In retrospect, Carnival of Souls (1962) certainly cast a long and deep shadow over the horror genre; not for general audiences at the time, where it ended up relegated to the bargain bins of the public domain for decades. But horror frequently pays it forward, and filmmakers find inspiration in the lost and obscure. Take the debut from Thom Eberhardt, Sole Survivor (1983), an oasis of cool originality in a genre that was drying out in the slasher sands.
Given a limited release in December, Eberhardt used the meager $350,000 budget to his advantage, crafting a film filled with an eerie calm and paying it forward himself by inspiring Final Destination (2000) and It Follows (2014). Sometimes big shadows are cast from small sources, and Sole Survivor has earned its particular darkness.
Our film opens with over the hill actress/psychic Karla (Caren Larkey – Get Out) predicting a plane crash. On that very plane is the producer of her upcoming coffee commercial, Denise (Anita Skinner – Girlfriends), who we discover sans crash footage (remember that budget, folks) is the lone survivor of the unfortunate event. After starting a romance with her assessment doctor, Brian (Kurt Johnson – Ghost Story), Denise is followed by various pallid strangers; a sopping wet little girl, a health inspector, a solitary man who tries to block her passage on a deserted highway, one and all in a calm pursuit, inching ever so close. Denise begins to feel that she’s being chased due to surviving the crash, and that the overwhelming guilt of such is the reason. But why is she being pursued? Brian is naturally skeptical, believing it to be only a figment of her imagination; the only problem is that the people she describes are actually dead. And when they’re found, blood has pooled in their legs, as if they had been walking…
Eberhardt made Sole Survivor at a time when much more overt and visceral horror was prevalent in the genre, and that can’t be attributed to the miniscule budget; many a slasher have been born from backyard blood and woodsy settings. Instead, he focuses on the human condition and our mistrust in same, but not without checking off the tropes on his way to offering a more cerebral experience. Stabbings, drowning, the after carnage of the crash, and of course a strip poker game attended by Brinke Stevens remind you that you’re firmly within the bounds of terror entertainment. But front and center is the plight of Denise and what others perceive to be the unraveling of her mind.
Is the film influenced by Carnival of Souls? Definitely. Where it differs though is the perspective of the protagonist; It isn’t so much of an existential crisis for Denise (nor is it presented as one), but rather a supernatural one. The haunting by the Dislocated Stranger in Carnival almost exists on a purely metaphysical level; Sole Survivor chooses to bring the ghost to you – flesh and blood, plasma pools as a constant reminder of the frailty of life. Not that the ethereal touch of Carnival wouldn’t have worked in 1983, but it does add a sense of urgency allowing it to at least compete with the modern monsters of the time.
Strong characterization is a prominent trait in Eberhardt’s work; his follow-up, Night of the Comet (’84), has two of the most winsome heroines in all of ‘80s horror, and it all starts here with Denise. This was Skinner’s second and final screen appearance, big or small; and she’s actually quite good. Denise is a successful professional whose world is upended suddenly, and the film plays well to her sea change; she just knows something isn’t right, either with the outcome of her near fatality or the ghastly travelers who seem to close in as the film progresses. It’s the subtlety of Sole Survivor that draws you in; Eberhardt slowly tightening the tension with a foreboding, uneasy truth that things will not end well for Denise or those she holds dear. It’s the inevitability of it all that stands out in a low key turn such as this. As the old joke goes, the only certainties in life are death and taxes.
Back to paying it forward. Final Destination begs comparisons; the plane crash alone gives it connective tissue. But what is most compelling is Death as a literal killer, in Final’s case a sly entity, a whisper in the wind, who plays with people through ghoulish happenstance. In Sole Survivor, however, Death is a salesman, a child, perhaps even a lover; this Death deals in the mundane, lending a gravitas even in its most supernatural moments. It Follows plays the same mournful tune between the living and the dead, the pursuit of life and its taking; and again manifests the spectre of Death, this time through a suburban spectrum. Sole Survivor’s legacy is part of a darkened tapestry from the ‘60s until now, a shadow play weaving through horror where the sweet stench of Death is never too far away, and always ready to dance.
Sole Survivor is available on DVD through Amazon from Code Red.