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), making its Blu-ray debut from Severin Films.
An airplane suddenly goes down in Adelaide, Australia killing three hundred passengers. The sole 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, but supervisor Slater (Ralph Cotterill, THE CHAIN REACTION) is concerned about the publicity that the airline is getting when he discovers that Keller was romantically involved with Beth (Angela Punch-McGregor, THE ISLAND), 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 schoolteacher with mediumistic powers who 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 did not want it to be specific (hence the mixture of British and Australian accents) – and adapted by THE FINAL COUNTDOWN's David Ambrose, 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. The middle of the film drags during the supernatural stalking and killing of the villagers which are 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, but 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 anytime earlier. Powell is effectively numb but Agutter’s performance consists mainly of wide-eyed expressions and her wavering voice. Sumner is better as Keller’s friend and co-worker and helps move the plot along for the audience while Cotterill is also good 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.
Punch-McGregor might not be too familiar to American viewers but she is a popular actress in Australia film and television who made it to our shores as Michael Caine’s co-star in THE ISLAND (1980). Although prominently-billed (her wardrobe provider also gets a credit), she has one dialogue scene here with Powell and she shows up in the background of the crash site memorial. 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. 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 spiked with whale-song here along with some subtle unnerving electronics signaling the presence of the supernatural (usually in the form of a little girl passenger and her burned doll).
THE SURVIVOR never had a U.S. theatrical release, making its stateside debut instead on CBS in 1988. It was first released on U.S. DVD by budget bin perennial Platinum Disc Corporation in a non-anamorphic transfer. While Elite did new transfers of their first set of Ginnane films, the transfer of THE SURVIVOR in their Elite Entertainment’s AUSSIE HORROR COLLECTION 2 was a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 with an optional French language track included. An anamorphic DVD showed up in France but both the separate English and French transfers were of a shorter cut of the film. BritFilms TV released the film in the UK correctly framed at 2.35:1 followed up by a superior dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen version from Scorpion with a new commentary with producer Ginnane moderated by Waters.
Severin Films' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray demonstrates miniscule framing differences with the Scorpion and slightly different color timing, being brighter overall while still maintaining Seale's moody use of light and shadow. The film looks its best in interiors and daytime sequences while the night scenes reveal that the filmmakers were shooting wide open with extremely shallow depth of field (sometimes used cleverly as when a close-up of Agutter shifts focus to reveal that the few indistinct oval lights in the background are the highlights of the airplane's flaming debris. The LPCM 2.0 mono track boasts clear dialogue and a bold rendition of the scoring while also highlighting the subtle use of whalesong, whispers, and screams of the dead. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
Severin's Blu-ray unfortunately forfeits the audio commentary but some of the same information is covered in extended interviews with Ginnane and Seale from Mark Hartley's Ozploitation documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (22:12). Ginnane discusses the intent to cast Samantha Eggar (DEMONOID) in Agutter's role (although he does not mention STRAW DOGS' Susan George as another choice), the contribution of production designer Bernard Hides (THE TOMMYKNOCKERS) to the realization of the plane crash, and the "nasty" interference of Actors' Equity in his attempts to make the film more international with a non-Australian star, a non-Australian director, and a non-Australian setting. He admits that the decision to scale back the horror from Herbert's novel and the slasher aesthetic of the time was a mistake (he cites Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING, Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS, and the films of Jacques Tourneur as inspirations) and that the more ambiguous aspects of the plot left audiences confused. Seale recalls with excitement his chance to shoot the first Australian film made for over a million dollars, the excitement of working with Hemmings, Powell, Agutter, and Cotton, and shooting the crash scene.
The included extended scenes (3:34) includes an alternate edit of the climax that features some choice dialogue but is ultimately too talky, as well as a few extra seconds of the death throes of a charred character. In "The Legacy of James Herbert" featurette (9:19), festival programmer Chris Cooke recalls his boyish discovery of Herbert's novels that offered sex and graphic gore that he and his schoolmates were not allowed to watch in the movies. He covers the evolution of Herbert's works from "a poor man's Stephen King" to more researched and elegant ghost stories, as well as the difficulty of adapting his films (nothing Herbert's unfavorable response to THE SURVIVOR and DEADLY EYES versus the later HAUNTED and THE SECRET OF CRICKLEY HALL). The featurette "Robert Powell on James Herbert" (3:24) is actually an extract of an interview for Audible in which Powell recalls his friendship with Herbert but generally focuses on the challenges of reading audio books. Although the disc menu notes the "ON LOCATION" TV show excerpt features interviews with Cotten and Sumner (29:59), it actually also features interviews with Cotterill, Punch-McGregor, and Agutter (all of which are at pains to discuss their parts in the film without spoiling things).
A separate ON LOCATION interview with David Hemmings and Robert Powell (5:56) is included with the two discussing the earlier film HARLEQUIN/DARK FORCES, a modern-day telling of the Rasputin story (with Hemmings revealing that his character's surname "Rast" is Tsar backwards). Another archival American TV Interview with Hemmings (15:43) finds him recalling his first experiences in Hollywood when he went to shoot CAMELOT for Warner Bros. and being starstruck when he escorted Vanessa Redgrave to a black tie affair. The interview dates from before THE SURVIVOR, so discussion of his directorial work is in reference to JUST A GIGOLO with David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich. The trailer for THE SURVIVOR is included in the disc's "Antony I. Ginnane Trailer Reel" (32:03) along with FANTASM, FANTASM COMES AGAIN, PATRICK, SNAPSHOT, THIRST, HARLEQUIN, THE RACE FOR THE YANKEE ZEPHYR, DEAD KIDS/STRANGE BEHAVIOR, TURKEY SHOT/ESCAPE 2000, HIGHTIDE, THE LIGHTHORSEMEN, TIME GUARDIAN, and SCREAMERS. A TV Spot (0:28) is also included. (Eric Cotenas)
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