An Australian-made film that deviated from the current violent trend of Ozploitation and, instead, headed for a deeper conscience of self and mental scares, that film called The Survivor, directed by British actor David Hemmings. This movie marked his fourth time at the helm of a major film, working with screenwriter David Ambrose’s adaptation of a story by famed horror author James Herbert, who passed in 2013, (whose first novel, The Rats, was also adapted into a movie; 1983’s Deadly Eyes). The Survivor stands, as the first feature to cost more than a million Australian Dollars, and sadly resulted in failure at the box office due to it misjudging the horror market at that time, violence and gore saturated the box office in 1981. However, still a well-made thriller that, 36 years later, Survivor now a sought after cult-classic, now with a Blu-ray release from Severin Films, loaded with 8 special features, worthy addition to both horror and thriller fans alike.
The film starts with a strange and downright creepy opening shot of little girls singing in an eerie tone, to a game as a jet flies over head, with them giving their impressions of the Village of the Damned’s children. As the camera on the plane, bobs and weaves over the passengers, and of course focus on a blonde hair little girl and her dolly, similar to a fate many of the incidental characters in other tragedies, or action films i.e. Die Hard 2. A sudden evil twist of horror, the plane suffers a detrimental explosion and pilots face live altering situations struggle to avoid populated areas, and crash land in a field – explosion wipes out close to 300 passengers including the crew. Although the film cost $1-million, most impressive become the destruction and explosion of scale size plane with elaborate pyrotechnics. In the rubble of burnt bodies, a charred dolly, exits a dazed but rather unharmed pilot of the 747, Captain Keller (Robert Powell), blame and anger swirl around him, and quickly the film attracts itself to a Carnival of Souls (1962). This comes to the surface, as Keller meets clairvoyant Hobbs (Jenny Agutter, best known for her role in An American Werewolf in London (1981)), haunted by victims, and Keller feeling he’s lost his soul. His search plagues him more deeply with each passing day, and returning to the wreckage hanger, talking to investigators and learning of secrets. Hemmings’ film takes on less than horror qualities and leans to psychological thriller, with dark dramatic undertones, and while the cinematography paints a soft sell concept, using shadows and light and stark contrasts, it finds itself confused as the vein of tone and ideally loses some of the audience. Halfway through the film, a series of bizarre situations and accidents begin to befall other individuals, some justified especially when realizing who they are, a string of grisly murders, and then some that just leave a viewer puzzled. The movie also, presents the last screen appearance of Hollywood legend Joseph Cotton, as a priest, in a powerful chilling role.
At times the scripts swiftly goes by unchecked, swerving around plot holes, and switching gears in various degrees of horror and thriller, yet Powell delivers his lines, on point and yet confused, of what’s reality and how he lives. The Survivor’s score supported by composer Brian May (no, not the same person from the rock band Queen), rather distinguished by richness, his work known in the Mad Max (1979) and even Freddy’s Dead (1991), provides the haunting chill reminiscent of The Changeling (1980). Though some argue that the night scene a tad too dark, still the visuals create a moving story, especially coming from cinematographer John Seale, a man’s career earning him 36 awards, including one Oscar for the English Patient (1998), and his skills young here in this picture, but hindsight, the eye for the picture – wonderful.
Many times throughout the film one will recall the numerous references to Carnival of souls, and while this cliché in horror continues to resurface often, one hopes a slightly different design, no one so obvious which telegraphs the illusion very early on in the movie. A few graphic scenes only result in cutaways, and drift further away from the blood and guts craving in the theater market at the time to a more dramatic telling, losing the core of fans. Nevertheless, since then the film garnishes a cult following for the Australian horror market, and yet the film mixes suspense and tensions, not consistently, but something works with those bizarre children, seen not heard.