Survival Quest

Director: Don Coscarelli             
Lance Henriksen, Dermot Mulroney, Mark Ralston

Deep within the Rocky Mountains, six pampered city folks are learning the basics of outdoor survival.

Suddenly, their expert instructor is shot.

A paramilitary group is stalking them like prey.

Unarmed...prepared only with the survival skills they have just learned, they are on their own in the vast wilderness with no place to turn!

                                               - Front video box blurb for Survival Quest

Okay, you've read the above. I'm sure you have a pretty good idea of what the movie is like, right? Well, you're wrong. Yes, wrong. Oh, the events above do happen. Just not in the way you figured.

I'm sure you thought it was going to be another Most Dangerous Game. So did I when I rented it. In fact, it's paced and feels more like Deliverance, though with the crisis in this case occurring much later into the movie, and after much character development and situation setup. The time before the crisis takes so much time, I'm not surprised that MGM decided to give this a very quick release in a few theaters before dumping it on video at the same time with another on-the-run-in-the-wilderness movie, Damned River.

But I'm not saying it's a bad movie It's not great, but I rather enjoyed this change of pace. But I think one man's meat is another man's poison is more apt in this case, so you better be fully aware of the plot and pacing before considering a rental, even if knowing that director Coscarelli is also the creative force behind the four Phantasm. Though there is a cameo by Phantasm regular Reggie Bannister, the movie is as different in style as night is from day as this movie is to all four Phantasm movies.

At a small airport (presumably somewhere in California), two groups of people board a chartered airplane. The first group is made up of young men who have signed up for survivalist training lead by the aforementioned paramilitary group. The other group has signed on for basic wilderness survival, and is made up of a variety of people including a divorcee, an unemployed man in his 50s, a rich and engaged young woman, and a juvenile delinquent there as a condition of his sentence. (There's also a black man along with the group, but with his character never being explored and hardly saying anything for the course of the movie, one has to wonder if there was unconscious racism on part of the filmmakers.)

The two groups - hostile of each other - eventually land deep in the wilderness and are glad to split from each other. The wilderness group meets Hank (Henriksen), who is to be their instructor for the next few weeks. He spends the first few days training the group at home base in group activities that make them work together, and giving them advice like, "You don't leave anyone behind." Meanwhile, at the nearby survivalist camp, the sadistic instructor immediately plunges the cadets in sadistic exercises, one of them being stripping off the cadets' shirts, tying their hands, blinding them with pepper spray, and giving them a short time to run off and hide for three days from other cadets.

Then later, the two groups set out to hike deep into the wilderness, to use their newly learned skills for real. There are two minor skirmishes between the groups during the days ahead - the survivalists fire paint guns at the wilderness group, and Hank humiliates the survivalist leader when the survivalist illegally kills a deer - but both incidents seem quickly forgotten by both sides. But later, one of the more unsteady survivalist students accidentally shoots Hank. Pushed over the edge, the student takes over the group and commands his followers to track down and kill the remaining members of the wilderness group, who are fleeing towards the airfield 80 miles away.

It does sound like the description at the start of this review, doesn't it? But as I said before, the events do happen, but not in the way that you thought. The prime difference comes from the fact that Hank is shot not in the first third of the movie, but more than halfway through the 91 minute running time. This, of course, stops the movie from primarily becoming an action/adventure thriller. So what do they do between the above events before Hank is shot? Well, we learn a few survival tips, and there are short vignettes as when during the hike, the wilderness group gets stuck on a mountain and must figure out how to survive spending the night there.

But, surprisingly, most of the movie is spent on character development. Henriksen does a wonderful job as Hank, a kind (but no softy) soft-spoken leader who believes in teaching people by letting them figure out things themselves. Instead of violently confronting the sullen and furious juvenile delinquent, Hank treats him normally and simply tells him of the choices he has and the probably consequences. This treatment and the entire wilderness experience has a believable effect on the delinquent, mainly because he slowly changes his way. He slowly turns from moody and uncommunicative to becoming friendlier and caring about the other members of his group. Even the survivalist leader is portrayed more realistically; he's bad, but not evil. In fact, viewers will be surprised that later on the movie they'll feel some sympathy towards him.

As for the more action-filled last third of the movie, it is generally competent, though there is a significant lack of tension. The musical score really reflects this, by seemingly made for another kind of picture. And there's a scene concerning a giant log that will provoke a few unintended chuckles, for the log is clearly not made of a natural occurring substance.

However, this movie was not really intended to be an action movie. I liked it all the same, but I admit that the description on the front box really set me up for something else. Now that you know what the movie is like, you'll be better able to make a decision if Survival Quest  fits your tastes or not.

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See also: Rituals, Shoot, Survival Run