Sole Survivor

Sole Survivor ★★★★

31 Days of Fear 2016 Halloween/October Watchlist

Before going on to direct teen girl mall horror classic Night of the Comet, Thom Eberhardt made this exemplary early 80’s (although it feels really 70’s) riff on Carnival of Souls. Denise Watson (Anita Skinner) is the spooky sole survivor of a plane crash that leaves her completely untouched. In the aftermath of the disaster, Denise begins to experience a series of unsettling incidents. Initially she finds herself being rudely gazed at my random zombie-like individuals. Things escalate when it becomes apparent that not only are these people in fact recently deceased, but their cadavers are intent on correcting fate and murderously delivering the death that Denise miraculously avoided!
On the surface Sole Survivor isn’t terribly original and doesn’t stray too far from the winning formula of Herk Harvey‘s atmospheric 1962 film, but what I found of particular interest here was the character of Denise Watson and the true nature of her transgression in the eyes of those dead eyed predominantly male cadaverous lackeys of the grim reaper.
Eberhardt ‘s script goes to great lengths to develop Denise as a character and outline her place in the world. Denise is an independent woman, successful in business, at the top of her field and calling the shots. Despite being single at the film’s outset, this isn’t proffered as something that needs correcting and her romance with Dr Richardson is something that occurs at her own assertive behest. This status as an independent, successful woman is never something explicitly played on over the course of the film and being a fan of genre film during the period I found this to be quite fascinating. Below the surface of course Denise’s status in life is very much at the centre of her transgressions against mortality.
Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls doesn’t just cheat death, but does so while riding in fast cars with boys! Here Denise lives a life at odds with conventional societal existence which makes her the target for the recently deceased men who menace her. What’s more, she is relatively happy and in charge of those that surround her. With no living family, children or traditional familial needs, Denise unknowingly dares to transgress against the dominant social order of 70’s America. Sole Survivor is a film about a woman going where she shouldn’t and only death itself can stop her! Tellingly Denise is first stalked by a dead little girl before the men move in. When she reports this creepy phenomena to those around her, Denise is given short shrift and considered delusional due to the accident. At one point after being menaced in an underground parking garage, Denise is even blamed for going where she shouldn’t be alone! And at one point Denise bravely admits to having suffered with mental health issues in the past and this inevitably alluded to in explaining away her belief in living dead stalkers.
With a tone that mixes the mundane with the sinisterly fantastical, Sole Survivor is an effectively creepy effort that also mixes in a touch of sadness reminiscent of the earlier Let's Scare Jessica to Death. And I absolutely love the moment when the skull briefly appears on the traffic controllers radar screen!

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