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Case Number 18103

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Sole Survivor

Code Red // 1983 // 85 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // January 15th, 2010

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All Rise...

During the notorious Dr. Scholl's war of '96, Appellate Judge Tom Becker became an insole survivor.

The Charge

It wants her…it's waiting…it won't be long now.

Opening Statement

"No one can stop it, Denise. And anyone who gets in the way, or anyone who knows about it, or anyone who even suspects, will be dealt with."

Facts of the Case

Actress Karla Davis (Caryn Larkey) is having dreams about Denise (Anita Skinner), a woman she's never met but who has cast her in a commercial. In one dream, she Denise surviving a plane crash.

Sure enough, Denise is in a plane crash and winds up being the Sole Survivor. Grateful (naturally) to be alive, she has a feeling that something isn't right. She's having trouble sleeping, and she's uncomfortable being alone.

Worse, though, she begins seeing strange people—people who don't speak or react, but seem to be pursuing her.

Is Denise suffering a severe case of survivor guilt? Or is it her survival that was the real accident?

The Evidence

If there's a special place in Hell for all the shoddy, derivative, unscary horror movies churned out each year, then Sole Survivor must have a seat reserved in obscure movie heaven. Co-opting bits of cult favorites Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead with a plot that pre-dates the insipid Final Destination franchise by almost two-decades, this is a chilly and effective little creeper.

Sole Survivor was released in the slasher-happy '80s, when films like Friday the 13th had ratcheted up what was not only acceptable in terms of violence, but what was expected in a horror movie, while effects wizards like Tom Savini became legends by trying to out-gore their previous efforts. Sole Survivor is not a slasher movie; it's an old-time existential horror-cum-paranormal chiller, and in the glutted grue market, it didn't stand a chance. Add in a less-than favorable distribution deal from a low-tier independent releasing company, and the film just fell by the wayside. A VHS from Vestron didn't help bring it to the forefront, either.

Fortunately, Code Red has resurrected this gem and given it a spiffy DVD release complete with decent tech and a good slate of extras.

I'll admit, I'm a sucker for low-budget, late '70s/early '80s horror films, and Sole Survivor is a veritable compendium of everything I cherish about the genre:

• Atmosphere
Writer/Director Thom Eberhardt (Night of the Comet) takes his time to tell his story, creating an unnerving atmosphere of menace that makes the "scary" scenes more effective. Ambient sounds and whispering voices, rather than crescendoing music, help set the mood, and there's a nicely pervasive creepiness throughout.

• Characters
While Skinner is a bit stiff, and Kurt Johnson, as her doctor boyfriend, is forgettable, we get some fun and colorful work from the supporting cast. Best is Larkin as Karla, a Melanie Griffith-esque actress who once starred in beach movies but is now on the skids—and, she's psychic! Loon though she be, she's the only one who actually knows what's going on, and she has to get drunk to talk about it. We also get nice character turns from actors who are only onscreen a few minutes, including Steve Isbell as an obnoxious cab driver, William Snare as a cynical and hapless coroner, and Andrew Boyer as Karla's beleagured agent.

• Camerawork
I'm so used to seeing professionally, yet unimaginatively, shot horror films—particularly recent vintage—that the inventive work here stands out like a surfer in a beach of zombies. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter—who went on to win an Oscar for shooting Titanic—adds a distinctly European art-film flavor to the proceedings.

• The Old Days
Rotary phones, florid wallpaper, record albums, Percodan—you just can't "re-create" this stuff.

• The Non-sequitors
Eberhardt fills the movie with small, entertaining asides that add little or nothing to the main story but contribute so much to the experience. Among the more memorable: a coroner's comments about a suicide, an urgent scene punctuated with a Salvation Army worker ringing a bell (it's Christmastime), and several scenes of the making of Karla's TV commercial.

• Gratuitous Nudity
A funny scene of some neighborhood "teens" playing strip poker (!) offers up a pre-iconic Brinke Stevens, who's onscreen for maybe two minutes, but is topless for about 90 of those 120 seconds. Take that, PG-13! As a bonus, the lone teen boy here is played by Clay Wilcox, who went on to perform in small roles in a number of films and TV shows, notably as "Loudmouth Drunk in the Gem Saloon" in three episodes of Deadwood. No one-hit wonder he…

Independently produced on a micro-budget by star Larkey, her husband Dan, and acting teacher Sal Romeo, the film looks very good on DVD. Audio is the original mono, and it's clear, but—as always—I wish they'd provided subtitles. For supplements, we get an intro to the film by Larkey, an interview with Larkey and Romeo, and a commentary with Larkey, Romeo, film historian Jeff McKay, and director (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) Jeff Burr, plus trailers for this film and a few others, include The Dead Pit and The Silent Scream.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Obviously, I really enjoyed this film, but it's certainly not the second coming. It's still a low-budget horror movie with its share of flaws.

Anita Skinner isn't bad in the lead, but she's not great, either. As awful things happen, she often seems more like an annoyed soccer mom than an increasingly terrified heroine. A little more vulnerability would have helped this performance.

Also, while I applaud the film for giving us something different, there are a few logic problems here. At the risk of presenting spoilers, I'll leave this to the viewer, except to say that Carnival of Souls approached things more cohesively.

Closing Statement

Sole Survivor is a fun and creepy thriller primed for rediscovery. Code Red's disc is impressive. Pick it up.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 88
Audio: 82
Extras: 85
Acting: 85
Story: 94
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Code Red
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Cult
• Horror
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Introduction
• Commentary
• Interview
• Trailer


• IMDb

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