Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!
Sometimes, someone comes up with a really good idea for a story. Sole Survivor is like that. It’s a really solid premise for a movie and it plays out really well. It’s a good enough idea that it spawned an entire franchise a decade and a half later. In a lot of obvious respects—and this is not a secret--Sole Survivor is the ur-version of the Final Destination series. If you go into this without knowing, it would be really obvious once you get the premise, and even more obvious once the movie starts.
There are some differences, of course. In the Final Destination movies, our heroes avoid the tragedy that happens or would have happened because of a premonition. That doesn’t happen here. For starters, the premonition comes to Carla Davis (Caren Larkey), a washed-up actress of old beach party movies, who has been hired for a decaf coffee ad. Her premonition is about the producer for that ad, Denise Watson (Anita Skinner). All she knows is that something bad is going to happen, but that Denise will survive.
And survive she does. In fact, she is the only one to survive, hence the title of the film. When we find Denise, she is sitting in a field, still belted into her middle seat from her airplane while the dead bodies and wreckage of the rest of that plane litters the field around her. Denise is not only the eponymous sole survivor, but is completely unharmed, a fact confirmed by Brian Richardson (Kurt Johnson), an ER doctor who soon becomes her love interest.
Things get weird right away. Denise starts seeing people staring at her, unmoving, wherever she goes. Tied to this are reports that she hears about from Brian that bodies have gone missing from the hospital morgue, only to turn up a few hours later. And, oddly, all of the bodies have the blood pooled in their legs as if they had been standing up. From the perspective of the audience, of course, we can figure out what is going on—those bodies are showing up to threaten Denise, but in the context of the film, it’s disturbingly mysterious and plays out really well.
Ultimately, this is the second biggest change from what the Final Destination films did. In those films, it is Death personified, in a sense, that comes after the survivors of the tragedies. Here, something similar is happening, except that Death is personified specifically as the bodies of the recent dead, which start out threatening and then take a much more active role in trying to correct what seems to have been a clerical oversight in Denise’s survival.
Sole Survivor also delves into the idea that Denise’s experience is not a unique one. We’re told at one point by Brian that she may be suffering from sole survivor syndrome, a sort of guilt at being the one person who lived when so many others were killed. We are told that many people who survive such events die soon after, either from suicide caused by their guilt or from increased risk taking because of a feeling of invulnerability. Essentially, the thought is that Death is ultimately not infallible and makes a clerical error now and again, but figures it out and comes to collect soon enough.
The only real issue I have with Sole Survivor is the very last few frames of the film. In that moment, in what clearly an attempt to give the audience one last scare, the film goes against the mythology it has built up. This is a rare case where a good movie that is otherwise far too short (it runs about 85 minutes) would be greatly improved by being a minute or two shorter. Remove that little epilogue, and this works all the better.
There’s an odd bit of reality that makes Sole Survivor work all the better. While the director, Tom Eberhardt, has done a number of classic and well-received films, the cast is another story. If you get the chance, check out the Wikipedia page on this—literally the only member of the cast who has her own page is Brinke Stevens, who is in this just long enough to take off her shirt for the film’s only moment of nudity. On IMDb, almost none of the cast have photos, and most that do are photos from this film. While it’s sad for their acting careers, it actually makes the film a lot more believable—they all look like real people going through something terrible.
I’m really happy I got the chance to see this. It’s underknown, surprisingly influential, and a lot better than I could have expected.
Why to watch Sole Survivor: It really is a dandy idea for a horror movie.
Why not to watch: The ending coda goes for scary and really just breaks the story.