Thom Eberhardt’s eerie 1983 chiller is a memorable, haunting horror classic

For years, no one talked about Thom (NIGHT OF THE COMET) Eberhardt’s 1983 chiller SOLE SURVIVOR. It haunted video stores. It drifted across late night cable TV. That’s where I saw it. But no one else I knew had seen it. I had no one to share my enthusiasm over the film with. I was God’s lonely man. And before the internet, there were no communities to join. There was no way to find a copy of it to purchase, which is what I so wanted to do. But I did find a copy, eventually. And I watched it again. And I estimated that it just might be the scariest movie I’d ever seen. When I was writing for Canadian horror magazine RUE MORGUE in my “Mad Musings of a Schizoid Cinephile” column, I wrote enthusiastically about the movie. Suddenly I was getting letters from people who had read that rave and had scoured eBay for that elusive Vestron VHS. A cult was swelling. And when Code Red licensed the film for DVD in 2008, they put my quote on the back of the box.

It was a moment of triumph!

These many years later, I’m not so sure it is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen anymore. But it’s certainly one of them.

The film stars Chloe Sevigny-by-way-of-Gaylen Ross look-alike Anita Skinner as Denise Watson, the single living passenger found amidst the grim debris and broken bodies of a catastrophic plane crash. After the initial shell-shock subsides (her blood spattered, PTSD-fueled nightmares feature a wide eyed, gut-leaking torso, an image that froze my veins as a kid), life slowly carries on, save for one rather distressing turn of events; it seems that everywhere that poor Denise goes, hollow-eyed, slack-jawed zombies follow. They stare at her through restaurant windows; they harass her in public parks; they block her way on country roads. They’re everywhere, all the time and, alarmingly, their numbers are multiplying.

It doesn’t take Denise long to realize the truth about her tormentors, that they are the recently risen angry dead whose mission it is to bring her briefly lucky ass back into the black where she belongs.

If this chilling narrative twist sounds familiar, it should. SOLE SURVIVOR echoes James Herbert’s novel THE SURVIVOR (which was made into a film by DEEP RED actor David Hemmings in 1981) but takes its most distinct cues from Herk Harvey’s immortal low budget 1962 mood piece CARNIVAL OF SOULS, which in turn cribbed its DNA from the classic THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “The Hitch Hiker”, itself an adaptation of an Orson Welles-read radio play. The FINAL DESTINATION franchise (particularly the first film) seems to borrow much from SOLE SURVIVOR and so does David Robert Mitchell’s contemporary horror hit IT FOLLOWS.

What makes this understated shocker so memorable is Eberhardt’s eye for atmosphere and use of music. Right from its first lonely frame, when the rumbles of David Anthony’s minimalist ambient score whispers across an empty, rain slicked city street in the middle of the night, we know that we’re about to be plunged into the heart of celluloid darkness. And we are. And it’s quietly horrifying.

SOLE SURVIVOR is a supremely slow, obscenely eerie exercise in dread, one that manages to reference Rod Serling, Ingmar Bergman and George Romero, sometimes within the same scene. It’s an admittedly depressing picture, one in which we know our heroine is doomed and we can only watch, helpless, as every move she makes just slams another nail in her cosmically preordained coffin.

Why Eberhardt has all but disowned it is anyone’s guess.

If you value skillfully orchestrated, low budget American death-dreams that seep under your skin and stay there, I advise you to seek SOLE SURVIVOR out. Before it finds you.

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