The Survivor (1981) U.S. Blu-ray

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I usually don’t put spoiler warnings on movies this old but this one is set-up like a mystery, and I imagine there’s probably someone out there who hasn’t ever seen it.

My main desire for wanting to review this movie is because I have a faint memory of having seen it during the early days of cable, and the only scene I can recall to this day was of someone in a darkroom being attacked by supernatural forces, the scene then cuts to show blood leaking from under the door. That scene unsettled me, which is probably why it stayed with me all these decades.

For a long while I wasn’t sure if I had even  seen it all the way through, but after last night I can say without a doubt I had, and I now also remember not caring too much for it because I never knew what the hell was going on. The Survivor is an incredibly disjointed movie, part Sixth Sense, part Final Destination, one-percent slasher and in the final moments a murder mystery too.

New English Library; 2nd Ed edition (1977)

New English Library; 2nd Ed edition (1977)

It’s an example of “abstract horror art.” I’m not an art lover by any means, especially when it comes to abstract art, but I have run into a piece or two throughout life where the colors, schemes and how they’re “put together” did resonate with me on some subconscious level. The Survivor is kind of like that. It’s based on a novel by the late British horror author James Herbert and it seems to me the filmmakers just pulled all the “weird scenes” from the book, filmed them and edited them together. How we get to Point A and B and so forth is left to our imaginations, but there’s an underlying strangeness that resonated with me despite never knowing why all the events in the film happened.

Pilot David Keller (Robert Powell) ends up being the sole survivor of a plane crash where 300 other passengers were killed. Not out right, though I suspect some may have been, but after the plane crashed there were survivors, then a couple minutes later the wreckage explodes killing everyone but David, who miraculously wanders out and is taken to a hospital.

Jenny Agutter plays Hobbs (her character is a man in the book), a psychic, as far as I can figure. In the extras she says her character restored old buildings. You’d never know that from the limited information given about her in the movie. For all intents and purposes she comes off as a psychic. Her role is small and she spends most of it wandering around either looking puzzled or reacting to the “ethereal screams” of the restless dead from the crash. Occasionally she’ll encounter Keller and provide him (and we the viewer) with cryptic explanations to what’s happening.

There’s an odd “timeslip” that occurs that’s never explained. In the opening Agutter is seen in a public park watching kids play, a plane flies over, and she glances at it. This is the same location where the airliner crashes. David cannot remember anything about the crash, so he decides to take a small plane up and fly over the crash site hoping it’ll jog his memory. What he sees when he looks down are kids playing and Hobbs looking up at him. Its’ that scene from the beginning but shown from his point of view. When he meets Hobbs later he only tells her something strange happened when he flew over the wreckage. That’s it. Nothing more is mentioned about that “incident.”

Apparently the people who died in the crash are restless, I mean homicidal restless, and they’re involved in three deaths early one, all done in Final Destination fashion, making me wonder if the screenplay writers of that film were inspired by this flick. The supernatural attacks are marked by “ethereal screams,” as I refer to them, and poltergeist activity. The targets of the dead is a photographer and his girlfriend who profit off photos taken of the dead at accidents and a man who wandered the wreckage stealing anything he could find from their belongings. Two of the deaths are creepy: the thief is pulled under water by something unseen and drowned when he’s fishing the next day, and the photographer’s girlfriend, who was that person who died in the dark room I mentioned earlier. Though, in keeping with the “abstractness” of the horror, I’m not quite sure how she was killed. While developing the pictures (apparently she either isn’t aware her boyfriend was killed earlier by a train or doesn’t care) the room is attacked by the restless dead. Her fingers are sliced off by a paper cutter as she accidentally puts them in slicing range as she’s frightened out of her mind by the poltergeist activity, but when the scene cuts to the blood running under the door, we hear slashing sounds. Did the “ghosts” pull off the slicer and hack her death? They must have.

By the way the movie isn’t all that gory. Mild gore is what I would call it. There’s a slashing death in the final act that is edited with quick cuts (pun intended) with a dude covered in blood, before he collapses, which I think was more effective than if they had gone full gore, but that’s just me.

That guy who died in the end was Tewson (Peter Sumner), a friend of David Keller, and he wasn’t killed by the ghosts. He was killed by an actual live person, which when I saw this as a kid had me confused. So were ghosts killing people, or was it a person? Both actually. Once Keller finally remembers what happened during the flight we see the plane was taken down by a bomb in a suitcase. Who planted it? Slater did. No, not the kid from Saved By The Bell. Slater is a plane crash investigator and he also killed Tewson, because Tewson was getting too close to the truth. The final confrontation between Slater (Ralph Cotterill) and Keller results in a lot of unanswered questions conveyed through cryptic statements by Slater. Something about the dead haunting him and waiting for Keller to arrive. So, why the hell did Slater blow up that plane? No idea. He never really states why he did it. One thing is clear he wants Keller dead, and shoots him with a double barrel shotgun. This all happens in the warehouse where they the wreckage is being kept and then all of it suddenly explodes engulfing Slater.

Hobbs watches in horror from the car outside. That’s Agutter’s final scene in the movie. I forgot to mention Joseph Cotton is in this for about five minutes playing a priest.

The final twist happens the next day as workmen are near the cockpit outside. Peering in a man hollers there’s something in the pilot’s seat. Going inside to investigate they find Keller’s burned body, who’s been dead for days! Similar to The Sixth Sense (1999), but not quite since everyone saw Keller walking around, talking, breathing and so forth. Was he ghost? I don’t know. If he was, what was his purpose? To find the bomber? To avenge the dead? All of the above? I don’t know, but it’s made me curious now about the exact plot of Herbert’s novel.

Scorpion Releasing had this in out on DVD back in 2012 for a little while before it went out-of-print. Severin Films has acquired it now and released it on DVD and on Blu-ray for the first time.


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Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 2.35:1 high definition widescreen—2.0 English LPCM Mono—English subs only

Picture quality is quite good and it’s nice seeing it in it’s 2.35.1 aspect ratio for the first time!

Extras included . . .

  • Extended Scenes (3;34)
  • Not Quite Hollywood: Extended Interviews with Producer Antony I. Ginnane and Cinematographer John Seale (22:12)
  • The Legacy of James Herbert (9:19)
  • Robert Powell on James Herbert (3:24)
  • Archive TV Special On Location—Featuring Interviews with Stars Joseph Cotten, Peter Sumner, Ralph Cotterill, Angela Punch-McGregor & Jenny Agutter  (29:59)
  • Archive TV Interview with David Hemmings (15:43)
  • Archive TV Interview with David Hemmings and Robert Powell (Missing Extra) 
  • Antony I. Ginnane Trailer Reel (32:03)
  • TV Spot

There’s a number of informative extras on this disc with the three best are Not Quite Hollywood, the Archive TV Special On Location and the The Legacy of James Herbert. An interview with Producer Antony I. Ginnane in the first extra pretty much validates the movie’s shortcomings I mentioned. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was confused by the high degree of ambiguity, most movie-goers were. He also states it was a mistake to pull back on the gore, which as I understand now was plentiful in Herbert’s novel. I loved watching all the period interviews with the actors in the Archive TV Special, but the one thing I learned was when the woman doing all the interviews casually mentioned Herbert’s The Fog was being made into a movie. Well, that was news to me, even all these years later. I read that novel and would’ve loved to seen it adapted, but then she mentions Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother Janet Leigh are going to be in it. Was John Carpenter’s movie supposed to have been an adaptation, or did she think because it was called The Fog it must be connected to Herbert’s book?

The commentary Scorpion had on their DVD was not ported over, but you can find a commentary (not sure if it’s the same one) on Glass Doll Films upcoming Australian blu-ray along with a few other extras exclusive to that release.


NOTE: That Archive TV Interview I marked (Missing Extra) . . . if you click on it you’ll end up watching a repeat of the 15-minute extra with Hemmings I have listed right above it.


 

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About Shawn Francis

Movie collector and horror writer.
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