Sole Survivor

Director: Thom Eberhardt 
Anita Skinner, Kurt Johnson, Robin Davidson

If you have been reading the reviews on this web site for quite a while, it has almost certainly dawned on you that I don't take the acts of watching and subsequently reviewing movies completely seriously. There are a couple of reasons why I try to inject a sense of humor into my writings of unknown movies. One reason is that many of the movies I watch aren't that totally serious in the first place, so discussing them with a light touch seems appropriate. The other reason is that by injecting humor into my writing, I hope to make my reviews entertaining enough that it will encourage people to return to my web site in the future. Anyway, since I try to portray myself as a kind of guy with a good sense of humor, you might be wondering by now if I have a serious side to my personality, and if I do, just what this serious side thinks about. Well, occasionally on this web site I review a movie with serious subject matter and/or with a serious tone, such as when I reviewed the art movie That Championship Season. But what about in my private life, when I am not watching movies? To tell the truth, I often spend a lot of time thinking about things that are fantastic in nature or otherworldly. Frequently I give my mind permission to run wild as I think about things that as of this date have no answer from the scientific community. For example, I wonder how the universe seems to have no end, with one galaxy after another all connected together in a never-ending chain. Or I wonder if in any of those galaxies there is life like anything on this planet we live on.

But two subject matters that I think about more often than not are life and death. The reason why I believe I think about those subject matters so much is rooted in my childhood. When I was very young, I was a passenger in a car that was involved in a highway accident. At the time I didn't think much of the experience, since I was too young to fully understand what happened and I wasn't injured at all. But the memory stayed with me, and as I got older I started to realize just how close I got to being killed, and it started me constantly thinking about life and death. If I had been killed, what would have happened to me? After so many years of thinking, I came to the conclusion that my spirit would have been taken elsewhere, because I can't imagine myself not existing in some form any time from now on, though I have to admit that I can't explain why I can't comprehend some kind of existence before I was conceived and subsequently born. Anyway, after coming up with that conclusion, it provoked me to ask myself a whole bunch of new questions that I was unable to answer. If there is an afterlife, what is it exactly like? While I'm on that subject, is there more than one kind of afterlife? And are there really souls that are stuck between here and the afterlife, ghouls or ghosts or whatever you want to call them? Since there has been no definite proof of ghosts after all this time, I have doubts, even though I think there is an afterlife. But if there are ghosts, what do these former human beings think of their predicament or the humans surrounding them that they once were? I can't help but feel that those souls stuck between two worlds would be in some sort of anguish, and that they very well could be hostile and deadly to humans if they had some sort of chance to do so.

I know I am not the first person to ponder such things. If you look back for hundreds of years, you will find stories that concern ghosts (like Shakespeare's Hamlet) or other otherworldly beings. This has carried on to more modern times and new ways of telling stories, like with television Sole Survivoror movies. It seems like every year there are plenty of productions in those media about spirits of the dead. Needless to say, I have seen a number of them, and they range greatly in quality, like just about any other subject matter. Some have been quite effective - I remember seeing the cult movie Carnival Of Souls at a local B-movie festival, and it stuck with me. In fact, it stuck with me so much that when I later came across the movie Sole Survivor, my first instinct was to say "rip off". I can't say for sure if the makers of Sole Survivor had seen Carnival Of Souls, but I think at the least you'll agree there are some remarkable similarities between the two movies. The movie opens with washed-up actress Karla Davis (Caren Larkey, who also produced the movie), who has agreed to star in a coffee commercial, getting a vision of Denise (Skinner), one of the people working on the production of the commercial. To be specific, she gets a vision of Denise being in a horrible airplane crash and being the only survivor. As it turns out, Karla's vision comes true hours later. Several days later, Denise is released from the hospital determined to get on with her life. She even starts a relationship with one of the doctors (Johnson, The Fan) who treated her at the hospital. But as the days unfold, she starts to see eerie pale-skinned figures staring at her in silence from a distance. Doing some investigating, she starts to discover that these people supposedly died hours before she saw them. Is Denise really seeing the dead? If so, what do these dead people want of her?

Yes, parts of this plot description do indeed sound like they were inspired by Carnival Of Souls. Like that earlier film, this film also has a female protagonist who survives a terrible accident and sees spooky figures that she doesn't know at first are from her imagination or are actually there. Personally, I don't think it's a coincidence that the two films are alike in many ways. Some defenders of Sole Survivor I came across while researching the movie claim that the movie all the same managed to be influential on a series of later films, those films being those in the Final Destination franchise. But except for one scene when a truck's parking brake mysteriously fails, causing the driverless truck to roll slowly towards the heroine, there's nothing in Sole Survivor that suggests the Final Destination people saw the earlier movie and decided to rip it off. Still, while I think that Sole Survivor was way more influenced than in any way inspiring to other filmmakers, that's not to say that the movie is lacking in good qualities. There are several parts of the movie that are constructed and directed with skill. The movie opens up with a real grabber, dealing with the airplane crash the character of Karla sees in her dreams. Although we don't see the actual crash of the airplane (no doubt due to the movie's very low budget), we do get to see the aftermath of the tragedy. The camera moves in one solitary shot through the wreckage, past fires, pieces of the aircraft, dead bodies that have been horribly bloodied and mutilated, and then abruptly stops on the sight of sole survivor Denise, still buckled up in her upright chair and staring forward with a frozen and haunting look on her face. It's a short but very unnerving sequence, and it's a great way for a horror movie to start.

As you might expect, in the following eighty or so minutes of Sole Survivor there are no other moments that manage to reach the creepiness of that opening sequence. But the movie all the same has a number of uneasy moments that still manage to generate a shiver. Writer and director Thom Eberhardt (who later went on to direct the very entertaining cult classic Night Of The Comet), perhaps because of that aforementioned low budget, for the most part eschews standard horror ingredients like blood and gore, and instead builds horror by inexpensive techniques like atmosphere. There are several moments consisting of shots of city streets, hallways in homes, or other familiar areas with only one person around or completely empty of human life. This may not sound particularly chilling, but Eberhardt uses the simple but clever technique of showing these shots in silence or near silence, with David F. Anthony's music score being very subtle or completely shut up. Eberhardt also uses for the most part this same technique when dealing with the mysterious figures that the character of Denise keeps seeing.  With silence or near silence on the soundtrack, and the staring ghouls standing completely still, I have to admit that part of me felt somewhat uneasy in these sequences. Another reason why these horror moments are so effective is the reaction to them by the character of Denise. We in the audience know that something strange is going on... but the ghouls for the longest time make no real threat, so Denise doesn't really think something terrifying is going on. Seeing someone oblivious to real danger can be more disturbing than the person knowing, because the person who knows will more likely than not put up some kind of defense and have a chance to escape the horror.

So as you can see, Sole Survivor manages to overcome its limited budget and deliver a number of eerie moments. Unfortunately, the movie still has several problems, problems big enough that I subsequently can't give it a recommendation. While Thom Eberhardt shows skill as a director, for the most part it's his screenplay that ultimately sinks the movie because of two big problems in it. One of the big flaws with the screenplay is the construction of its characters. For one thing, the psychic character of Karla doesn't seem to be necessary, especially since she's offscreen a surprising amount of time. But the worst written character has to be Denise. We don't really see her at all before the airplane crash, so it's hard to see at times how the accident affected her. And from what we see, it doesn't seem to have been much - she comes across as somewhat selfish, not traumatized at all or even thinking about the fate of her fellow passengers or how lucky she was. And we have to follow this somewhat unlikable character through the entire movie. While we are following her, the other big screenplay problem becomes evident, that being that despite a running time of less than ninety minutes, the movie unfolds extremely slowly. The moments of horror, while effective, are very spaced out. We are treated to endless moments without consequence, ranging from the coffee commercial Denise is working on, or the romance that blossoms between her and the doctor that treated her after the airplane crash. If Eberhardt was inspired by Carnival Of Souls, I'm mystified as to why he didn't copy that movie's more likable heroine and its more constant bubbling of horror. Putting the two movies together would make an interesting double feature. Though if you decide to show this double feature to someone, show Carnival Of Souls first so you don't get early walkouts.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: The Black Room, The Resurrected, Troma's War