The theme of cheating death (or more often being unable to do so) has been a consistent and emotionally powerful subject in human storytelling since pre-biblical times. From " A Trip to Damascus," the earliest incarnation of this story, a folktale wherein a man seeks to escape Death by foolishly fleeing to the very spot where the Reaper will be the next day, to modern bestselling horror novels like Survivor, by James Herbert, and Walkers, by Gary Bradner, this idea has proved both chillingly entertaining and intellectually stimulating, examining the futility of escaping fate and reflecting on grim morality. This is a perfect theme for horror cinema as well. And while the commercially popular series Final Destination is often the movie that first pops to mind detailing Death's unstoppable force in harvesting people who somehow escaped their fates, the genre enjoyed at least two other finally crafted movies with the same theme (both of which are better in terms of story if not effects): Carnival of Souls still holds the title for the most creepy and ambiguous example of vengeful mortality pursuing refugee souls but Sole Survivor comes in a close second, frightening and ambitious despite a small budget and deceitfully simple plot. Diverting, atmospheric, and content to tell a simple story with style and panache, this urban take on a hoary legend succeeds in evoking tension and a satisfying sense of surrealism.
The plot is simplistic, mirroring the age old patterns of this sort of story, but with such believability and unpretending that a sense of impending doom makes you forgive its inconsistencies. Denise Watson boards a plane flight one day despite the feverish warnings of her friend and colleague Karla, who experienced a dire premonition. A terrible accident finds Denise as the only survivor. Struggling to survive grief and guilt, she soon finds that she has something far more sinister to contend with. As she picks up the pieces of her until then commonplace existence with the help of her neighbors and friends, Denise discovers that those few survivors of the wreckage are dying within 24 months of the plane crash. When she finds herself being followed by shadowy personages of the people who died within the wreck - and when her own friends begin to die mysteriously -- Denise understands that she hasn't truly escaped her fate after all, and that Death himself will soon come knocking.
A staple of Video stores in the 1980s, Sole Survivor takes a well worn concept and invigorates it with fresh style and believability. Merging the original "Damascus" folk tale with our universal unease of air travel and unexpected catastrophe, this nightmarish ghost story also fuses elements of Carnival, focusing on the spirits of the dead working with their master (Death) to bring 'home' their escaped little bird. A sensation of mounting menace and inevitability results that, along with the shadowy atmosphere and enigmatic suggestion of a world unseen, makes the basic premise far more terrifying and empathetic than it should have been. The debut directorial project of Thom Eberhardt (who would later churn out the horribly uneven and limpid Night of the Comet), Sole Survivor largely prescribes to the notion that 'less more.' Those going into the film expecting a gore fest will be disappointed. While there are some choice bits of graphic carnage, emotional suspense and characterization is clearly more important to these filmmakers than hanging entrails. The surrealistic non-logic of a nightmare permeates the entire production.
Code Red unearths another rough gem with Sole Survivor, treating it with the respect and wealth of supplements we have come to expect from them. There is simply no comparison between this clean up DVD and the old video tape. Colors are bolder and crisper, and the print in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen captures the impending sense of cosmic fate and universal fear suggested in the story. Audio is for the most part clean and clear with no noticeable interference.
Extras provide a wonderful sense of creative and social context for the film, including an Audio Commentary with co-producers Larkey and Sal Romano, moderated with passion and professionalism by director Jeff Burr and journalist Jeff MaKay. Lively and informative, this track explores the conception and making of the film, delving deep into its production history. Particular shots, free locales, and particular ambitions for the movie are covered with honesty and wit. While the participation of the director would have been appreciated, as is this commentary is well worth a listen. Other extras include the fun if misleading Theatrical Trailer, a Video introduction by Larkey, a Video interview with both Larkey and Romeo, and Liner Notes by Stephen Thrower which are enthusiastic if not overly informative. More exciting are a slew of Trailers of future Code Red releases: The Dead Pit, Silent Scream, The Farmer, and The Human Experiments.
Review by William Simmons
|Released by Code Red|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|