While he is perhaps best known to cult horror and sci-fi audiences today as the guy who was in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, Dario Argento's Deep Red, and Roger Vadim's Barbarella, the career of one-time Alfred the Great star David Hemmings was much more extensive than that. Off-screen, the late English actor/filmmaker was the co-founder of the Hemdale Film Corporation ‒ the very busy production company responsible for several iconic films from the '80s, including several Oliver Stone hits (Platoon and Salvador), Hoosiers, The Last Emperor, and even still-mimicked trendsetters such as James Cameron's The Terminator and Dan O'Bannon's zombie horror comedy classic The Return of the Living Dead.
In addition to acting and producing, Hemmings dabbled as director, too; a trait which came in most handy as his on-screen career seemed to wane in the early '80s. Though he mostly manufactured TV episodes in the US, Hemmings helmed more significant productions in Europe (see: the David Bowie/Marlene Dietrich drama Just a Gigolo) and in Australia. But it was the magical land of Oz where Hemmings must have felt at home the most, having produced, directed, or at least appeared in several there, including Ozploitation cult classics such as Strange Behavior, Thirst, Harlequin, Turkey Shoot, and a certain little adaptation of a James Herbert supernatural thriller, 1981's The Survivor.
Well, I really can't call The Survivor "little," especially since it was ‒ at the time ‒ the most expensive production ever made in Australia, thanks largely in part to the tale's foremost central sequence: the explosion and subsequent cremation of an actual Boeing 747 aircraft. Yes, boys and girls, The Survivor is one of those movies you hope to whatever deity you may believe in you will never see as a featured film on any sort of passenger flight. But whereas movies like Fearless or Fate Is the Hunter quite literally keep the poor souls of their respective stories grounded, this post-Carnival of Souls / pre-Final Destination offering is much more spiritual, as we discover Fate really is the hunter.
A passenger jet with 300 people mysteriously crash lands and explodes, killing everyone on-board save for ‒ inexplicably enough ‒ the pilot of the aircraft, David Keller, as played here by cult movie regular (and Harlequin star) Robert Powell. With no memory of how or why the accident occurred, Keller immediately starts his own one-man investigation ‒ as if he were in Blowup or Deep Red or something ‒ in an attempt to figure out what happened. But since the official investigator, a thoroughly unlikeable fellow named Tewson (Peter Sumner), continuously glares at and blames Keller whilst sorting through a sordid amount of debris, our man Keller inevitably has no choice but to accept help from any source available.
Enter the one and only Jenny Agutter as Hobbs, a nearby psychic whose particular gift is never addressed directly, much like many of the storytelling elements of The Survivor. But then, The Survivor probably asks more questions than it answers, as David Hemmings and producer Antony I. Ginnane felt it was better to take a more cerebral approach to the tale. Shortly afterward, Ginnane would state their decision was a mistake, while the late James Herbert himself would publicly dismiss the film as a disastrous wreck of another kind. And, depending on what kind of genre you're expecting to see here, it may be easy to side with either opinion, as the film appears to be uncertain as to whether it's a drama, a fantasy, or a horror flick.
Ultimately, The Survivor sports a few genuinely creepy scenes. (I mean, who isn't psychologically intimidated by ghostly children and their half-burned dolls?) While the top-billed leads ‒ Powell and Agutter ‒ were both English imports (which didn't impress a lot of Australians; co-stars Peter Sumner and Angela Punch McGregor later complained most of their footage was cut out), The Survivor's most notable bit of casting is, hands down, Joseph Cotten as a priest. And although the venerable actor who was once in the (Mercury Theatre) company of Orson Welles doesn't have much to do or say here, this ‒ his final film ‒ is still much better than some of the tripe he popped up in as a marquee value guest star towards the end of his career.
Like most Australian films that don't focus on post-apocalyptic wastelands or drag queens, The Survivor has gone mostly unnoticed here in America since it first debuted. It popped up on VHS from Karl-Lorimar Home Video once, and I think aired on television a couple of times, but ultimately, I don't think it saw an actual theatrical release in the States. Scorpion Releasing gave us the first official DVD release in 2012, complete with an audio commentary by producer Antony I. Ginnane in tow, but it's this new uncut Severin Films Blu-ray that the film's fans will be most likely to snatch up. In addition to a lovely new 2k HD transfer which blows all previous home video issues out of the sky, this Aussie oddity also includes a heap of bonus features.
A few extended scenes from the climax of the film give you a chance to see some of that snipped footage Peter Sumner grieved over. Extended interviews with producer Antony I. Ginnane and cinematographer John Seale hail from Mark Hartley's 2008 Ozploitation documentary, Not Quite Hollywood. The life and work of late horror author James Herbert are explored in two featurettes, one of which includes actor Robert Powell. A vintage TV interview with Joseph Cotten and Peter Sumner is followed up with a talk show appearance by David Hemmings. (Note: The Special Features menu also advertises another archival TV interview ‒ this time with actor Robert Powell accompanying ‒ but all it does is take you back to the previous Hemmings-only interview.)
Lastly ‒ and perhaps most controversially ‒ are a couple of advertising spots. The latter one, a short TV spot, is hardly anything worth worrying about. The 32-minute Antony I. Ginnane Trailer Reel, on the other hand, is the sort of thing you may wish to be forewarned about. Much like Ginnane's former collaborator David Hemmings ‒ who bounced around from one filmmaking department to another ‒ the prolific Ginnane himself dabbled in just about every genre of exploitation filmmaking there was. This included several softcore porn comedies such as Fantasm (1976) and Fantasm Comes Again (1977), which are highlighted in this trailer reel, and feature many famous (and infamous) porn legends in the buff (look, kids, it's John Holmes' trademark!).
All in all, The Survivor is a rather uneven, but nevertheless enjoyable feature. It definitely isn't Fate Is the Hunter. Nor is it truly in the same class rating as Final Destination (not that Final Destination is the sort of film I would hail as praiseworthy, but I think you get me). Instead, it's something that falls to earth somewhere in-between those two tales. Had Hemmings and Ginnane decided to make their movie gorier, they may have had something that would have been, ironically, easier to stomach. Instead, much like many protagonists in similarly-themed vehicles, The Survivor feels like a movie that is trapped in limbo. And while that in itself may be quite appropriate, all things considered, it doesn't change the fact there is something missing here.
Alas, supernatural thrillers concerning plane crashes require certain kinds of discerning tastes. So, in conclusion, I heartily recommend taking The Survivor out for a test flight yourself.