Sole Survivor. 1983. Directed & Written by Thom Eberhardt.
Starring Anita Skinner, Kurt Johnson, Robin Davidson, Caren L. Larkey, Andrew Boyer, Daniel Bryan Cartwell, Wendy Dake, Stephen V. Isbell, & William Snare.
Grand National Pictures/Moviestore Entertainment
Rated R. 85 minutes.
Before there was Final Destination, there was 1983’s Sole Survivor. Although the plots are different, the influence and homage is certainly there. But Thom Eberhardt’s Sole Survivor involves a woman named Denise Watson (Anita Skinner) who survives an aeroplane accident, the only survivor, after which she begins seeing the dead coming for her, everywhere.
This is an ’80s horror movie that, somehow, slipped by many. However, there are so many places where the influence of its themes and imagery exist, to this day, from the aforementioned Final Destination series to David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and more.
Although Eberhardt’s film works just as a great undead horror story, it’s also works on a more broad scale.
At the centre of the story, Denise’s plight is symbolic of survivor’s guilt, in that many who’ve survived catastrophes, genocide, a mass shooting (et cetera) later feel guilty for having lived while others died. Here, this concept is symbolised by the imagery of the dead coming back to find Denise, and hopefully take her with them. Also a parallel to the inescapable fact of death, that it will come for us all, no matter the circumstances. Much like the creeping death in Romero’s zombies, these undead in Sole Survivor are the epitome of death’s inevitability.
For Eberhardt’s directorial debut, before he did the fantastic Night of the Comet, this is a well executed piece of horror cinema. In a decade with an overabundance of horror it’s easy for a few films to slip through the cracks, in comparison to other bigger names of the era, during a time where Michael, Freddy, Jason were wreaking havoc to big box office numbers. What sets this apart from similar films involving the dead coming back to life is the atmosphere, from bleak images to a constant air of dread and suspense throughout.
The opener is a scene that, today, you’d expect would involve a much larger, more expensive, wild action set-piece. Instead, we’re given an effective start to the film that’s inventive rather than over the top. This is where the dread starts, with bloody carnage, an airy industrial drone, a scattered scream here or there, and a catatonic Denise in the midst of the madness.
Definitely a predecessor to Final Destination, only a hell of a lot more subtle. Terror creeps in slow, the build up burning and the eeriness always present yet just in the immediate background. It Follows has much of the same atmosphere, giving us an awesome homage in a scene where Maika Monroe firsts sees the titular ‘it’ on her college campus; absolutely influenced by one the earlier moments when Denise discovers the dead have come back for her, nobody else able to see it. Even further, how Denise discovers what’s going on through the cryptic warnings of a second party, just as Monroe’s character does, as well. This just goes to show that Sole Survivor has far more influence than its reputation might let on, ingrained in the collective film-going mind either consciously or unconsciously.
The survivor’s guilt metaphor works on several levels. One being the visual motif of Denise being able to see the dead, while others are wholly unaware, even if the walking corpse is right next to them. Many of the film’s best dreadful scenes come out of the rock and a hard place where Denise exists, trying to survive as the dead try just as hard to kill her, at the same time unable to explain to others fully what’s happening to her. This symbolises the struggle of the actual mental affliction of survivor’s guilt, in that it is an invisible illness. Unlike a broken bone, mental health hurts on an altogether emotional, existential level, in turn producing physical effects. So, following the metaphor through, Denise must suffer in silence, as many do with their mental health, and nobody outside of her can understand the nature of her suffering.
Sole Survivor perhaps works best on this metaphorical plane. The film’s awesome, creepy. But the pacing is off. A slow burn can be enticing, can compel a viewer to stick with the story and the characters. This film has too much of it, and so rather than be tight with those suspenseful moments and scenes, that chilly tension, it comes off in many scenes as too tedious for its own good.
There’s no doubt the finale is thrilling. That doesn’t entirely excuse some of the needlessly slow, drawn out sections that could’ve been more efficient, and at times maybe an extra bit scary. That being said, the very end of the film is perfect. And nasty to boot.
Cryptic messages from a psychic. The previously dead rising. A woman descending into paranoia. These descriptions could signify a bunch of movies. Yet one of the best fitting the description is Sole Survivor. Dread, suspense, a dash of blood; these are all fine and dandy. Add to that the central performance of Anita Skinner, whose presence and range suck the viewer into the character, in turn the story. Each eerie moment takes us deeper into her perspective, the perfect atmosphere to explore her guilt.
Highly recommended, particularly for fans of the 1980s in horror. And especially if you want to see early influences on It Follows, Final Destination, and other works of the genre. Tension, ghostly and gruesome apparitions, a killer score full of swelling synth and typical horror movie tracks that make the mood all the more unnerving at the right times. It isn’t a perfect film, but Sole Survivor deserves better than being forgotten, belonging up there next to some of the best the ’80s ever had to offer.