Director: Thom Eberhardt
Code Red

Following a long hiatus from the DVD market after unleashing a quintet of discs through Media Blasters (only one of which is worth your time and money, DEVIL TIMES FIVE), Code Red has finally returned to begin dishing out discs of their lengthy acquisitions list. For a comeback release of sorts, their choice of the early 1980s cult horror flick SOLE SURVIVOR is an odd one, but this little-known chiller is an interesting curio and a nice surprise for fans looking for something different from this era of horror cinema.

Commercial producer Denise Watson has miraculously survived a plane crash that left the remaining passengers and crew dead, but just as she is counting her blessings, she begins encountering strange, ghostly figures wandering the landscape of her life: a little girl soaking wet in a hospital, a man standing in the middle of a deserted road, an elderly gentleman in a park. Karla Davis, a washed-up actress with psychic powers, senses something eerie about Denise, and warns her that though she survived the crash, she has avoided her fate…and death is coming for her.

Devoid of graphic violence, sex or nudity, or, frankly, any major exploitable elements to be expected from horror films of the post-FRIDAY THE 13TH early 1980s, SOLE SURVIVOR succeeds by relying on an ever-growing sense of dread. It’s no horror classic, but totally deserving of its sleeper status among horror fans thanks to some nice atmosphere, memorable setpieces surrounding the walking dead, and a twist ending that is kind of a stunner (if you ignore the lapses in logic). For example: one particularly unique moment appears when the audience sees the aftermath of the plane crash; instead of the expected special effects and gory violence, we see Denise sitting, paralyzed with fear in her plane seat, surrounded by debris and body parts. This is an instance when the severely low budget works in the film’s favor (as with a similar film, CARNIVAL OF SOULS, which this film visibly borrows from). Another reason the film works is leading lady Anita Skinner, a virtual nobody in Hollywood who only had one other film credit to her name and who promptly retired after this film. She’s a very likable presence, adding an endearing personality to the character that makes the viewer care what happens to her, and as her plight becomes more bizarre and her life pushed further into danger, Skinner’s performance becomes more and more impressive. As we follow her through the bizarre maze of her post-crash life, Thom Eberhardt’s script throws many surprises our way, some successful, some not (the romantic subplot is a little much…), and while the pacing will deter anyone wanting exciting action and cheap thrills, SOLE SURVIVOR is definitely worth checking out for horror nuts looking for something different.

It’s nothing like Eberhardt’s later cult classic NIGHT OF THE COMET, but fans of films like LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and EYES OF FIRE should find another low-key atmospheric favorite here. Additional notes: The box copy and supplements make a big deal about the film’s similarity to the 2000 box office hit FINAL DESTINATION, but other than the concept of a plane crash survivor cheating death and being haunted by it, the comparison ends there. Brinke Stevens, before she became an overexposed Scream Queen, cameos here in an early role as a topless teen.

Culled from the film’s original negative, SOLE SURVIVOR looks great in this new transfer, presented 1.85:1 and anamorphic. While there is some color shifting in a few scenes and some grainy spots over the course of the film, the image is clear and bright throughout, colors are strong, skin tones are accurate, and night scenes are much more visible than the VHS release. The mono audio is as bold as it can be, considering this is more of a dialogue-driven film.

Because both director Thom Eberhardt and star Anita Skinner apparently weren’t interested in participating with the DVD release, co-producer/actress Caren Larkey and executive producer Sal Romeo appear in both an audio commentary and an on-camera interview. To be honest, neither of the supplements is that great, and one should have been jettisoned for the other, as they both repeat the same info. The commentary is moderated by Code Red associate Jeff McKay and schlock director Jeff Burr (another in an ongoing trend with this company of hiring Z-list directors to moderate their commentaries, for really no good reason), and while the two manage to ask some good questions about the production, neither Larkey or Romeo are really able to add much insight into the conception of the film. While they have good memories of certain scenes and the process of raising finances and the mishandled distribution of the film, the overall theme of the commentary is that Thom would have better answers. It’s just too bad that he wouldn’t oblige the fans by providing a commentary (especially when he wasn’t able to do so for MGM’s DVD release of NIGHT OF THE COMET). The on-camera interview, while brief, adds nothing new that isn’t already covered in the commentary, so should have probably been thrown out. The lighting is a little bizarre, resulting in the interview subjects yielding orange skin and reflecting giant shadows on the wall behind them. Larkey also contributes an on-camera introduction to the film, with the same lighting problem. The film’s original theatrical trailer and previews for upcoming Code Red titles (including THE UNSEEN, THE FARMER, THE DEAD PIT, SILENT SCREAM, and HUMAN EXPERIMENTS) cap off this very surprising and welcome release from Code Red. Welcome back!
(Casey Scott)