The Survivor Review

A Boeing 747 takes off and almost immediately crashes, killing everyone on board except the pilot, Keller (Robert Powell), who walks away without a scratch. Tortured with guilt and at a loss to explain what had happened, Keller is approached by a mysterious woman, Hobbs (Jenny Agutter) who may help him solve the mystery. Meanwhile, beginning with an opportunistic photojournalist, a series of murders begins...

The Survivor was based on, and I suspect toned down from, a novel by James Herbert. David Hemmings was the director, but the prime mover was producer Antony I. Ginnane. Melbourne-born Ginnane began in the film industry with his one directing credit, Sympathy in Summer in 1971, a long-unseen (no votes on the IMDB) 16mm feature. He switched roles to producer and from the outset made genre films aimed at an international audience rather than what many saw as overly arty fare that was representing Australian film in the 1970s. (For more about this, I refer you to the documentary Not Quite Hollywood.) His films include the sex comedies Fantasm and its sequel Fantasm Comes Again, and several horror/thrillers – Patrick, Thirst, Snapshot and Harlequin. He gave breaks to first-time directors such as Richard Franklin, Colin Eggleston, Rod Hardy and Simon Wincer. Ginnane was never a critics' favourite and would probably disdain to be one, but some of these films stand up quite well today. David Hemmings had played leading roles in Thirst and Harlequin and had directed three features in Britain in the 1970s, so The Survivor was developed as a project for him to direct. At a budget of A$1.2 million, The Survivor was the most expensive film Ginnane had made to date.

Overseas actors had appeared in Australian films before: for example, Richard Chamberlain in The Last Wave. But with The Survivor Ginnane ran into problems with Australian Equity. He was allowed to import Robert Powell (who had starred in Harlequin) and Joseph Cotten but Samantha Eggar and Susan George were vetoed, their roles taken by Jenny Agutter (presumably an honorary Aussie due to Walkabout) and local actor Angela Punch McGregor (who had only recently added the “McGregor” to her stage name and in this film adds a rare hyphen as well).

The result, unfortunately is a bit of a mess. Ginnane and Hemmings decided early on to aim for a more cerebral horror film rather than for gore, believing that was where the fashion was going. But there's a reason why so many horror films go for gore: films which rely on atmosphere require more ability and talent to bring off. For much of its running time, The Survivor is ponderous and more than a little dull. It doesn't help that even in this longer version (more about that in a moment) a lot of footage seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor. Angela Punch McGregor, who gets third billing for one brief scene (she's glimpsed briefly in another scene, the one where bereaved relatives lay wreaths at the site of the plane crash), seems a particular victim of pre-release editing. And there are huge holes in the plot, with motivations ill-explained. Why did the villain plant a bomb on the flight? And who's doing the killings and why? And you may spot the final revelation a long way off, particularly as some well-known subsequent films have used the same twist. Powell is wooden, Agutter gets to emote in black lace (and has no dialogue until halfway through) and quite what Joseph Cotten is doing is another question. That said, certain scenes do work well: the crash (involving the largest cinematic explosion filmed in Australia to date) and its aftermath are well done. This is an early credit for DP John Seale, and his Scope photography is another plus.

Hemmings directed once again for Ginnane, on the 1981 New Zealand-filmed Race for the Yankee Zephyr. Hemmings continued to act and direct (in the latter capacity mostly for television) until his death in 2003.


The Survivor was previously released on DVD by in 2009, and this release from Crabtree Films is one of several Britfilms discs of Australian films released in new packaging. The disc is encoded for all regions. It begins with trailers for other Britfilms/Crabtree releases: Malcolm, Storm Boy and Doing Time for Patsy Cline. These can be fast-forwarded but not skipped.

The Survivor was released at 99 minutes, before being edited down to 82, with poor Ms Punch McGregor's one scene being shortened even further. (Some reference sources give a time of 87 minutes, which is either an error or there is a third version out there.) The film seems, surprisingly, to have bypassed British cinemas altogether, but the short version was released on VHS in 1987 and on DVD in 2003. It was also released on a now out of print Australian DVD from Umbrella, which I own, running 77:54 with PAL speed-up. The Britfilms/Crabtree DVD is however of the longer version, which runs 95:08, again with PAL speed-up.

The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. It's somewhat soft and grainy, though soft and grainy is what many late-70s Australian films do look like due to the filmstock used, and especially such films shot in Scope. The transfer is on the dark side – the Umbrella transfer is certainly brighter - and there are macroblocking artefacts and colour fluctuations visible, particularly noticeable in a shot of Powell in a hospital bed at the beginning of Chapter 3, a shot not in the shorter version. A screengrab comparison follows: Britfilms/Crabtree first, Umbrella second.

The soundtrack is mono, as it was in cinemas; the first Australian film to use Dolby Stereo was Mad Max 2 two years later. No complaints here: dialogue, Brian May's music score and the sound effects are well balanced. Unfortunately there are no subtitles for the hard of hearing. The Umbrella edition didn't have them either.

The main extra is the theatrical trailer, which is in 2.40:1 anamorphic and runs 2:43. Apart from the other trailers mentioned above, the only other extras a text page about Britfilms, and a weblink to their website.

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out of 10

Last updated: 30/05/2018 14:26:09

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