Sole Survivor (US - DVD R1)
Gabe was the Sole Survivor, but he didn't make it to his Final Destination
Television producer Denise Watson (Anita Skinner) is the sole survivor of a bloody plane crash. Not one to harp on superstitions, she quickly resumes her life after being released from the hospital with only minor injuries. She even starts dating her psychiatrist, Dr. Richardson (Kurt Johnson). A psychic actress under her employ (Caren Larkey) warns her that death may be out to collect what is his. Soon Denise starts seeing ghostly strangers everywhere she goes, and narrowly survives several other inexplicable accidents.
Sole Survivor does have a lot in common with Final Destination (one of my favourite modern studio horror films, though not as favoured as it’s grisly Rube Goldberg sequel), enough for claims of ‘inspiration’ to be founded, but not enough for anyone to worry about legal action (unlike The Island, which is a total rip-off of The Clonus Horror).
There are three key thematic differences that separate the films. One, the spectre of death doesn’t use coincidental violence or elaborate chain reactions to kill its intended, it instead very deliberately uses zombies to corral and menace her. Two, there is only one survivor (hence the title), and she isn’t the one with the psychic powers. Three, and perhaps most important, Sole Survivor concerns adults with adult problems rather than teenagers, which is a fact that separates Final Destination into some kind of deconstructionist slasher movie territory.
Writer/Director Thom Barkemeyer (the dude behind Night of the Comet and Captain Ron) does his best to craft a thoughtful and classy thriller, but the final product lands somewhere just outside the grindhouse ghetto. Like 41st street. To his credit the film’s look is moody and effective, reminiscent of Bob Clark’s work. Barkemeyer knows how to aim and move the camera, and some scare scenes really connect. The suspense runs hot and cold, mostly due to shaky editing practice, but when it hits it’s surprisingly potent for such an old and unsung film. In the end the film really isn’t classy enough for the cineaste crowd, or grimy enough for the exploitation crowd.
The script is filled with valiant attempts at natural speaking tones and low-key humour, but Barkemeyer may have overstepped his skill level, because the dialogue is often quite awkward. Some of the acting is pretty ripe too, but the writing seems to be hurting the actors more then they’re hurting the writing in most cases. There is a realism to the characters, which helps us to treat them sympathetically, but they’re still cumbersome, and it hurts the film.
Code Red, God bless them, aren’t quite up to the standards of Blue Underground or Anchor Bay (just yet), but they’re putting out some previously un-findable stuff out, and they’re at the very least making it look better than VHS. Sole Survivor is presented in widescreen, appears to be appropriately framed, and is anamorphically enhanced. Sometimes that’s the best we can ask for. Fortunately Code Red has cleaned the print and restored the colours to a pleasant glow (though the actual saturation can change in a single shot). The overall image is pretty dirty, and really quite noisy, though blemishes and artefacts are relatively minor. Contrast is a little flat, which isn’t helped by bluish blacks, and dark edges suffer a bit of wobble. Details are sharp enough to tell what’s going on during even darker scenes (which describes most of them), but pretty soft, and definitely not consistent.
There are sections of the film, mostly the beginning, where the dialogue and image don’t quite match up, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s an audio or video problem. The video looks a little choppy, as if a few frames per second of film have gone missing. Besides this, the original mono soundtrack is fine and dandy. The depth of field is pretty flat, which isn’t a surprise, but the division of sound is pretty even, though not entirely consistent. Some of the dialogue is a bit garbled, and the music and sound effects tend to peak a little lower then better tracks. There is some distortion during ‘s’ sounds, and quite a few pops and crackles here and there.
Things begin with a low-key commentary track featuring star/producer Caren Larkey, producer Sal Romeo, film historian Jeff McKay, and director Jeff Burr ( Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, The Offspring, Devil’s Den). McKay and Burr (I had trouble telling them apart audibly) act as effective moderators, asking good questions and filling most of the blank space. Larkey and Romeo recall the facts of the case pretty well, though they have to be coaxed a bit. The tone is nearly whispered for some reason, but I learned a lot about a film I’d never heard of, including a brief history of the writer/director, and some facts about the apparently tense shoot.
This is followed by an interview with Larkey and Romeo, which covers a lot of the same ground, and is terribly lit. The whole thing is charmingly awkward, and lasts about eight minutes. The film’s awesomely ‘80s red band trailer and some other Code Red trailers end the disc.
Sole Survivor might not be a blind buy candidate for everyone, but it’s worth a rent for anyone still in love with ‘80s horror. There is an awkward sense of character, and some dull moments, but several of the scares genuinely work, and the storyline is sharp. It’s not a firecracker like Final Destination, a film it must have inspired in one way or another, but it is a surprisingly adult look at horror, and features two solid endings—one for the shocks, the other for the EC Comics crowd.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 1st April 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Star/Producer Commentary, Interview with Star and Producer, Liner Notes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Thom Eberhardt
Cast: Anita Skinner, Kurt Johnson, Caren Larkey
Length: 85 minutes
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