Color, 1981, 98m.
Directed by David Hemmings
Starring Robert Powell, Jenny Agutter, Joseph Cotten, Adrian Wright, Lorna Lesley, Peter Sumner
Scorpion (US R0 NTSC), Umbrella (Australia R0 PAL), BritFilms (UK R PAL, Mad (France R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Prism (UK R2 PAL), Platinum, Elite (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1)
Color, 1981, 98m.
When an airliner goes down in flames at night, everyone on board dies except the pilot, David Keller (Powell), who walks away unscathed. It turns out the crash was deliberately caused by an explosive on board, and while he and the police try to figure out what's going on, a psychic named Hobbs (Agutter) with her own connection to the crash starts to dig around on her own. Soon people in the area start dying mysteriously, and the nasty secret behind the disaster soon brings everyone together for a supernatural revelation.
Based on a novel by English horror writer James Herbert (who hasn't been adapted very much, though Deadly Eyes is pretty entertaining), The Survivor is one of the classier efforts from the golden age of Aussie exploitation. That also means it's pretty low on gore and sleaze, which will either be a plus or a minus depending on your expectations. The premise might sound like another trip into Carnival of Souls / Jacob's Ladder territory, but it actually has a few other tricks up its sleeve. An intense actor also known to horror fans for Asylum and The Asphyx, Robert Powell doesn't have the most demanding role in the world here as he's mainly required to look confused and vaguely terrorized. However, the always lovely Agutter gets a bit more material as she's tormented by the ghosts of crash victims and has to put up with more than her share of supernatural mayhem. Also noteworthy is the atmospheric score by Brian May, who seemed to work on pretty much every other horror and action film in Australia in the '80s. Less significant is the presence of obligatory American Joseph Cotten, whose appearance here as a priest might be even more negligible than his role in A Whisper in the Dark.
The Survivor was also part of a pair of projects directed by actor David Hemmings (Deep Red) in 1981 along with the more family-friendly Race for the Yankee Zephyr. A talented leading man, he also spent his time there appearing in front of the camera in such films as Dark Forces, Thirst, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. While the narrative tends to swerve around a bit (a flaw inherent in the source novel only partially remedied here, albeit with an even muddier conclusion), Hemmings shows a great deal of visual flair and handles the scope frame exceptionally well. The film is loaded with striking, atmospheric shots, such as a daytime stalking sequence through a graveyard and the unusual finale, which makes expert use of stylized lighting effects and production design. Though it'll never be regarded as a minor classic, it's a pretty spooky, nostalgic little spooker to pass a lazy weekend afternoon.
Though it's mostly unknown in America, The Survivor has enjoyed a whopping three DVD releases there -- though only one is really satisfactory. (You can read a little more about it in the Aussie Exploitation Sick Picks special from a few years ago.) The first version from budget label Platinum features a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer and the theatrical trailer; it was decent enough considering it cost less than $10 but nothing terribly special. The exact same master was recycled by Elite Entertainment for its second Aussie Horror Collection set, which only remained in circulation for a very short period of time. Meanwhile two UK versions came out, first from Prism (a worthless disc with an incredibly tacky cover) and a remastered anamorphic reissue, along with French and Australian DVDs reflecting the shorter general release cut (initially 87 minutes, running between 81 and 82 in PAL with different opening logos), and the French one adding the longer cut as well. The Scorpion release in 2012 is easily the best of the bunch, as it's much more vivid and properly framed than any of its predecessors. There's some dirt and debris scattered over the white credit slates and some deliberate softness in several shots, but it's such a substantial upgrade regardless of which version you might have seen before. On top of including the usual trailer from past versions, this one's presented as part of the label's genre-specializing Katarina's Nightmare Theatre with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters rattling off a cheerful roster of facts about the film and its cast in optional wraparounds. She also appears on the audio commentary with producer Anthony I. Ginnane, a familiar name from a slew of Australian horror and action films, who covers everything from the logistics of the spectacular and very difficult opening crash sequence to the demands of the characters' wardrobes, working with Brian May, and comparing Hemmings' abilities as a director and actor. The disc fills out with additional trailers for other horror/sci-fi titles like Death Ship, Mortuary, The Devil Within Her, The Return, Final Exam, Satan's Slave, and Terror, and should also get bonus points for utilizing the original surreal poster art on the cover instead of the strange cut-and-paste jobs it's been stuck with in the past.
Reviewed on May 22, 2012.