Talk about survivor's guilt--airline pilot Keller (Robert Powell) is the only person who walks away, totally unscathed, from a fiery crash that kills 300 passengers and crew.
And with no memory of what happened after takeoff, THE SURVIVOR (1981, Severin Films) will find no relief from his nightmare until he uncovers the truth behind that deadly flight.
Fortunately for us, Keller's horrible waking nightmare is made all the more entertaining by a strong supernatural element. ("Pilot error? Or supernatural terror?" prompts the tagline.)
When a young woman named Hobbs (Jenny Agutter of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and LOGAN'S RUN in full cuteness mode) tells him that she's been in contact with the dead passengers and they have a message for him, he's skeptical at first. But eventually he begins to believe her and together they seek out the truth via the world beyond.
Director David Hemmings' style is a bit unpolished around the edges but he knows how to stage a scene, and the crash itself is the film's highlight. I like the way the SPFX get the job done with a sort of rough-hewn panache as the plane is shown making an impromptu landing close to a populated area and then exploding in spectacular fashion.
The aftermath is grandly staged in a way that fully conveys the chaos and confusion that would follow such an event. In fact, despite the somewhat iffy SPFX, this is one of the most dramatic and authentic-looking depictions of a plane crash that I've seen in a movie. Clearly most of the film's budget went into it.
But what makes THE SURVIVOR most watchable is the increasing ghostly activity that begins to occur to those involved. We get the eerie feeling that the people killed in the crash are definitely not at rest, especially when a creepy little blonde girl starts popping up here and there and causing frightened people to have unfortunate "accidents."
These scenes are done in a way that slowly builds tension and suspense rather than relying on shock or jump scares to unnerve us. Hemmings also takes his sweet time letting this adaptation of James Herbert's novel unfold, allowing us settle in and enjoy each chilling nuance as the plot leisurely makes its way toward the revelatory climax.
Agutter is as winsome here as she was in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and LOGAN'S RUN, while Robert Powell (TOMMY, "Jesus of Nazareth", "Marple") is perfectly cast as a man who seems to exist just a few centimeters outside his own timeline.
The venerable Joseph Cotten (CITIZEN KANE, WHITE COMANCHE) also appears as a sympathetic priest but his character doesn't really have that much to do. Fans of Australian cinema will recognize composer Brian May's distinctive musical stylings.
The Blu-ray from Severin Films is widescreen with English 2.0 sound and English subtitles. Once again Severin offers a packed bonus menu, this time with what seems to be hours of various interview segments with the film's cast and crew, featurettes "Robert Powell on James Herbert" and "The Legacy of James Herbert", an extended final scene, a TV spot, and a selection of trailers from producer Antony I. Ginnane's films including this one.
THE SURVIVOR isn't quite a total nailbiter and it may not give you any nightmares, but it's solid supernatural entertainment with a dazzling disaster-movie beginning and an involving mystery whose solution lies beyond the grave.
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