Sole Survivor (1982) Sole Survivor (1982) ***½

     In 1982, the easiest way to describe Sole Survivor was probably something like “imagine Carnival of Souls, but with a plane crash instead of a car wreck.” That wouldn’t have been quite right, but it would give you the general idea. In 2018, though, we can do better: Sole Survivor is Final Destination by way of It Follows— except, of course, that it was made decades before those films. Sole Survivor is probably too obscure to have influenced either one directly, but I wouldn’t rule it out. It Follows especially looks like it could be in this movie’s debt, with its implacable, zombie-like pursuers resembling the world’s grossest homeless people. And I do remember seeing Sole Survivor on plenty of video-store shelves back in the day, although I never got around to renting it myself. Even if the suggestive resemblance is nothing more than coincidence, though, I feel confident in recommending Sole Survivor to fans of It Follows. It’s got the same ponderous pace and oppressive mood to go along with the similar threat to the protagonist’s safety. Sole Survivor’s beleaguered heroine didn’t have nearly as much fun getting into her predicament, mind you…

     Washed-up, alcoholic B-movie actress Karla Davis (co-producer Caren L. Larkey, who later had the kind of cameo in Get Out that makes me think Jordan Peele saw this movie back when, whether or not David Robert Mitchell did) has nightmares. Worse than that, she has prophetic nightmares. Worst of all, the prophecies never even concern her, but foretell misfortune for people only tangentially connected to her life. Karla therefore has had to choose between ignoring the dreams, and leaving innocent strangers to suffer, or butting into those strangers’ business to warn them, and thereby looking like a complete fucking loon. Thus far, she’s consistently chosen to look like a loon, which goes some way toward explaining both her drinking and the state of her career. In Karla’s latest dream, she sees a woman whom she simultaneously does and does not know (Anita Skinner) surviving— inexplicably, and with barely a scratch— an airplane crash that kills everyone else aboard. She sees also that the mystery woman’s survival is not the boon it appears to be, but rather the setup for some even more terrible doom. Karla’s vision punks out, though, on the $64,000 question: it tells her nothing about what that alternate doom might be. As soon as Karla is awake enough to think coherently (or semi-coherently, anyway), she picks up the phone to call Blake (Andrew Boyer, from Dreamscape and Night of the Comet), her agent. The reason why is a tad complicated. Karla’s latest attempt at a comeback rests on a forthcoming television commercial for Roaster’s Blend decaffeinated coffee. Although she could not discern the name of the woman in her dream, it was given to Karla to understand that she worked for the advertising agency under whose auspices the Roaster’s Blend commercial was being produced. That’s what I meant about Karla knowing and not knowing her at the same time. Anyway, Karla was hoping that Blake would be able to tell her the woman’s name— and indeed he can. She’s called Denise Watson. It’s too late for Karla to warn her not to get on that plane, however. Denise is on the runway while Karla is on the phone, and her flight comes to exactly the end foreseen by the actress.

     Denise spends eight days in the hospital before Dr. Brian Richardson (Kurt Johnson, of Ghost Story and The Fan) is prepared to believe that there really is as little wrong with her as it appears. Richardson is concerned not merely about her physical condition, but about her emotional state as well. Survivor’s guilt is a potent force under much less extraordinary circumstances than hers, after all. Denise assures him, however, that whatever she’s feeling, it isn’t guilt. All she can think of to compare it to is a time some years ago when her credit card was mistakenly not charged for an expensive dress that she bought on extravagant impulse. With the dress, she knew there’d been a computer fuck-up somewhere, but how to account for this accounting error in her favor? Also, Denise notes that in the end, she did have to pay for that dress. Shit catches up with you— you can count on it.

     Indeed, it very nearly catches up with her that very evening. The hospital lobby is thronged with reporters hot on the scent of the Miracle Woman, and Denise has no desire to hear any of their questions, let alone try to answer them. Consequently, she’s arranged to have her friend and next-door neighbor, Kristy Cutler (Robin Davidson), pick her up at the hospital’s back loading dock. While Denise waits, she has an odd encounter with a silent little girl roaming unsupervised around the rear of the building. The kid seems drugged or sick or hypnotized or something, and she’s literally dripping wet, even though it hasn’t been raining. With her attention focused on the child, Denise doesn’t notice until it’s almost too late that one of the trucks parked near the dock has slipped its brakes. The truck rolls down the ramp from street level straight at her, and comes within a hair’s breadth of running her down. The dripping girl is gone by the time Denise is sufficiently composed to think of her again. All in all, Denise is more than ready to go home once Kristy finds her way to the rendezvous point at last.

     Over the coming weeks, Denise throws herself into the effort of resuming her normal life. She hangs out with Kristy (and tries to ignore the occasional thoughtless question from one or another of the girl’s druggie-spiritual post-hippy pals). She takes advantage of Dr. Richardson’s continued interest in her case to draw him first into friendship with her, and then into an affair. And more than anything, she does her ultimately futile damnedest to coax a usable coffee-shilling performance out of Karla Davis at the TV studio. But throughout all that, there’s a recurring background hum of unsettling incidents. Denise keeps seeing seemingly entranced people like the girl from the hospital, and their appearances usually herald her narrowly avoiding some kind of potentially fatal accident. Something that Dr. Richardson— although I guess we should call him “Brian” at this point— says in passing makes the whole business even more disturbing, too. On the night of Denise’s release from the hospital, somebody stole the body of a teenaged girl from the morgue, only to return it a couple hours later. The body was gone just long enough for the refrigerator frost on its skin to have melted completely…

     Yup. Denise is being haunted by zombies, alright, but these aren’t like any other zombies you’re likely to see in a 1980’s horror movie. The creatures persecuting Denise are manifestations of Death itself, working to correct the error of her impossible air-crash survival. And although they act merely as harbingers of danger at first, Denise’s continued good fortune and high wariness eventually drive the undead to become more proactive. In the end, she becomes a veritable magnet for homicidal, animate corpses, borrowed from wherever a dead body happens to be lying about.

     Naturally the first thing one thinks of nowadays when there are zombies afoot in a movie is George Romero. Plenty of independent horror films copied Romero’s subject matter in the early 80’s, but Sole Survivor does something much rarer. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen that successfully duplicates Romero’s tone. The most powerful aspect of this film is the inevitability of Denise’s plight. She’s literally fighting Death, and that isn’t a battle that anyone ever wins in the long run. The best she might hope for is 60 years of outmaneuvering zombie assassins, only to die of something like uterine cancer or congestive heart failure instead. The bad end to which she comes is therefore surprising only in relation to the culture-wide expectation that the protagonist usually comes out on top— an expectation that a moment’s thought will expose as absurd in Denise’s specific case. Sole Survivor plays entirely fair with its bummer ending, too, never holding out any hope of some magical solution to the problem. Death screwed up, but Denise’s bill is due now; it’s exactly that simple. Bleak as that is, however, it’s inescapable doom on a personal scale rather than an apocalyptic one. So if we’re thinking in terms of George Romero, the best point of comparison is not the zombie cycle, walking corpses notwithstanding, but Martin. I don’t see movies that remind me of Martin very often.

     As I’ve already hinted, Sole Survivor is Martin-like in its pacing as well, which might be a problem for some viewers. Although writer/director Thom Eberhardt promises plenty up front with Karla’s prophetic nightmare, he’s in no hurry to deliver, and it’s some considerable while before we even understand how Death means to collect on Denise’s debt. Eberhardt would skate out onto similarly thin ice decades later in Naked Fear. The risk pays off better this time, however, simply because Sole Survivor is about inexorably creeping doom. All the best inexorable dooms creep just fast enough for their targets to wear themselves out trying to keep ahead, and that’s precisely what happens to Denise here.

     In the meantime, Eberhardt cleverly gives us something else to focus on. He arranges for us to share in Denise’s nagging feeling that something simply isn’t right. Like most 1980’s horror films, Sole Survivor makes extensive use of false scares during the first and second acts, and Eberhardt deploys them very skillfully for a first-time feature director. It also uses a less common and more effective technique for generating tension, setting up scares that never come at all. It’s amazing how nerve-wracking it is to be repeatedly subjected to the combination of tense music and agitated, roving cameras without even the tawdry release of a spring-loaded cat! By the time the zombies start doing anything, you’ll have spent so much time on edge over nothing that attack by murder-corpses comes as something of a relief. This might be the earliest movie I’ve seen exploit the technical savvy of the veteran horror fan in quite this way. If you can handle the long, slow, quiet buildup, Sole Survivor is an exceptionally rewarding film.



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