Underrated Horror Film Review: Sole Survivor (1984)

Back in the 80s, Hollywood horror movies were primarily overcrowded with countless slasher genres or anything that has obligatory amounts of sex, nudity, gore and violence. Sole Survivor is none of them, as writer-director Thom Eberhardt — making his debut before he became better known for his 1984 sci-fi horror-comedy classic Night of the Comet and also responsible as one of the co-writers for Rick Moranis-starred Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992) — favours a radically different approach at the time.

And by radically different, Sole Survivor is more deliberately paced and heavy on atmosphere than resorting into cheap thrills. The story, in the meantime, is blessed with an interesting hook: Anita Skinner plays the titular sole survivor, Denise Watson, who is the only person alive to walk away miraculously from a disastrous plane crash. Soon, she finds herself being constantly watched and stalked by mysterious strangers.

Sounds familiar? That is because Sole Survivor somehow served as a spiritual precursor to like-minded future horror movies, notably Final Destination (2000) and It Follows (2014). But back when it was first released, albeit a limited screening in 1984, the movie was largely ignored by the general public and has since become one of those forgotten horror movies of the 80s hoping to be rediscovered someday in the future.

Looking at the movie today, it’s easy to see why Sole Survivor feels indeed like an odd one out released during that era. And yet, kudos should go to Thom Eberhardt for being bold enough to break out of the standard horror template at the time and made something uniquely his own.

Reportedly made at a tiny US$350,000 budget, Eberhardt manages to make good use of the amount to craft a horror movie full of foreboding dread with the help of David F. Anthony’s ambient score. He relies mostly on suspense to draw out some effective tension (the elaborate parking lot scene comes to mind), with only sporadically uses of blood and gore in some scenes.

At the heart of this movie is Anita Skinner, a virtually unknown whose only other credit was a 1978 comedy-drama called Girlfriends, who delivers a first-rate lead performance as Denise Watson. It’s a pity that this happened to be Skinner’s second and final role before she gave up acting and never heard again ever since.

Whereas Sole Survivor gets most of the things right including the eerie yet pessimistic finale, Eberhardt’s screenplay is sometimes uneven (Caren Larkey’s supporting role as the psychic former actress Karla who first warned Denise not to take the flight could have used more character development). The pacing also feels odd in places, with a padded-out long stretch involving romantic subplot between Denise and her doctor-boyfriend, Brian Richardson (Kurt Johnson) being the prime example. If only Eberhardt –who also in charge of editing his own movie — able to trim some of the unnecessarily lengthy moments, it would have been a better result.

A few shortcomings aside, Sole Survivor remains an obscure horror movie worth checking out for.

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