The Survivor (1981)

Director David Hemmings
Writers David Ambrose
Starring Powell, Jenny Agutter, Joseph Cotten
Genre Thriller
Tagline Pilot Error ... Or Supernatural Terror? Only One Man Can Tell

The Survivor is something of a detour for ozploitation maverick Antony Ginnane, and at the time was not successful in either Australia or North America but did raise itself onto the radars of European markets. Ginnane had wanted something slightly more cerebral than the then current slashers and was trying for a return to the 1970s style serious horror movie. Unfortunately the project lapsed into something of a shambles as a finished product and was possibly not helped by Ginnane's insistence on foreign actors. In his introduction to the movie, the Producer regrets the approach taken in the movie and thinks it was maybe too "high brow" for local audiences. Sorry Tony G, the movie is simply flawed mate, Peter Weir had already proven Australian horror audiences were ready for the more serious horror outing.

Talk us through it

Pilot Keller is the sole survivor of a crashed 747 but has no memory of what happened to cause the accident. It would appear that he avoided total catastrophe by ditching the aircraft in a vacant field, not supported by the actual crash footage, but a ruptured fuel line and resulting fire that engulfed the passenger jet ensured no one would survivor on the aircraft itself, aside from Keller of course.

Our survivor embarks on a private investigation into what actually happened and is helped by a spiritualist who was also an eye witness to the accident. Hobbs knows more than she is telling, but what exactly that is will only be revealed as the movie reaches it's final destination. In the meantime a steady rising body count amongst the people who might stop Keller from discovery looks to be the work of the vengeful ghosts of the passengers of the 747.

Ready to start our own investigation into events?


British writer James Herbert must be wondering exactly what he has done to have the cinematic gods deliver such chaos onto movie adaptations of his work. Of the three movies based around Herbert novels that I am aware of there hasn't as yet been a coherent and commercial release that captures the majesty of Herbert's prose. The Survivor had lofty ambitions, but jettisoned the actual horror from Herbert's novel of the same name, and ventured into some hybrid landscape where the audience are left confused and wondering exactly what they have seen. What we would have expected to see was a supernatural thriller, that perhaps ventured into concepts about fate and natural justice, what we ended up getting is a film so immersed in it's own symbolism that it by and largely rendered itself meaningless.

We certainly get off the runway in the movie proper in an impactful way, the plane crash is well constructed and the set brilliantly chaotic, though it could be argued that since we really never see the plane actually crashing that it's a but of a cop out by the Director. Unfortunately we have had to sit through a prologue piece first that although introducing Hobbs unfortunately delves into a mob of child who look like they have just stepped out of The Midwich Cockoo. The first of a whole bunch of confusing symbols that I found myself at pains not to interpret. Our mob of ankle biters pop up twice more in the movie, and in each scene you are left wondering why they didn't cut the whole shambles loose. It actually adds very little for the plot and just takes the audience out of what ever atmosphere Director David Hemmings is trying to generate. On the bright side we do get to see Keller walk through the flames of the crash apparently none the worse for the experience beyond a case of amnesia. No prizes for guessing where this mystery flight is headed.

While going all out on the supernatural thriller stakes, who planted the bomb in the briefcase that lead to the flight crashing, Director David Hemmings and Writer David Ambrose just can't help themselves, they have to go with some out and out horror. Any resemblance to The Omen is of course by chance and not intentional, sorry I brought that up. A photographer who has taken a number of snaps of Keller is apparently visited by the ghost of a small girl who died in the plane crash. In a prolonged and at times gripping scene he of course meets with a sticky end. His wife, I think it was his wife, fares little better and meets the business end of a guillotine (the paper cutting variety) in a pretty well constructed Hitchcockian fashion. You know severance is coming, the wife doesn't, Hemmings takes his time getting there. With the horror scenes Director Hemmings shows he knows exactly what he is doing, and Producer Antony Ginnane is proved right on why the movie over all failed in the major markets. If only they had of said, "to hell with it let's get our Omen on", The Survivor could have become something of a cult classic.

Without taking a 4 by 2 to a dead equine, lets just say that Hemmings turns in a movie that tries for six each way and comes up at the arse end of the race as the final credits roll.

Unfortunately there's this attempt to go all art with the movie, which is a pretty hard thing to pull off in the horror genre at the best of times to be honest. For example we get shots of a charred doll that brings to mind David Lynch at his best. The device while visual strong, and I guess it's meant to be evocative, distracts the audience to the point where all semblance of narrative direction is completely lost. What movie are we in again? Hemmings is simply unable to integrate his symbolism in any meaningful way and you will be left bemused as to just what the hell the Director is trying to achieve as the movie drags itself through yet another image charged emotive scene.

I'm not entirely sure what the hell Hemmings was trying to achieve with this movie to be honest, he lost me at about the quarter way mark as I tried to work out exactly what that light plane had to do with things and whether or not it had some higher meaning. The Director goes for some shock moments, delivered in short rapid fire, but intersperses this with some "meaningful" scenes that drag out till it seems only the next ice age is going to finish them off. That's called lagging, and yes the pace of the movie is shot all to hell as a result.

I'm not even going to comment on a number of plot points that are simply left hanging with no attempt at resolution or explanation. Writer David Ambrose has simply turned in a woefully inept script that needed not only a stiff editing, with a heck of a lot of scenes dropped, but which also needed some work on it's internal logic.

Robert Powell (Keller) goes all intense and at times downright emo as he fumbles his way through a movie that he is clearly slumming in. Powell is a much better actor than The Survivor would make him appear to be. Jenny Agutter (Hobbs) reacts to things and hence doesn't actually act. Her possession scene was just awesome in how hysterical it went. This isn't simply over acting, it brings a whole new meaning to the concept. Surprisingly Joseph Cotten (Priest) turns in a pretty decent performance as things go to hell in hand basket around him. Cotten must have wondered just what amateur theatrical production he had stepped into. Needless to say the Academy weren't exactly sitting up and taking any notice.

Brian May, no not the Queen guitarist, turns in ironically one of his best ever scores. May nails every nuance of the movie and it's a pity that his career peak happened in this movie.

Summary Execution

I was reasonably fired up to see The Survivor, having read about every novel James Herbert has ever published. However I was expecting the worse, as Herbert's treatment at the movies has simply been shocking to say the least. Unfortunately what I got was beyond my wildest dreams of a shocker, Hemmings threw a complete shambles my way and I couldn't pick up the pieces. Actually neither could all the King's horses and men I'm betting. The Survivor tries to cater for too many different rooms in the horror mansion, and fails to adequately address any of them. There was the odd good moment to lighten the load, that pan across the photos of victims of the crash is pretty solid and confronting, but not enough to keep me enthused.

I purchased the R4 release from Umbrella Entertainment, who have an ever increasing range of past Australian horror films. Besides the actual film, there's a pretty good introduction by Antony Ginnane, and the usual assorted extras that no one really bothers looking at. The transfer looks to be by the numbers, boom boom, and it's not exactly been re-digitised.

The Survivor is one of those movies every fan of Down Under dark genre product should catch at least once in their life, in a sort of completist fashion. I wouldn't recommended the movie to anyone else as it really doesn't offer all that much to either the general movie fan or the horror fanatic overseas. Sorry I like to promote our movies to the world, but this time I have to give a big thumbs down. On the bright side I survived the movie and didn't really get burned in the process.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

Try your luck with something else.