Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Survivor: a Film and Book Review

I must admit straight off the bat, I love that Sapphire and Steel-esque poster.

But what is the film? The Survivor, and it's a beguiling yet frustrating head scratcher of a film to boot. 

Like the previously reviewed Harlequin, this is another Ozploitation chiller that appears quite routinely on BBC1 or 2 at daft o'clock in the morning at weekends, usually post pub Fridays. I've seen it at least twice before, and quite often put some of the more mystifying elements down to my intake of alcohol. However, earlier this month, as part of my Ozploitation journey, I watched it sober...and it's still baffling!

In his autobiography David Hemmings claims his film was chopped to bits by producer Antony I Ginnane. I believe there is a 'director's cut' out there of 100 or so minutes, but I've never seen it and have had to make do with the 80 minute cut. Considering that's 20 mins AWOL, it's little wonder the film struggles to make sense.

The basic plot is this; a 747 crashes killing everyone on board. Everyone except for the pilot, David Keller, who emerges from the inferno wreckage completely unscathed, but with no memory of the event or what caused it. As the airline investigators seek answers, mysterious deaths began to occur in the town. Only a psychic, in touch with the supernatural, seems able to help Keller confront the truth and the reason why he was spared. 

After watching the film again, it ignited a burning desire to read the original novel by James Herbert which would hopefully put all the pieces together (more on that later)

David Hemmings was ostensibly a better actor than director. His eye is very good but he seems to fluff a few important dramatic moments (then again, this could be editing?) That said, the plane crash that commences the film is still a rather effective stunt given the time and the budgetary limitations, and he is greatly helped by a string cast; his dear friend and co-star on Harlequin Robert Powell turns in another very fine performance as Keller that lends itself perfectly to gaining audience sympathy. Jenny Agutter as the female lead, the psychic of the piece, is also great casting, even though her performance requires little more than her looking beautiful and enigmatic, easy enough for her, and at times possessed. Hollywood veteran Joseph Cotton is another import to the film, he has a cameo as 'The Priest', but it's of very little substance, again suggesting he too may have been a victim of the cutting room floor.

It's the kind of film that makes you think that if you sneezed during it the whole thing would just fall apart in front of your eyes.

It is nonetheless a pleasing and mostly intriguing addition to the Ozploitation canon, and ranks as one of its most familiar here in the UK due to its regular broadcasts in recent years.

So, this past week I've been reading the original novel on which The Survivor is based on. It's a 1976 novel from veteran UK horror writer James Herbert. On his own site, Herbert is disparaging of the movie adaptation, citing poor direction and dialogue. So, having now read it (and I must admit, macabre horror is not a genre of fiction I normally read) is the book any better?

Well, it's certainly different. The book takes place not in Australia, but in the UK, with the crash occurring in the town of Eton. It's a rather formulaic read, with chapters alternating between Keller, the survivor (and co-pilot in the book, not pilot) piecing together the event of the crash and the mysterious deaths that start to occur in the town as the vengeful spirits of the plane crash take their revenge. It's the former that is the most successful to me, as it offers something I saw in the film itself and yet still manages to feel original. The deaths however read like cliche for anyone familiar with the 'ten little Indians' horror staple. It may have been original at the time of publishing, but its been done time and time again in film since and just feels embarrassingly corny to read. Herbert takes each alternate to introduce the victim, tell you a bit about their life and then dispatch them horrifically. It's interesting to note that the town of Eton seems almost entirely populated by adulterers, maniacs and weak willed corrupt or slothful individuals. As such you don't care for these people, nor indeed do you have little time to care for them which makes these chapters a real chore to read.

I found it hard to remove the film or indeed a filmic sense from my brain whilst reading this novel, largely because Herbert has a very visual style of writing and because it was easy to imagine Robert Powell as Keller on the printed page. It was however less easy to imagine his co-star Jenny Agutter as the psychic Hobbs, as it turns out the novel's character is a small bald man! More Donald Pleasence than Agutter!

Overall, I struggled with the novel just as much as I did with the film. They both her their strengths and their weaknesses. I feel Herbert is the type of author you need to have started reading as a teenager when you can appreciate the gruesome horror he excels in, in much the same way that it is preferable to have been introduced to Ian Fleming as a youth too. Rather worryingly, with the horror occurring in suburban England, I couldn't get the thought of Matt Holness' Garth Marenghi character when reading the book, which ultimately made it a rather unintentionally hilarious experience.

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