Judge Bill Gibron once had a dream that a shirtless Lance Henriksen was his personal wilderness guide. But said fantasy definitely didn't end like this decent Don Coscarelli thriller.
In the wilderness you can't dial 911.
As they wait for their chartered plane to take off, the students preparing to attend the Survival Quest School get to know each other. There's Joey (Paul Provenza, Nothing Sacred), a cowardly jokester; Olivia (Traci Lind, The End of Violence), a distraught rich girl; Hal (Ben Hammer, Law and Order), a concerned old codger; Cheryl (Catherine Keener, Capote), a recently divorced woman with a bad sense of self; and Gray (Dermot Mulroney, The Family Stone), a recently released convict. Together with their guide Hank (Lance Henricksen, Aliens), they will spend four weeks in the wilderness getting to know themselves better. But said plans are complicated when military survivalist Jake (Mark Rolston, The Shawshank Redemption) decides to bring his corps of adolescent trainees to the same neck of the woods. A confrontation is likely, since both Hank and Jake believe themselves to be the best at human endurance skills. Before such a fatalistic falling out, our soft suburbanites will learn how to fend for themselves in the most desperate of conditions. And when things do turn deadly, they'll have their learned lessons to help them make it out…ALIVE!
Survival Quest stands as an anomaly in the career of genre outsider Don Coscarelli. Unless you count the first two films in his mostly macabre oeuvre, this action-adventure thriller centering on survivalists in the rugged California wilderness will seem very weird indeed. Instead of giving audiences the Tall Man and flying metal orbs, the demented delights of a fat, overweight Elvis, or a buttery and beefy Marc Singer speaking to ferrets, this defiant director hooked up with B-movie legend Lance Henricksen, cast the icon's co-star from James Cameron's Aliens (in this case, the former Pvt. Drake, Mark Rolston), and filled out the rest of the company with late '80s also-rans and a couple up-and-coming talents (Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney). He then tossed them all into the gorgeous West Coast mountains and filmed the potential fallout. But this is a Coscarelli film, by its very nature unconcerned with formula, standards, or other mainstream moviemaking issues. Instead, he concentrates on character, building each one of our city-slicker stumblebums (and a couple of the militia members) into fully dimensional individuals. While this does require a little time, it ends up paying off in potent dividends. Once we reach the climactic confrontation, the "us vs. them" dynamic becomes deeper and more dramatically powerful.
There are more than a few stumbles along the way, though. Coscarelli, with limited budget and production value, relies almost solely on nature to provide his visual flair. Sadly, some of cinematographer Daryn Okada's compositional choices block out the really stunning stuff. The film needed more sequences like the one where Henricksen talks to the oldest member of the group (a fine turn by character actor Ben Hammer) before setting him off on a solo outing. Invigorated by his surroundings, Hammer's Hal walks to the edge of a magnificent valley, and the view is indeed stupendous. Another stellar moment arrives when the gang sets out across a snow-covered mountain. An amazing silhouette of indecipherable individuals trudging up a completely white slope sends shivers down the spine. Similar to how William Girdler used the wilds to amplify his creatures-gone-crazy epic, Day of the Animals, Coscarelli makes the outdoors a part of the picture's metaphysical meaning. Even when the performances are a little pat (comedian Pal Provenza is all shtick as he nebbishes up the underbrush) or under-explored (a far too young Catherine Keener goes from loser to leader in what seems to be the blink of an eye), we still have the breathtaking vistas to keep us company.
By the time we reach the ending, we are prepared for some old-fashioned, bare-knuckled ass kicking. The movie has gotten us good and goaded, waiting for the moment when frontier justice is meted out and all outward-bound booty is barbequed. Thankfully, Coscarelli doesn't let us down. There are some rather exciting scenes here, stunts that make us fear for our heroes and hiss the rather poorly defined villains. Indeed, if Survival Quest has a major malfunction, it's in the creation of our military mercenary creeps. Rolston is fine, since he moderates his madness with a little courtesy and some occasional moralizing. But sidekick Raider (played by Goonies snob boy Steve Antin) is merely a loose cannon with even more messed-up motives. His actions don't quite match his issues in the film, and his last- act turn into a raving power-mad maniac seems to be stretching things a bit. In addition, Coscarelli misses what many would call the "savor" moments—those last-minute payoffs which right the cinematic universe in unbelievably satisfying ways. We don't really get to see the final finish of our goons, and there is a missing scene where all the survivors should get together and celebrate. Still, if you don't mind the languid intro to our intrepid campers, and enjoy the chance to revel in a little wilderness wonder, Survival Quest will satisfy your basic thriller needs.
As part of what appears to be a retrospective of Coscarelli's career, this well-meaning movie gets an effective DVD release from Anchor Bay. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, colorful, and loaded with detail-defining contrasts. From the outdoor sequences to the moody night scenes, the balance between light and dark is expertly maintained. Though the movie does have its low-budget drawbacks, the end result is a definitive visual presentation. On the sonic side, the Dolby Digital mixes (both a standard 2.0 Stereo and a 5.1 multi-channel choice) do try and up the ambient aspects of the naturalistic soundscape. We do find some intriguing background noises, and there is an openness to the tracks that belies the exterior setting. It makes for a nice aural offering. Don't expect a Phantasm-style spread of added content with this release, though. We get some home-movie footage fashioned into a narrative-less Behind the Scenes EPK, and a collection of trailers. That's it. No commentary. No interview. No explanation for this film's place in Coscarelli's canon. While clarification from the artist would have been nice, it's not necessary in order to enjoy the film.
As a battle between the brave and the buttheaded, the noble and the noxious, Survival Quest is definitely geared toward those who are strong in spirit, not firepower. As minor B-movie action efforts go, this one acquits itself with its definite Coscarelli-inspired charms.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
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