I know it is stating the painfully obvious but death is unavoidable. It comes to all of us eventually but what if you managed to temporarily cheat it? Would death still come for you? This unsettling question is posed by Sole Survivor (1983), the memorable directorial debut of Thom Eberhardt (Night of the Comet).
Anticipating Final Destination (2000) by many years, Sole Survivor chronicles the troubled life of Denise Watson (Anita Skinner), the only person to survive an airplane crash. Shot on a low budget, Eberhardt gets around showing the actual crash by depicting the aftermath, his camera gliding over strewn wreckage and dead bodies before settling on Denise, still in her seat, gripping the arm rests and staring off into space. Her shell-shocked expression and the sound of a jet engine on the soundtrack effectively establish the film’s unsettling mood.
The film actually begins with shots of deserted city streets not unlike the ones in Night of the Comet (1984), Eberhardt’s follow-up film. We finally get a shot of a city bus driving by and even it only has one passenger – a fidgety Denise with a handgun. It turns out to be a nightmare or, rather, a vision by Karla Davis (Caren Larkey), actress and part-time psychic. A doctor (Kurt Johnson) checks Denise out and other than claiming to feel “odd,” is fine mentally and physically. She even flirts with the good-looking M.D.
The first indication that something isn’t right occurs when Denise leaves the hospital and a shadow passes over her but no one is there. On the hospital loading dock, she spots a little girl soaking wet only to narrowly avoid being crushed by a truck, moving out of the way at the last second. Denise has narrowly escaped death, but fate seems to have other plans as the Grim Reaper and its minions come for her.
Anita Skinner is excellent as Denise. I like that she has a good job and Skinner convincingly plays her as a smart, good-looking woman experiencing strange things that she can’t explain. Denise is a producer of television commercials and seems good at it, judging by the nicely furnished, rather large house she inhabits, and is respected by her peers. She’s not afraid to ask out the doctor that checked her out and their first date is a believable encounter between two people that seem genuinely attracted to each other. As a result, we start to care about and empathize with her, which is crucial when her life starts falling apart later on. Denise deserves to be just as highly regarded as other smart, resilient female protagonists in the horror genre.
Eberhardt does a nice job of conveying how the littlest noises in a house when you’re all alone can be unnerving. Things like a faucet dripping or the moving eyes on a wall-mounted cat clock can be creepy. And he does it in a wonderfully economic and subtle way, gradually building a feeling of dread, which acts in sharp contrast to Denise’s attempts at resuming her life. Eberhardt continues the creepy vibes out in the world, like when Denise sees an old man in a housecoat just staring at her in the park. Later, she sees a different man standing stiffly and silently in the rain. He gets a lot of mileage out of locations like a deserted parking garage with its echoey acoustics. Sole Survivor is a slow burn kind of film as we begin to question her sanity.
The low budget and cast of unknown actors only adds to the film’s authenticity by grounding the story in the every day and populating it with people you recognize and identify with – chief among them is Denise, who, as portrayed by Skinner, manages to elicit our sympathy right from the get-go and keep it for the entire film. With the is-she-dead-or-isn’t-she vibe and the haunted atmosphere that plagues Denise, Sole Survivor feels somewhat indebted to Carnival of Souls (1962). Where the Final Destination movies resort to cheap scares and increasingly elaborate and gory set pieces, Eberhardt’s film utilizes disturbing images and an unsettling sound design to create an overall feeling of impending doom that keeps you on edge throughout.