RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES looks at the screen adaptation of James Herbert’s novel, The Survivor.
TITLE: The Survivor
RELEASED: 9th July 1981
STARRING: Robert Powell (Keller), Jenny Agutter (Hobbs), Joseph Cotten (Priest)
WRITER: David Ambrose (from the novel by James Herbert)
DIRECTOR: David Hemmings
When a passenger plane crashes in South Australia, killing almost everyone on board, the lone survivor is the pilot (Robert Powell), who walks miraculously unscathed from the disaster site. Meanwhile, a psychic (Jenny Agutter) who lives nearby is haunted by the screams of the victims, driving her to seek the assistance of the pilot. Is there unfinished business for the passengers and crew of the doomed flight?
For such a successful author, the number of film adaptations of James Herbert’s work is surprisingly small, compared to say Stephen King. This particular UK/Australia co-production was helmed by Brit-actor David Hemmings, about to embark on a decade of directing mostly TV episodes in the USA. However, this Australian-lensed adaptation of Herbert’s novel is a tantalising glimpse at what may have been a wasted genre talent, as Hemmings directs the story with considerable restraint, and gets effective performances from his two leads.

Robert Powell in The Survivor (1981)

A couple of strong set pieces suggest Hemmings had learnt a few lessons from working with Dario Argento, but the film generally eschews graphic violence and gore in favour of a more subtle approach. It also has what is, by my reckoning, one of the most chilling depictions of a plane crash captured in the cinema. It’s handled in such a detached and matter-of-fact manner, it somehow cuts to the bone all the more effectively.
Ultimately, things do become a little muddled towards the climax, but The Survivor has to be admired for aiming to be considerably more thoughtful than most horror fare of the time, striving for under-the-skin chills rather than obvious shocks, an objective in which it mostly succeeds (with a special mention for some superb use of sound).
Jenny Agutter in The Survivor (1981)

Unfortunately, James Herbert was not a fan of the film, later describing it as “terrible… absolute rubbish.” Whilst it does take considerable liberties with its source (seriously, how many film adaptations don’t?), and as the author Herbert would be understandably protective of his work, this seems an overly harsh judgement. As a piece of cinema, The Survivor is an intriguing little item on its own merits. File under “hidden gems”.
TRIVIA POINT: This was the last screen appearance of Joseph Cotten before his retirement.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I personally found this adaptation hugely disappointing. There were nightmarish scenes in the novel that would have made for great, memorable cinema – such as the couple menaced in their car by mannequin faced beings – which the screenplay left out. What we got was a shadow of what it could have been, albeit with fine performances from Robert Powell and Jenny Agutter, but I think Herbert’s criticisms are justified. Yes, adaptations do take liberties with their source texts, but they should not take that many. Overdue for a remake, I think.

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