“Sole Survivor” (1983)/Directed By: Thom Eberhardt
“Sole Survivor” is actually a remake of an Australian film that came out two years earlier in 1981 entitled “The Survivor”. What’s surprising is this American version is a smaller, more intimate film. It is dumbed down in a sense that the plot is simplified and a lot of the absurd plot turns from the original are excised. For once, the Americanization is a vast improvement. “Sole Survivor” is a minor film that plays on our fears of death and the possibility that we can never truly know when it’s our time to go.
Karla Davis, a washed up actress barely remembered for a string of beach bunny movies from the 60’s, wakes up in a panic. She has visions of wreckage from a plane crash, scattered body parts, and one woman who has walked away unscathed. We quickly learn that survivor is Denise, a producer for an ad agency who is preparing to work with Karla on a spot for Taster’s Choice coffee. It’s an odd backdrop to tell the story but it does lend itself to some humorous moments as the aging starlet botches the commercial shoot due to her overwhelming concern for Denise’s safety. Karla’s warnings fall on deaf ears as she’s pretty well regarded as a lush and loony-toon who fancies herself a psychic.
You see, Denise wasn’t meant to survive. Much like “The Final Destination” films, death has a plan and he doesn’t take kindly to anyone trying to cock-block his advances. Which, lucky for us, also means anyone who might come between the unseen entity’s attempts to circle back for Denise could easily find themselves getting bumped up on Death’s bucket list in a heartbeat. This idea is summed up perfectly by an exchange between Denise and her very own McDreamy, Dr. Brian Richardson, as she relays a story about an expensive dress she bought on credit but wasn’t billed for right away.
Brian: “Think about the dress you bought. They never charged you for it.”
Denise: “Yes, they did. It’s those damn computers. They made a mistake, but sooner or later, they’ll find you.”
Aside from the basic premise, this remake has very little in common with the original. The characters and ultimately Death’s MO are completely different. The epic plane crash depicted at the beginning of “The Survivor” is nowhere to be seen in this remake, but it plays well as a more contained narrative focusing almost entirely on Denise and her burgeoning romance with Brian. Of course, this is no romantic comedy and it doesn’t take long for Denise to start seeing strangers glaring at her from across the park. These moments are eerie and are very reminiscent of the current indie horror sensation “It Follows”. We come to find these silent stalkers are the recently deceased who’ve come to bring Denise back to where she belongs, among the dead.
Director Thom Eberhardt (who also wrote the screenplay), who went on to direct the 80’s cult classic “Night of the Comet”, whips up a frenzy of suspense during certain moments. One scene in particular at a parking garage featuring one of the slow stalking undead and a faulty elevator hits all the seat-jumpy beats you crave in a film like this. The film drives the narrative forward without wasting too much time on answering the question of “Why?”. Denise survived. Denise needs to die.
This tight pacing helps keep this remake a lean, mean, and mostly satisfying supernatural shocker. Scenes where Denise spots one of the undead watching her in the distance and moments where they charge forward one slow step after another certainly bring to mind “It Follows” as is the story reminiscent of the “Final Destination” series. Interesting though as the “It Follows” vibe is only found here in “Sole Survivor” and not in the original “The Survivor”. For once an American remake takes a smaller budget and succeeds at crafting a far greater film. The Australian film is no slouch, but ultimately goes off the rails in it’s second half by introducing us to Death in physical form as he reveals his master plan. “Sole Survivor” keeps these details a mystery and is all the more spooky for it.
Eberhardt’s direction is of the workmen variety and he doesn’t attempt to outdo himself with any overwrought compositions, but it works. The cinematography is crisp and uses the film’s Christmas-time setting to litter scenes with the ghostly glow of white string lights. Of course, I’ve always found Christmas to be pretty creepy. Maybe that’s just a me thing? As far as the script goes, Eberhardt doesn’t pull any punches. There are several references to depression and suicide that help solidify the idea of us being our own harbingers of death without being too on the nose. No one is safe in this film and it all culminates with a gut punch of a climax followed by a lingering chill from the film’s final shot (again, quite a contrast to the original).
As far as a film that has fallen through the cracks and needs to be rediscovered, “Sole Survivor” is definitely up there on the list. It’s not a film for gore-hounds. This is an eerie film that methodically reveals its hand as death creeps ever closer. I highly recommend it to those seeking horror with a bit of brains (figuratively and not of the literal zombie munching variety).
It will never rest...alone.