BR: Survivor, The (1981)

March 14, 2017 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Severin Films

Region: A, B, C

Released: January 10, 2017

Genre:  Horror / Supernatural / Ozploitation

Synopsis: Suffering from temporary amnseia, the lone survivor of a devastating passenger plane crash finds himself haunted by unseen forces, and seeks the aide of a sympathetic medium amid strange murders and tragedies.

Special Features:   Not Quite Hollywood Extended Interviews with producer Antony Ginnane and cinematographer John Seale (22:12) / Extended Scene (3:34) / Featurette “The Legacy of James Herbert” (9:19) / 2017 Interview: Robert Powell on James Herbert (3:24) / Archival 1981 Australian TV Special Clapperboard featuring interviews with actors Joseph Cotton, Peter Sumner, Ralph Cottrill, and actress Angela Punch-McGregor (29:59) / Archival U.S. 1981 TV Interview with David Hemmings (15:43) /  Archival 1980 Australian TV Special Clapperboard featuring interviews extract with actors David Hemmings and Robert Powell on filming Harlequin (5:56) / Antony I. Ginnane Trailer Reel (32:03) /  TV Spot.




Riding on the unlikely international success of the somewhat supernatural thriller Harlequin / Dark Forces (1980), Anthony Ginnane decided to produce an adaptation of James Herbert’s novel – the first time Ginnane gambled on an existing property rather than an original screenplay (many of which were scripted by ozploitation master Everett De Roche).

Ported over from Harlequin was star Robert Powell, and instead of acting, Ginnane’s longtime producing partner David Hemmings took on directing chores. The script by David Ambrose (A Man Called Intrepid, The Final Countdown, Blackout) reportedly toned down the novel’s gore quotient, and flipped the gender of a medium from an older man to a younger woman, and what begins as an eerie thriller with a mystical mood gradually becomes clunky, presumably the victim of mounting scene trims and some likely re-ordering which rendered the final act into a bit of a confusing muddle.

The Survivor has its admirers and defenders. Hemmings went after dreamy tone in the film that launched his own stardom, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-Up, and as a mood piece, it’s truly fascinating, but in the archived interview on Severin’s packed Blu-ray, cinematographer John Seale confesses edits and an abrupt ending hindered the film’s coherence.

The central plot has medium Hobbs (Jenny Agutter) seemingly waiting through the afternoon and early evening for an event: the sudden downing of a major airliner, which severs the tops of trees and breaks apart in a field, ultimately exploding and killing everyone one board. Masses of police, fire, paramedics, and news crews swarm onto the absolute carnage, and found within the mangled remains is pilot Keller (Powell), relatively unscathed, and suffering from complete amnesia right from the moment the plane took off from the airport.

As he attempts to reconstruct events, a forensic investigation pushes on, as does media attention on pilot incompetence. Woven into Keller’s ongoing remorse are strange deaths, often signaled by a little girl to appears just before seemingly disparate characters – a photographer, a fisherman – die almost of their own volition. The bodycount is slow, as is Keller’s memory recovery, and even when he meets medium Hobbs, all we’re told is Hobbs has found herself to be an involuntary conduit between the plane’s dead and Keller.

It’s around this spot, highlighted by a spastic quasi-possession of Hobbs in her riverfront cabin, that Survivor’s structure begins to get messy, and scenes feel as though they were re-ordered for mood and momentum than logic. When Keller argues with colleague Tewson (Peter Sumner) and takes a solo flight over the wreckage area, he returns and chats with his buddy without any commentary on his sudden discovery during flight; Keller only reveals the disturbing observance to a teddy-garbed Hobbs: as he flew over the crash site, all debris had vanished and been replaced with Hobbs and the kids in the park.

And when airline CEO Slater (The Lighthorsemen’s Ralph Cotterill) wanders without a flashlight through the wreckage at night and gashes his hand (Shouldn’t a forensics-trained man know wreckage is dangerous, especially at night?), his next scene in a hangar has him wearing a small bandage where we saw him cut his cheek, but nothing on his hand.



The finale is equally abrupt in logic, having Slater admitting to Keller of planting a bomb to down the plane for no concrete reason; from his seated position, glowering, and chattering about death, the presumption is he’s wholly mad. Rather than have any further explanation, the hangar packed with partially assembled wreckage explodes, and in a classic Twilight Zone wrap-up, Keller’s body is found in the plane, clarifying that he was a ghost looking for closure, and justice for the dead.

Of course that opens a wealth of questions: If he was a ghost, how could everyone see and talk to him? Why didn’t Hobbs tell him he was a ghost, given she’s a medium and knows something about irritated spirits, if not sense he was a soul drifting between plains? And what’s with the Final Destination-style deaths? Were the photographer and his girlfriend and the fisherman intended to have died after the plane exploded, or was there a separate revenge story that was dropped from the film? (The deaths are wholly preposterous, from the photographer walking into a moving train, and the girlfriend guillotining her hand with a cutting board. There’s no reason given to explain their sudden deaths.)



The only actor who maintains relative character stability is Powell because Keller is a mentally wounded man searching for answers; he’s the film’s strongest character and has the strongest dialogue, whereas Agutter spouts vague gibberish because her character’s raison d’etre remains fuzzy. We see her in the stellar title sequence, observing a passing plane (later revealed to be Keller taking that solo flight – but no explanation as to whether it’s a time loop, a portent, or another concept not properly worked out in the shooting script), and glancing at creepy kids in a playground, whose silent stalking game is perhaps the closest Hemmings comes to evoking the mimes in Blow-Up.

It’s a problematic film which may well have made a bit more sense if the material Seale alleges was shot and shorn was reinstated, but the film may already have been designed by Hemmings and Ginnane for mood, and 99 mins. is the film’s natural and logical length, regardless of its stumbles in logic.

Billed as one of Australia’s most expensive productions, the opening crash is more fast cuts than epic footage, but once the plane rests in the field, that’s when the movie really begins, and we’re treated to a haunting mood piece, much of it due to Powell, Brian May’s eerie score, the excellent sound design that blends voices and effects like preludes before ghostly appearances or grisly demises, and John Seale’s jaw-dropping footage that makes The Survivor one of Ginnane’s most beautifully photographed productions.

In the bonus interview culled from Mark Hartley’s doc Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008), Seale recalls colleagues being miffed and jealous when the young camera operator (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli) graduated to full DOP on such a high-profile production, and yet he proved detractors dead wrong by composing exquisite images, moody lighting, and choreographing the massive explosions that transform the plane into a mangled mess. The finale is especially memorable, in which Keller’s slow approach towards a killer is literally highlighted by pulling on dangling light bulbs before Hemmings closes the film with another colourful set of kabooms.

Whereas the supernatural moments are uneven in impact and logic, Hemmings’ fixations on the minutia of crash forensics is unusually detailed, spanning the reclamation of bodies, funerals, reassembling some debris in a hangar, tracking flaws, suspicions of a bomb, and Keller, Hobbs, and Slater being drawn to the remaining wreckage on the field, compelled to touch, feel, and walk through the dangerous ruins for answers. Arguably the film’s narrative highlight is Keller’s attempt to force a return of memories by sitting in his seat with Hobbs nearby, and Hemmings intercutting past and present moments in a chilling sequence.

There’s no doubt care went into crafting a thriller whose tone keeps audiences in murky darkness until the twist ending (a slight extension, archived separately on the disc, features some pertinent dialogue), but perhaps the only motif that rings true are the kids in the playground, whose stalking game is a perfect metaphor for a mass of grim reapers smothering their victims with carnage.

As a director, Hemmings output consisted of a few features, some teleplays, and several episodes of generic action TV series (Magnum, P.I., The A-Team, In the Heat of the Night) which probably weren’t creatively rewarding when compared to Survivor, but he proved his interest lay in action when he took over direction of some key sequences and the editing of Turkey Shoot (1982), a film in which he began as executive producer but eased in as unofficial second unit director. His feature films are comprised of Running Scared (1972), Just a Gigolo (1978), The Survivor (1981), Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981), Tab Hunter’s Dark Horse (1992), and the little-seen western Lone Justice 3 (1996).

Severin’s disc includes some rare Aussie extras that help contextualize the film. Hemmings appears in an extract from a talk show where he discusses first arriving in Hollywood, attending a nightclub soiree, and doing a magic trick.

The goofy Australian talk show Clapperboard (erroneous billed as On Location) features interviews with Agutter who shares thoughts on arriving in Hollywood and shooting in Australia (her second after co-starring in The Riddle of the Sands); Joseph Cotton (who plays a priest) on his first trip to Australia and travelling with his wife; and actors Sumner, Cotterill, and Angela Punch McGregor (Newsfront, We of the Never Never) who has a small role as Keller’s girlfriend Beth, and gives her take on film acting. Hostess Anne Wills is genial but a little too gosh-golly in awe of the stars, and her on-camera outfits alternate between interview and studio segments.

Powell appears in a recent interview and discusses James Herbert’s work (including his recent activity recording audiobooks); and the Ginnane interviews also culled from the Not Quite Hollywood outtakes archive feature background on the film’s financing, production, and Ginnane’s frustration with the Australian actor’s union who at the time were proposing a vetting system (initiated and executed by themselves) to ensure foreign actors like Agutter and Powell and Cotton wouldn’t take jobs away from native productions.

“The Legacy of James Herbert” provides an overview of the author, whose filmed works include the CanCon / shot-in-Toronto killer rats film Deadly Eyes, (1982), Fluke (1995), the ghost story Haunted (1995), and the miniseries The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012). The piece is designed to give the improperly branded “poor man’s Stephen King” his due for writing concise, often graphic novels that went against the staid gothic novels of Britain, and giving British horror a new voice. Historians Chris Cooke and David Flint say Herbert wasn’t crazy about the film version of The Survivor, but as Cooke aptly explains, his novels succeeded because of a unique balance of tone, imagery, and plotting which filmmakers rarely managed to get right when they tackled his early work.

Severin’s disc is near-perfect – the transfer is gorgeous, the extras neatly contextualize Survivor within the ozploitation genre and Ginnane’s lengthy filmography – but the only thing missing is an isolated score track to showcase May’s successful blend or orchestral and synth cues.

There’s also a menu authoring fubar on the Blu-ray: clicking on the link for the billed Clapperboard interview with Hemmings and Powell replays the Hemmings solo interview. (The interview is present on the authored disc, but it’s inaccessible, except with archiving software.) The relatively short (5:56) Q&A, however, is playable on Severin’s DVD, and in the excerpt hostess & interviewer Wills is sandwiched between the two “handsome men” as they discuss filming Harlequin, nuances of film acting, and legendary actor Broderick Crawford (All the King’s Men, Born Yesterday).

The Survivor was released around 2004 as a non-anamorphic bare bones DVD by Elite as a separate DVD and in the boxed set Aussie Horror Collection 2 (which also included 1988’s The Dreaming, 1993’s Voyage Into Fear / aka Encounters, and 1979’s Snapshot. Scorpion Releasing’s 2012 disc sports a commentary track with Ginnane and the label’s ‘nightmare hostess’ Katarina Leigh Waters, which remains unique to that release. (Within their discussion, Ginnane reportedly cites actors Punch-McGregor and Sumner losing scenes to keep the film’s running time and pacing more brisk.)



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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