In Praise of Thom Eberhardt’s 1983 Chiller SOLE SURVIVOR

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Thom Eberhardt’s eerie 1983 chiller SOLE SURVIVOR discussed.

For years, no one talked about Thom (NIGHT OF THE COMET) Eberhardt’s 1983 chiller SOLE SURVIVOR. It haunted video stores. It drifted across late night cable TV. That’s where I saw it. But no one else I knew had seen it. I had no one to share my enthusiasm over the film with. I was God’s lonely man. And before the internet, there were no communities to join. There was no way to find a copy of it to purchase, which is what I so wanted to do. But I did find a copy, eventually. And I watched it again. And I estimated that it just might be the scariest movie I’d ever seen. When I was writing for Canadian horror magazine RUE MORGUE in my “Mad Musings of a Schizoid Cinephile” column, I wrote enthusiastically about the movie. Suddenly I was getting letters from people who had read that rave and had scoured eBay for that elusive Vestron VHS. A cult was swelling. And when Code Red licensed the film for DVD in 2008, they put my quote on the back of the box.

It was a moment of triumph!

Now, watching it again, these many years later, I’m not so sure it is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen anymore. But it’s certainly one of them.

Have you seen SOLE SURVIVOR?

Here’s the skinny…

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The film stars Chloe Sevigny-by-way-of-Gaylen Ross look-alike Anita Skinner as Denise Watson, the single living passenger found amidst the grim debris and broken bodies of a catastrophic plane crash. After the initial shell-shock subsides (her blood spattered, PTSD-fueled nightmares feature a wide eyed, gut-leaking torso, an image that froze my veins as a kid), life slowly carries on, save for one rather distressing turn of events; it seems that everywhere that poor Denise goes, hollow-eyed, slack-jawed zombies follow. They stare at her through restaurant windows; they harass her in public parks; they block her way on country roads. They’re everywhere, all the time and, alarmingly, their numbers are multiplying.

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It doesn’t take Denise long to realize the truth about her tormentors, that they are the recently risen angry dead whose mission it is to bring her briefly lucky ass back into the black where she belongs.

If this chilling narrative twist sounds familiar, it should. SOLE SURVIVOR  echoes James Herbert’s novel THE SURVIVOR (which was made into a film by DEEP RED actor David Hemmings in 1981) but takes its most distinct cues from Herk Hervey’s immortal low budget 1962 mood piece CARNIVAL OF SOULS, which in turn cribbed its DNA from the classic THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “The Hitch Hiker”. The FINAL DESTINATION franchise (particularly the first film) seems to borrow much from SOLE SURVIVOR and, most interestingly…so does David Robert Mitchell’s recent horror hit IT FOLLOWS.

In fact…IT FOLLOWS is a LOT like SOLE SURVIVOR.

With the increasingly confused Skinner meeting the dead that often only she can see around every turn, the thrust of both films are eerily similar. Even some of the ghouls mirror the specters of Mitchell’s film, recently dead victims, some post-drowning and dripping, some clad in their open-backed hospital-issue robes. And they’re quietly threatening.

Now, I liked IT FOLLOWS and I’m not suggesting that Mitchell borrowed the soul of SOLE SURVIVOR for his film but…okay, yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting.

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Anyway, back to the film.

What makes this understated shocker really cook is Eberhardt’s eye for atmosphere and use of music. Right from its first lonely frame, when the rumbles of David Anthony’s minimalist ambient score whispers across an empty, rain slicked city street in the middle of the night, we know that we’re about to be plunged into the heart of celluloid darkness. And we are. And it’s quietly horrifying.

SOLE SURVIVOR is a supremely slow, obscenely eerie exercise in dread, one that manages to reference Rod Serling, Ingmar Bergman and George Romero, sometimes within the same scene. It’s an admittedly depressing picture, one in which we know our heroine is doomed and we can only watch, helpless, as every move she makes just slams another nail in her cosmically preordained coffin.

Why Eberhardt has all but disowned it is anyone’s guess…if he reads this, Thom…I’d love to talk to you…

If you value skillfully orchestrated, low budget American death-dreams that seep under your skin and stay there, I advise you to seek SOLE SURVIVOR out….before it finds you. After following you. Ahem.

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Weekend: Jan. 24, 2019, Jan. 27, 2019

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