played by a virtually unknown actress (by this reviewer anyway) Anita Skinner. She is sitting in an airplane seat in the middle of the carnage and is in complete shock. We are then violently pulled from this haunting vision and then realize that this was all in the head of a psychic woman named Karla Davis played by Caren Larkey. In actuality, this horrible plan crash has indeed happened and our main character Denise, ends up being the only survivor of the gruesome event.

This sucks. Now she's got to deal with polar bears and a mysterious island.

As she leaves the hospital after the doctors make sure she is fine, she begins having a hard time readjusting back into her former life. She has this horrible feeling that she wasn't supposed to have survived the crash and that her luck will soon catch up with her in a matter of days. The doctors, including her physician Dr. Brian Richardson played by Kurt Johnson, believe that she is only feeling that way because of the horrible trauma that she has endured. This is actually a significant play on an actual psychological condition known as Survivor's Syndrome in which the sole survivor of a terrible death defying event dies within the year of the initial traumatic event. The director handles this concept beautifully and applies it to a horror setting so seamlessly, that you can't help but to applaud his efforts.

Sometimes I feel like, somebody's watching me.

Unfortunately for Denise, it's not all in her head. Everywhere she goes she sees strange people standing and starring at her from a distance. First it's the creepy soaking wet little girl outside the hospital, then it's a lonely hitch hiker watching her as she drives by, and then there's a weirdo stalking her in an underground parking garage. She can't even get any privacy when she makes out with her new physician boyfriend Brian in the park. 

Love is in the air... But who is watching?

The times when the dead zombie-like people show up are great. Each actor that portrays the creepy ghouls, do an excellent job of sending a chill up your spin, giving off the disturbing vibes that are much needed in a film like this. The tone throughout the film is also top notch. You always have this strange feeling that there is someone around the next corner or a figure lurking outside the window, watching and waiting.

Who forgot grandpa at the park again?

As the dead begin to show up more frequently, they adapt their technique from just standing and starring, to flat out attacks. These attacks are not just limited to Denise, but anyone that she comes into contact with. It's almost like she is a plague or a kind of virus, because they only seem to attack people she knows and have interacted with. For instance, her one neighbor gets it when she arrives at Denise's house looking for her. There is really no reason to kill this neighbor because she had nothing to do with the plan crash, but death takes her out all the same by drowning her in the pool. Same goes for the taxi driver that previously had given Denise a ride. 

Don't pick her up! She's definitely not going to pay her fare.

The atmosphere in this movie is another example of how this film excels in bringing on the gloom and doom. The stormy night, the large silent house, and the void of a mass populated cast really blend well to set the tone. This is surprising because the next year the director will make Night of the Comet, an entertaining film about a zombie apocalypse that is very light on the scares and heavy on the fun with an engaging and vibrant cast. The film follows two valley girl sisters as they survive in a world gone mad all while keeping their hair in that 80's style super perm. A gem of a flick, but miles away from the devastatingly depressing story of Sole Survivor.

Ok, now who left grandpa out in the rain? This is getting ridiculous.

The locations should be given a great deal of credit for establishing the foreboding feeling that generates as the story builds closer to its impending conclusion. Each location looks superb, adding to the creep factor and establishing some dramatic set pieces. One of the most memorable is at Denise's house. The place is made for a "cat and mouse", "home alone and the killer is watching" type set ups. Denise slowly and cautiously walks the halls and up the staircase, searching for someone lurking in the dark corners of her house. The entire scene moves at a snails pace as she examines each room. She finally gets to the last room and the coast is clear. Letting down her guard, she looks out the window into the stormy night sky when suddenly a man collides with the glass, bringing the audience to jump. Like most of the cheap scares you see today with the loud effects to accompany the jarring image of someone popping out of no where, this film doesn't stoop to that trend but relies on genuine story telling and a gentle editing pace to set up the scare. I'll always appreciate the crafted scare over the jump because it's your natural reaction to hearing a super sonic sound, blasting out of nowhere. I mean someone can come up behind me and scream at the top of their lungs, but that doesn't mean that they are a horror genius. It just makes them an asshole that can't keep their mouth shut. Please learn from this hollywood.

Moments before terror strikes.

I also enjoyed the colors throughout this film. Thom Eberhardt really has an eye for using visually striking locations and costumes. The house that they chose for Denise has an immensely expressive color palette, with its crimson walls and carpet that line the living room to the lime green tiles of the kitchen. These elements just thrive on film and highlight that late gaudy 70's style that I really love seeing in these undiscovered gems. I mean who wouldn't want a red caked room with red shag carpet to boot?

Now that's one fancy sweater you got there.

With the costumes, the director also injects his stylistic preferences. I noticed that Denise dresses in the color red a lot throughout the film or at least is surrounded by it in the composition of the frame. For instance her red sweater when she's creeping around the house alone, the red fingernail polish that she has on in the park scene, and in the very first shot that we see her in she is sitting in a red row of airplane seats. I really don't know if there is an underlying meaning for all of this red showing up in the frame, but I do enjoy the contrasting colors and style that it brings to the table.

Red Room... Red Room!

Now I don't want to give to much away on the conclusion of this film, since the plot is a rather simple one and you can probably guess that she either gets away from death or finally meets her doom, but I think it is just something you have to see for yourself. It's great to know that there are still some undiscovered films out there that have this high of a quality and originality in them. I'm not saying this film is completely original being that it is essentially a remake of sorts, but during its time when the big horror boom in cinema was the slasher movie, it's refreshing to see a deviation from the norm that really packs a punch and makes you think.

Is she safe or is she riding to her doom?

Sole Survivor is everything that I hoped it would be. It's an engaging film with enough 70's/80's style horror that you can shake a stick at. The story takes its time to build and each set piece is crafted beautifully. Anita Skinner does such an excellent job as Denise and she really grounds her character in reality even though so many supernatural things are occurring all around her. Her character is so likable and you hope that she can resist her fate as her life spirals out of control.

It's interesting to see the innocence that she portrays being chased relentlessly all for the simple idea of meeting ones true fate. The concept of death is a frightening one because who really knows what's at the end. Whether you have faith or are without, there's always that little doubt in the back of your mind on what really awaits all of us. What lies at the inescapable outcome of a life as it reaches its end. This film brings to mind that very thought. Can we escape death?

Good films simply entertain, but great films bring these ideas to the table and Sole Survivors does that very thing, yet is sly about it. You are never fully smashed over the head with those ideas of fate and destiny, but it's there for the ever observant viewer and is very appreciated by this reviewer. This film is a must see for anyone that loves the original horror films of the 70's and 80's and one that offers a side portion of contemplative cinema. 

4 out of 5 stars          They don't make them like this anymore.

1 comment:

  1. The scene in the beginning that has the skull with the glowing red eyes in the monitor at air traffic control has stuck with me since seeing this. They also use something similar to this for the cool as hell cover. I'm also with you on despising bullshit jump scares in films. Genuine scares are very hard to find but they're definitely the ones I always remember.