The Survivor Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
When a 747 crash lands in a Sydney suburb the inferno kills everyone on board, except the pilot (Robert Powell), who emerges from the wreckage miraculously unscathed. But, as a local psychic (Jenny Agutter) begins to communicate with the spirits of the doomed passengers, it will unlock a nightmare of madness, murder, and supernatural horror. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
In 1981, British actor David Hemmings – most famous for lead roles in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Dario Argento’s Deep Red (Italian: Profondo Rosso, 1975), and a very memorable appearance in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) – went to Australia to direct a moody supernatural thriller called The Survivor. It was not his first time behind the camera, but up to that point he had only directed small-scale drama and comedy and The Survivor was one of the most expensive Australian movies ever made at the time of its release, making him an risky choice nonetheless. With the benefit of hindsight, Hemmings ended up being a great fit and The Survivor became his springboard into more big-budget Aussie movies, including Treasure of the Yankee Zephyr (1981), and directing a series of American-made television programs throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s (including The A-Team and Airwolf).
Thanks in large part to Mark Hartley’s brilliant and popular documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation (2008) and the renewed interest in wacky Aussie exploitation films that followed, The Survivor has been retroactively labeled “Ozploitation,” but the designation ends up doing the movie a disservice – not because Ozploitation is a shameful label, but because it doesn’t strive meet such wild standards. The film’s impressive budget is a clue as to its intent to compete with “serious” Hollywood releases. Furthermore, Hemmings’ rarely leans on the venal tropes of something like Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot (aka: Escape 2000, 1982) – though, by the way, Hemmings served as 2nd unit director on that particular movie. The Survivor is downright lyrical, comparable to the emotionally mature, Hollywood-friendly drama pioneered by Australian New Wave figures, like Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong.. The film (which is not to be confused with Thom Eberhardt’s Sole Survivor, a 1983 American horror film about a woman who survives a plane crash, only to be haunted by the less lucky passengers) has its share of spooks and scares, including an outrageously nightmarish opening plane crash (which is still pretty impressionistic, considering the scope of the special effects budget) and chilling accidental death set-pieces that prefigure the Final Destination franchise. Still, Hemmings is more concerned with being creepy and disquieting than outwardly shocking. Even the burn damage to victims pulled from the crash appears more tragic than grotesque.
While there is reactive and incidental dialogue during the first 15 minutes, there is little oral exposition or even an indication as to which characters are going to lead the story, aside from the fact that Robert Powell, Jenny Agutter, and Joseph Cotten (in his final film appearance) are recognizable stars. This shell-shocking, tone poem approach is repeated again and again throughout the film, though it is somewhat curbed whenever the story comes back into focus. David Ambrose’s screenplay (based on a 1976 novel by James Herbert), though occasionally quite witty, can turn accidentally comical in its gloominess. The characters become trapped between the melancholic demands of the script and Hemmings’ foggy imagery, leading the cast to waste too much of their time quietly wallowing in self pity and confusion. The final result is a very good and thoughtful supernatural thriller that is overlong and sometimes devolves into an overly serious soap opera. Unfortunately, this uneven nature, which pays off with an emotionally-charged Twilight Zone-like ending, will turn off certain subsets of viewers. Those in search of a serious arthouse drama on par with Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) will likely be disappointed by the genre trappings, while those hankering for the eccentric delights of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) will likely be disappointed by the lack of insanity. I recommend both groups stick it out, because The Survivor offers a rarely seen middle ground between these such extremes.
The Survivor was released on anamorphic DVD via BritFilm and Crabtree in the UK, and Scorpion in the US (that version is still technically in print). There was also a heavily edited, non-anamorphic disc from Prism Direct released in the UK. Severin’s disc marks the film’s Blu-ray debut (though RB/Aussie fans do have a BD to look forward to in April via Glass Doll) and touts a brand new 2K remaster, presented here in 2.35:1, 1080p video. All of Severin’s Ozploitation Blu-rays have featured top-notch transfers and this one is no exception. Hemmings and cinematographer John Seale shoot much of the film in wide angles and medium shots, so there’s not a lot of hyper-sharp close-up detail, but plenty of complex patterns and subtle gradations. Grain texture is pretty consistent and rarely intrusive, however, the filmmakers also utilize diffusion and soft focus to create a dreamy tone at times, which can kick up the frequency of noise a twinge. For whatever reason (perhaps the condition of scans or overzealous grading), many of the studio’s other Aussie BDs have been over-warmed at the risk of neutral and cooler shades (their release of Ron Hardy’s Thirst was especially yellowed). That is not a problem here, as skin tones remain pink, skies blue, and landscapes green. All hues have an appropriate punch, especially the searing reds of a photographer’s dark room (which plays a central role in a few sequences), but rarely appear unnaturally rich or vivid. Black levels are relatively strong without creating obvious crush effects. Compression artifacts are limited mostly to some slight blocking in warmer backgrounds.
The Survivor is presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 and its original mono sound. The cramping of sound into a single channel leads to a relatively flat overall mix – one that occasionally suffers from tinges of distortion and fuzz – but the sound design itself is well-enough balanced to overcome many typical monoraul problems. There is plenty of dynamic range and the track is often teeming with eerie environmental ambience. The soundtrack is supplied by the omnipresent Brian May (not the guitarist from Queen, the other Brian May), who seems to have composed the music for about half of the Australian films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. This is one of his better scores in terms of the complex symphonic numbers, but I would argue that less would be more in regards to the images that Hemmings sets the music against, In most cases, the dissonant piano and synth do a better job of conveying the creepy tone than the bold and brash orchestrations.
Extended scenes (3:34, HD)
Not Quite Hollywood extended interviews (22:12, HD) – Producer Antony I. Ginnane and cinematographer John Seale discuss the making of the film in these outtakes from Mark Hartley’s documentary.
The Legacy of James Herbert (9:19, HD) – Fans and experts discuss the author’s brand of gory horror and thriller novels, including some archive interview footage of the man himself.
Robert Powell on James Herbert (3:24, HD) – The Survivor’s lead fondly recalls the author, who was also his friend.
Vintage episode of Clapper-board (29:59, SD) – An Aussie-made EPK-type TV special featuring footage from the locations and interviews with Joseph Cotten and Peter Sumner.
Archive television interview with Hemmings (15:43, SD) – The charming director regales the audience with amusing tales of his acting career and directing Just a Gigolo (1978) with David Bowie. He also does a magic trick for good measure. Note that there seems to have been an error and the same interview appears twice, the second time under the header ‘archive interview with Hemmings and Robert Powell.
Antony I. Ginnane trailer reel (32:03, HD)
The Survivor TV spot
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.