MAHLER’s Robert Powell, the sole survivor of a massive airplane crash, is haunted by the angry dead in THE SURVIVOR, a horror thriller from the glory days of Australian exploitation directed by actor David Hemmings (BLOW-UP).
An airplane suddenly goes down in a small Australian village killing three hundred passengers. The only survivor is pilot David Keller (Powell) who escaped without a scratch but has retrograde amnesia. His co-worker and friend Tewson (Peter Sumner, THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH) promises to bend the rules to keep Keller appraised of all of the developments of the investigation, and supervisor Slater (Ralph Cotterill, THE CHAIN REACTION) is concerned about the publicity that the airline is getting (especially when he discovers that Keller was romantically involved with Beth [Angela Punch-McGregor, THE ISLAND], the wife of the airline’s chairman [Denzil Howson, PHAR LAP] who was also killed aboard the plane). Keller is approached by Hobbs (Jenny Agutter, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) a psychic medium, but he is skeptical about meeting with her. This changes when he takes a flight over the crash scene to jog his memory and cannot see the wreckage from overhead, and Hobbs tells him that the spirits of the dead are using her to get him to find out how they died. Meanwhile, the dead are none-too-happy with various people in the village connected with the crash – including a photographer (Adrian Wright, SKY PIRATES) who wants to make money off of his gruesome crash site photos, his assistant (Lorna Lesley, A TOWN LIKE ALICE), and a none-too-subtle looter (Paul Sonkkila, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY) – who begin to die mysteriously.
Based on a novel by James Herbert (with the British location transplanted to Australia, although producer Ginnane didn’t want it to be specific [hence the mixture of British and Australian accents]) – adapted by David Ambrose (THE FINAL COUNTDOWN) – THE SURVIVOR opens with a thrilling crash scene (an incredibly expensive sequence at the time) and has a reasonably interesting storyline and good production values; however, the middle of the film drags during the supernatural stalking and killing of the villagers (set-pieces that should be the raison d’etre of a horror film). The stalking of the photographer is interesting for taking place in sunny (even gently over-exposed) broad daylight, but the payoff is limp; as are those of the other deaths. The investigation moves at a crawl until Keller and Hobbs finally start working together. Herbert’s novel was effectively creepy, but its big letdown as in not even introducing the person behind the crash until the last chapter. The film’s screenplay gets around this by introducing the character much earlier and changing the character’s role in the plot; however, this character is still required to rattle off a hasty explanation since the script does not bother to even hint at a possible motive for this character to be behind everything. Powell is effectively numb, but Agutter’s performance consists mainly of wide-eyed expressions and her wavering voice. Peter Sumner is better as Keller’s friend and co-worker, and helps move the plot along for the audience (even if he doesn’t get to convey some of the info to Powell’s hero). Cotterill is also good for much of the film as the seemingly objective investigator who may very well be planning to hang the responsibility of the crash on Keller. Joseph Cotten appears as the village priest, but has very little to add to the plot.
Although the name Angela Punch-McGregor might not be too familiar to American viewers, she is a popular actress in Australia film and television and made it to our shores as Michael Caine’s co-star in THE ISLAND (1980). She’s got one dialogue scene here with Powell – she also shows up in the background of the crash site memorial – but, for viewers familiar with her, it would be considered a guest star appearance rather than another supporting actor (her wardrobe provider even gets a credit in the end crawl). Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice (EVITA) makes a brief appearance during the beginning as a reporter at the crash site. The film was an early D.P. credit for John Seale (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) – who had previously worked as a camera operator on Peter Weir’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and THE LAST WAVE, and would go on to photograph DEAD POETS SOCIETY – and his cinematography is probably the best of the Panavision horror films produced by Ginnane during this period. Brian May – the former head of Australia’s ABC Television Orchestra, not the Queen guy – provides his usual big orchestra sound, but it is spiked with whale-song and some subtle unnerving electronics signaling the presence of the supernatural, usually in the form of a little girl passenger (Brigette Webster) and her burned doll. Production designer Bernard Hides built some incredible crashed plane sets (the working cockpit for the flashbacks was a flight simulator), and also designed the Ginnane-produced HARLEQUIN/DARK FORCES (also with Powell and Hemmings) as well as Brian Trenchard-Smith’s ESCAPE 2000. Hides went stateside and worked mainly in television with series like JAG, JERICHO, and the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s THE TOMMYKNOCKERS. Location manager Tim Sanders went on to be a producer with early credits like RAZORBACK and, more recently, the first LORD OF THE RINGS film. Associate producer Jane Scott went on to produce the CROCADILE DUNDEE films as well as the critics’ favorite SHINE.
THE SURVIVOR never had a U.S. theatrical release, and was first released on U.S. DVD by Platinum Disc Corporation, a budget bin company. I have not seen that disc, but the disc in Elite Entertainment’s AUSSIE HORROR COLLECTION 2 is reportedly of similar quality. Whereas the first set had impressed with new 16:9 transfers of THIRST, STRANGE BEHAVIOR, and HARLEQUIN (and a 4:3 letterbox transfer of PATRICK) full of extras, the volume two set – which also featured THE DREAMING, VOYAGE INTO FEAR and SNAPSHOT (also forthcoming on DVD from Scorpion as THE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN) – sourced its titles from older masters (the other three titles were also previously issued by Platinum). THE SURVIVOR was non-anamorphic 2.35:1 with an optional French language track included. Prism released a DVD in the UK in 2003 with a running time of 82 minutes and 54 seconds (reportedly an awful transfer). The Australian DVD is reportedly a shorter cut of the film (the 1981 classification had a running time of 87 minutes). A few years ago, a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen print made the rounds on European TV with a Warner logo, and it was followed up by DVD releases from BritFilms TV in the UK correctly framed at 2.35:1 and once again with the Warner logo (MadMovies released a DVD in France with the uncut version and a slightly shorter French cut sharing a dual-layer disc).
Scorpion’s dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen version is definitely a different master. There is some scratching and debris during the opening credits (and some minor reel change scratches and dings), but the transfer is brighter and far more colorful and detailed compared to the British disc. While the UK transfer reveals a sliver more information on the right side, the Scorpion transfer reveals a sliver more on the left as well as the top and bottom of the frame. The extra bits on the sides are not crucial, but the compositions just seem better considered. The film is playable with optional introduction and post-script by hostess Katarina Leigh Waters. After an amusing film-related skit, she gives a rundown of the principal cast members (and where we might recognize them from). Both discs feature the same theatrical trailer (2:54).
Exclusive to the Scorpion disc is a new commentary with producer Anthony Ginnane, moderated by Waters. Ginnane – who had previously provided an audio commentary with director Simon Wincer on the vampire film THIRST (which starred Hemmings) – reveals that Susan George (STRAW DOGS) and Samantha Eggar (THE BROOD) were also considered for Agutter’s role, and that composer Brian May was inspired to add some electronics into the score after listening to Goblin’s soundtrack for Argento’s DEEP RED (Ginnane admits that a slashing death late in the film was definitely influenced by Argento). He speaks highly of Hemmings’ direction (and about aspects of the production that attest to the actor’s talent behind the camera), while admitting that the story has some shortcomings. He says that the critics admired the film’s restraint – the film won a number of awards at Sitges – but it did not go over well with audiences; as such, he thinks they should have taken a slightly more gruesome approach (although he still admires the subtler approach here). Ginnane also mentions that more scenes with Punch-McGregor and Sumner hit the cutting floor in a need to get the running time down to a playable length. Ginnane has a lot to say, so he only requires some sparse and gentle prompting from Waters. Her question about the symbolism of the bookending sequences with the children and observations about Jenny Agutter’s character – along with Ginnane’s answers – did call into question some of my interpretations about the story and some sequences. Ginnane aptly ties the supernatural revenge on the photographer and his assistant to some of the recent Asian ghost films (a remake probably would take a RINGU/JU-ON approach to the haunting). Ginnane is also the credited producer on a 2013 remake of his 1978 production PATRICK (Richard E. Grant and Rachel Griffiths are set to star). Trailers for the films MORTUARY, THE RETURN, DEATH SHIP, DOUBLE EXPOSURE, SATAN'S SLAVE, TERROR, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE, THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, and FINAL EXAM (as well as a promo reel featuring clips from more current and upcoming releases in the “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” line following her post-script) round out the package. (Eric Cotenas)
BACK TO REVIEWS