Rarely do supernatural occurrences take place in a heavily populated, outdoor area. But The Survivor, a 1981 horror film directed by David Hemmings and based on a story by James Herbert, focuses on that idea of a large-scale haunting. It involves a plane crash that kills 300 people at the beginning of the film, leaving only one survivor behind in its wake: the pilot Keller (Robert Powell), a man suffering from survivor’s guilt and hearing voices around the wreckage. The Survivor boils slowly, with Hemmings giving heavy character development as Keller and a psychic woman named Hobbes (Jenny Agutter) piece together the mystery.
The opening sequence really sets the tone for the rest of the film to follow. A quick introduction to some of the characters and the passengers of the plane is barely out of the way before the whole thing comes crashing down, and Hemmings’ unbroken focus on the chaos of the situation is strikingly tense – there’s very little dialogue, and The Survivor follows this harrowing experience from beginning to end. It’s a drawn-out passage, showcasing the reactions of a photographer on the scene and the people in the midst of the crash as well as Hobbes’ presence.
But that tendency for drawing things out to their maximum length becomes The Survivor‘s struggling point. In some sequences, the long scenes work incredibly well to generate suspense, especially with the paranormal aspects or the multiple shots of the plane wreckage depicting a powerful image of death and destruction. Other scenes, however, fail to reach their potential, and Hemmings often wedges a lot of dialogue into the film where it doesn’t really belong. Too much time is spent on reconstructing the crash scene or following extraneous characters that ultimately fail to make much of a difference in the plot.
There’s some necessity to that slow journey, however. The Survivor requires quite a bit of character development for Keller, who struggles to cope with his life after feeling the weight of 300 dead people on his soul. It’s difficult to miss the themes about mortality and survivor’s guilt interspersed with the supernatural hauntings; those ghosts are, for the most part, a metaphor about being haunted in life by mistakes. In this case, though, The Survivor takes a left turn by incorporating a murderer into the film as well; a bomb planted on the plane takes the blame away from Keller, who suffers from post-traumatic amnesia after the crash.
Still, The Survivor isn’t tense enough to warrant its overly-bloated running time, and even its paranormal sequences tend to fall a bit short. Besides the initial plane crash, there’s nothing that stands out about the film besides its impressive plane wreckage on location; this makes it hard to recommend the film to those thinking about seeing it for the first time. While Powell and Agutter do a commendable job with their characters, the film’s main villain is a lot less explicitly defined, and this seems like a poor translation from novel to film. Even worse is an ambiguous final sequence that is intentionally left open to interpretation; however, that ambiguity changes the context of the film quite a bit, and The Survivor comes up short as the viewer struggles to make sense of the meaning.
The Survivor is an intriguing concept, and its story does have a lot of thematic resonance. However, as a film it is less successful than what James Herbert’s novel presumably offers, with too much plot to sift through and a languid pace that hinders more than it helps. Some scenes are certainly worth seeing – the plane crash itself being the most memorable – but for the most part, The Survivor’s mystery fails to take off.