"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sole Survivor

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.


  1. I’m coming late to the party, I know, but I just saw Sole Survivor tonight on Shudder and was interested to hear someone else’s take on the picture. Because I enjoyed it more than I expected—and it’s held up better than many others of its genre from 1984. (Its genre? Better than many other films from 1984, regardless of genre.)

    I wanted to let you know: I believe you’ve made excellent points here. I would like to say that I was thinking the same things after viewing Sole Survivor myself, but that gives me way too much credit. But I do think I would have pointed out many of the same things, once I’ve had a chance to consider it properly.

    One thing you bring up that I hadn’t thought about is the budget constraints and how the filmmaker Thom Eberhardt finessed his way around them to great effect—with practical effects. Well, that and ace sound design. Smoke and mirrors, too. I was invested enough in the story that I inferred from what was implied.

    And what involved me in Sole Survivor WAS the sole survivor, Anita Skinner’s Denise Watson. (And this I realized even without your excellent review.) Skinner and the script have given us a compelling lead character in Denise.

    I’ve worked in regional broadcast TV for a number of years (news and advertising production), and there are many women just like Denise working in that area of TV production. Ms. Skinner is quite credible in her portrayal of such a professional.

    And you’re right on the money; she’s done a fine job of playing various honest emotional extremes (my wording) over the course of the picture. Once we are invested in Denise, Eberhardt has us in the palm of his hand. To his credit, he respects the viewer enough not to push credulity too far. Nor indulge in overwrought jump scares.

    This was a smart little picture that delivered the goods.

    My one caveat: I saw some real on-screen sparks between Denise and John Boy…er, sorry, I mean between Denise and the distractingly pretty doctor Brian Richardson (Kurt Johnson), and yet…

    …once his belly’d been good ‘n’ lacerated with a butcher knife, our Ms. Watson didn’t feel any urgency to call emergency medical assistance, now did she? Yeah, yeah, I know—she was in shock!

    Hmm…and yet she still had the presence of mind not to blast the head off of the possessed neighbor girl Kristy. (“This isn’t you,” she said, showing enviable clarity under duress—for Kristy anyway.)

  2. Thank you for the awesome comments!

    This film really demonstrates why low budgets and no movie stars actually benefits the horror genre. We go in with no expectations and can be surprised when someone dies or the story takes a twist we didn't expect. That is often missing from bigger budgeted fare and this one really delivers the goods.

    I actually blind bought it years ago based on the cover art and the premise. Thankfully, it was actually good.