Thanks to the magic of DVD reissues, David Hemmings’ attempt to recreate the eerier horror of James Herbert’s novel and its treatment for the screen by David Ambrose is now widely available.
Originally released in 1981, Chris Murray’s special effects (notably the crash and subsequent firestorm of a 747 and charred remnants of over 300 passengers and crew) stand the test of time and present-day digital “wow” remarkably well.
Composer/conductor David Hay’s original score is appropriately menacing and tranquil as required. The frequent use of consonant/dissonant leaps from the violins, the pulsating rhythms during the races through darkness with the anguished dead as well as the question-and-answer punctuation from the piano help both the ear and the narrative come to deadly life.
Unfortunately, the acting can’t keep pace with the unfolding horror, leaving the film with an overall pastel tone when primary colours—like a crimson spurt of blood caused by a gleaming silver nail as the world loses another Dracula—are needed to drive the action home.
As the sole survivor of the mysterious crash and captain of the ill-fated plane, Robert Powell can’t manage to get under the skin of his David Keller persona. Plagued by retrograde amnesia, the indiscreet adulterer (he’s doing the airline chairman’s wife, Beth—Angela Punch McGregor) is soon desperate to fill in the blanks and discover just why his plane fell out of the sky. Because Keller’s boss was one of the victims, it’s not beyond the realm of imagination that the only survivor planned to take out the secretive lovers’ roadblock to bliss, but hadn’t figured on the huge explosions which followed after the forced landing—mercifully—in a field.
Tewson (Peter Sumner), his best friend and co-worker’s protestations of loyalty and support are word perfect, but come across superficially. The go-between for his beleaguered pal and the chief investigator, Slater, is Ralph Cotterill. This part has the potential for much wider dynamics if only his colleagues would oblige. Cotterill has arrogance down pat, a twinge of bully that helps, yet when the climactic moments unfold he can’t drink greedily enough from the cocktail of evil to convince as the deranged bastard that lurks in the leaves of Herbert’s book.
Similarly, Jenny Agutter as the reluctant medium-to-the-dead manages a couple of gut-wrenching screams on behalf of her un-resting constituents but fails to exude the glow of her special ability when not possessed. Joseph Cotten’s priest is blessedly believable; sadly there’s not much for him to do.
All of that said, this Survivor is still worth a look (and especially a listen) for anyone interested in the evolution of horror on the big screen. JWR