Sunday, October 01, 2017

Any Landing You Can Walk Away From

Robert Powell in The Survivor (1981)

It's October again. That means it's time for the October Horror Movie Challenge, in which I try to watch 31 horror movies during the month, including at least 16 that are new to me. Given that I've been away from blogging for a while, this also means I'm going to try to write about all of them. Wish me luck.

The Survivor (1981, directed by David Hemmings) is a film I remember seeing on HBO way back in the early 1980s. While I say that I remember seeing it, I only remember seeing it because the plane crash that opens the film is spectacular and legitimately terrifying. It sticks in the memory. The rest? I vaguely remembered some of the film's ghostly shenanigans (the dude lured onto the train tracks for instance), and I remembered Jenny Agutter, but only in fragments. It turns out that there's a reason for that. It's a slow, meandering film that has none of the pulp vitality you would expect from a film based on a James Herbert novel. And yet, here it is.


The story follows pilot Keller (sad-eyed Robert Powell), a pilot who walks away from a plane crash unscathed while 350 passengers and crew burn to death behind him. He doesn't remember the crash or the events that cause it, but he very much wants to know because he's carrying some guilt around with him. He had been sleeping with the wife of one of the crash victims, something the investigators find very suspicious. Suspicious, too, are the mysterious deaths attending on people looking to profit from the crash, accompanied by spectral visitations from the children killed in the crash. Also in the mix is Hobbs, a local psychic who hears the screams of the victims in her head. This all builds to a twist ending that casts the film as an elaborate variant of The Twilight Zone, though at considerably longer length.


The Survivor (1981)

This has an unusual mix of talent and circumstances. It was the most expensive Australian film up to its time, intended perhaps as a prestige production to ride the crest of the Australian New Wave. It was not intended as an exploitation film, which is surprising given the source of the material. James Herbert was known for a two-fisted pulp sensibility rather than delicate mood pieces. This film tries for delicate and moody, a decision its producers regret. In this it's aided by cinematographer John Searle, who would go on to a career as a world class director of photography, and by composer Brian May, who is perhaps best known for his work on the Mad Max films. Director David Hemmings was in the process of re-inventing his career in Australia, transitioning from acting to directing (he appeared in Rod Hardy's perverse vampire film, Thirst, a year before making this film). He had more success with the second film he directed in Australia, The Race for the Yankee Zephyr. Hemmings's filmmaking in The Survivor is tastefully restrained, resulting in an overall feeling of melancholy rather than dread. This is a surprisingly sunlit movie for a film about ghosts.


The film's actors contribute to the film's sense of melancholy, too. Its leads are ringers from Hollywood and England after all. This is Joseph Cotten's last film, and he doesn't have much to do besides look pained as a local priest. Robert Powell made two films in the Ozploitation boom. He is cool and remote here, and his appearance in a pilot's uniform tends to recall his role as Captain Walker in Ken Russell's Tommy. Powell's screen presence and performance are both calculated to alienate the audience, which is a flaw in the way the film is conceived. Jenny Agutter started her career in Austraila in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout ten years before this film, and doesn't seem out of place in the film's universe. The filmmakers have accentuated Agutter's alien-ness by dressing her in eccentric, proto-Goth outfits, perhaps as a means of providing visual clues to her character's psychic powers. Of the principle actors, Agutter is the one who connects with the viewer.


Jenny Agutter in The Survivor (1981

The plane crash that begins the film was staged at full scale and is absolutely stunning. It compares favorably to any similar scene in a Hollywood production and puts the film's budget on the screen where it can be seen by everyone. It's the most viscerally terrifying part of the movie and it's what sticks in the mind after you've seen it. The rest of the film can't hope to measure up to it, and it rarely even tries. Instead, the plot meanders until its twist ending. In between, it indulges in an elegant variation of the punishment narratives that used to be the bread and butter of EC comics, in which horrid people get their comeuppance, though this is less ghastly than any of those stories ever were. The ghastliness is conspicuous by its absence. The film's use of ghost children almost seems lazy, given the cliche they represent. This is very much in the mold of Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill and it's sinister ghost child, though without Bava's theatrics. The twist at the end is transparent almost from the get-go, but in the context of the film, it seems more foreordained than predictable. Ghost stories are highly ritualized, after all, and this film is no different.


Writer James Herbert himself reportedly didn't like this film at all (nor did he like Deadly Eyes, based on another of his novels). It's easy to see why. Herbert's books are plot driven, and a good plot to Herbert is one that provided ghastly set pieces at regular intervals. The Survivor doesn't manage that. It's a film full of ciphers rather than characters and we know no more about them at the end of the film than we did at the beginning. This is a film that lacks for dramatic weight and fails to make up for that by throwing some red meat to the groundlings. Red meat--an instinct for the jugular--is precisely the element hovering in the negative spaces. The audience knows it's there for the taking, and when the film comes to its end and that instinct for the jugular remains unsated, it makes for dry, dull film experience. Alas.




Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 1

First Time Viewings: 0









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