Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: The Survivor

The Survivor
Dir. David Hemmings
Year: 1981
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 80mins

Anyone who saw the wonderful documentary from last year Not Quite Hollywood would have become well used to the name Antony I Ginnane. A film producer who revolutionised the Australian film industry in the late 1970s with his large slate of genre films. They were sometimes very good (Patrick from 1978) and sometimes they were very bad (Harlequin from 1980). Thankfully, The Survivor errs more onto the side of positive with it's atmospheric tale of an airplane pilot who survives a crash that kills everybody else on board. It was directed by the British David Hemmings who had appeared as an actor in many of these type of films, including vampire flick Thirst.

Starring Robert Powell (an American actor who also starred in the aforementioned Harlequin) as said pilot and Jenny Agutta as a psychic who looks as if she came out of a Jane Campion movie about a uptight school teacher who, at nights, becomes a posh prostitute. It revolves around the lengths Powell's Pilot Keller goes to to remember what happened on that fateful night - in the Adelaide suburbs, apparently - and the lengths the spirits of the dead will go to to punish those responsible. Also featured in a surreal regard is legendary American actor Joseph Cotton, in his final role, as a Priest. Yes, the man who was in Citizen Kane was also in a shlocky Aussie horror flick, if you can believe it.

The central premise holds a lot of promise, and when focusing on the scary elements the film works a treat. A scene in a cemetery proves particularly fright-filled and the big centrepiece of the movie, the airplane crash, is an excellently put together set-piece that would surely continue to rank as one of the best examples of its kind. The use of the hollowed out and destroyed airplane craft adds an incredible amount of atmosphere to the proceedings, too. Especially in this day and age, the sight of these giant engines laying broken on the ground is ominous, and a scene later in the film inside a hangar is a well-done pyrotechnic display. The film's production design received a deserved AFI nomination.

There's also no denying that the film looks a million bucks (in actual fact, it's budget was just over $1mil and it was the most expensive Australian film ever made at the time.) Nominated cinematography by future Oscar-winner John Seale is simply gorgeous. There is such great use of lighting and the way the action is played around the charred chunks of airplane wreckage really is something. I'd hazard a guess and say it still ranks as some of his finest work, even when including titles like The Talented Mr Ripley, The English Patient and Witness in the equation. I also liked the music score by Brian May, whose music here is very much in the same vein as a lot of these early '80s Aussie horror flicks, but here it is much more in tone with the film as it has been in others.

There are problems though, naturally. The final act begins to descend into a confusing muddle with apparent twists being disclosed, yet done so with no context. Despite all the well-done individual scenes they sometimes don't form a cohesive whole, with a struggle going on between the more subtly supernatural elements and the more bombastic horror. And while I enjoyed the performance by Powell - a much better performance than the one in Harlequin that's for sure - the work by Agutter is overblown and feels like it came out of a completely different movie altogether.

Anybody wanting to learn anything about Australian cinema must made through films like The Survivor. They may not hold the prestige of a My Brilliant Career or Gallipoli, but they are an important part nonetheless. And, as these movies go, you could do far worse (trust me, I have). B-

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