Thursday, August 2, 2012

Underrated Horror Gems--"Sole Survivor"


     Since I’m participating in a horror blog hop next week (see previous post for details), it occurred to me that I should add a post on a horror subject, and I’ll try to make this a semi-regular event.  Therefore, today I’ll be discussing what I consider an underrated movie—1983’s Sole Survivor, directed by Thom Eberhardt, and starring Anita Skinner, Kurt Johnson, and Caren Larkey.  It’s about a woman who is the only survivor of a plane crash, who begins to notice that strange, silent people appear to be stalking her.  I’ll talk about it in general at first, and the paragraph which divulges spoilers will be clearly marked at its beginning.
     Sole Survivor was a small budget movie (less than $400,000, which even 30 years ago was still pretty tiny) which did receive a limited theatrical release.  I discovered it by chance in about 1986 or 1987, looking through my local public library’s modest collection of videos.  Obviously, since the title of this post is “Underrated Horror Gems” and not “Older Mediocre Horror Movies,” I was quite impressed with it.  The acting wasn’t Oscar-worthy or anything, but I thought the actors nonetheless did well with the simple demands placed on them.  The production values, similarly, showed the miniscule budget, but since the story was small and contained, I don’t think this hampered the film.  There was little violence and gore, but the few instances of these elements were effective.  Critics of the movie usually complain about its pacing.  I guess this is in the eye of the beholder—one person’s boring, too slow pacing is another person’s deliberate, tension-building pacing.
     I consider myself a total fan of horror movies and books.  I can appreciate the implied, psychological, creepy terrors of novels like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, or movies like The Changeling and Carnival of Souls.  But I also really like some gleefully gratuitously violent and gory horror fare, like splatter punk-type novels and films like Dead-Alive, Hostel, and 1970’s and 80’s Italian zombie movies.  Or books and movies that lie in between.  Sole Survivor is clearly more toward the restrained side of horror.
     (SPOILER ALERT—PLOT POINTS RUINED!!!)  As I mentioned in passing, this movie is about a woman, Denise (Anita Skinner), who after surviving the plane crash, notices people are tracking and trying to kill her.  It’s touch and go for a while—we learn she has prior psychological issues, and she still takes powerful anti-psychotic meds, so the audience is unsure whether these things are actually happening, or are being created (or exaggerated) by her mental state or chemicals.  Also, as her doctor/boyfriend (Kurt Johnson) mentions, she may be suffering from survivor’s guilt.  Eventually, though, we realize she’s not crazy or imagining things, and that death is trying to claim her, using the reanimated corpses of people who died near her.  So, in effect, what we’re dealing with is a new type of zombie—they only attack the heroine, her friends and lover, and anyone else who gets in their way or suspects what’s going on.  Unlike other typical post-George Romero ghouls, they don’t eat the living—they only kill, sometimes using weapons, sometimes their hands.  Also atypical of their usual kind, the dead in this movie hunt at a deliberate pace, only one at a time, and seemingly only in a small defined territory.  I found myself really empathizing with Denise’s plight, as everyone she cares about is slowly slaughtered around her, and everywhere she goes there are more dead people to menace her.  The ending was surprisingly poignant for a low-budget zombie movie—as Denise realizes that she’s about to die, you see surprise, fear, and then briefly, a look of intense relief on her face (I think she even half-smiles).  Her life is over, but so is the awful chase, and the pain that accompanies it.  The DVD edition I bought really played up the (allegedly) suspicious connection to the later Final Destination series, and there are some striking similarities.  However, I rather doubt there’s a conspiracy or a ripoff happening—I suspect it was probably a coincidence.
       (END SPOILERS—SAFE FOR EVERYONE)  The relative no-names associated with Sole Survivor basically returned to obscurity following it.  The main character, Anita Skinner (nominated for an Emmy for the 1978 TV movie “Girlfriends”) was evidently soured by acting and quit, according to Caren Larkey and one of the other producers on their DVD commentary.  The male lead, Kurt Johnson, died soon after, the commentary alluding to possible drug problems.  Most of the other actors never did much of anything else.  One exception was Scream Queen Brinke Stevens, in an early, very small role (fans of hers will be delighted to learn that she has a brief topless scene).  The director, Thom Eberhardt, continued to work fairly steadily, but he never became that big or famous.  He’s probably best known for the 1984 horror cult hit Night of the Comet, and to a lesser extent, the 1992 Kurt Russell vehicle Captain Ron.  His most recent film is 2007’s Naked Fear. 
     To wrap this up, I would recommend that horror fans give this obscurity a viewing.  Especially those with an appreciation for less violent, relatively gore-less, largely psychological terrors.

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