Pilot error…or supernatural terror? Only one man can tell the tale of “The Survivor” (1981)

By on June 3, 2019

British actor David Hemmings gets behind the camera — or at least alongside Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale — for The Survivor (1981), a supernatural thriller now streaming in our Severin Films section on Night Flight Plus.

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Hemmings’ Ozploitation adaptation of James Herbert’s best-selling novel reveals what happens a bomb in a suitcase goes off inside the cabin of commercial Boeing 747-200.

The plane crash-lands in a grass field in Panorama — south of Adelaide, a suburb of Sydney, Australia — and bursts into flames.

Among the three hundred souls aboard, there is only one survivor, the plane’s pilot, “Captain David Keller” (Robert Powell).

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After the disaster, a local psychic “Hobbs” (an award-winning performance by Jenny Agutter) — who’d been having supernatural visions ever since the night the jet plane crashed — begins to communicate with the spirits of the doomed passengers, which, as Severin Films describes it, “… will unlock a nightmare of madness, murder and supernatural horror.”

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The plot of The Survivor features lots of unexpected twists and turns, including the murders of a photographer, his assistant and fellow airline worker “Harry Tewson” (Peter Sumner).

Keller — who suffers from amnesia after the crash — also confronts the lead investigator “Slater” (Ralph Cotterill), who attacks him in the hangar where parts of the 747 jet are being stored, leading to a cinematic climax you won’t soon forget.

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The film’s score was composed by Brian May, one of the best film music composers in the history of Australian cinema (not to be confused with Queen‘s Brian May).

The Survivor premiered in Australia on July 9, 1981, but here in the United States, it went straight-to-video and wasn’t released on VHS by Warner Home Video until 1993.

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The film was promoted with poster taglines like “A tale of death, and of an evil which transcends death,” “A journey into the supernatural,” “Tortured with guilt… why did he survive an impossible crash?,” and — this one is our favorite — “Pilot error… or supernatural terror? Only one man can tell!”

Read more about The Survivor below.

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Director David Hemmings on the set of The Survivor

The Survivor — produced by Ozploitation producer Antony I. Ginnane, who also produced Thirst (which stars David Hemmings) and would later produce Turkey Shoot, two other Severin Films titles we’re also streaming on Night Flight Plus (and we’ll probably have blog posts about them eventually) — was the only Australian-made horror title that David Hemmings directed.

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Published in 1976, The Survivor was the first of  first of James Herbert’s best-selling novels to use supernatural horror rather than the science fiction horror he’d used in the plots of his first two books, and this was the first to be adapted into a feature film.

The plot — which unfolds like something you’d expect to see in an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone or maybe even an M Night Shyamalan film — is essentially a more modern-day variation on Ambrose Bierce‘s classic short story,  An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, which has, indeed, inspired dozens of cult movies like Carnival of Souls, Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil, and many other films you’ve likely already seen.

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Hemmings is, of course, probably best known for his appearances onscreen in films like Roger Vadim‘s Barbarella (1968), Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blow-Up (1969), and we can’t forget Dario Argento‘s Deep Red (1975), which we told you about here (it’s also streaming on Night Flight Plus).

In 1981, the same year he directed The Survivor, Hemmings also lensed Treasure of the Yankee Zephyr, which was originally supposed to be an Australian film but it had to be re-written to be set in New Zealand because so many of its actors — Lesley Ann Warren, George Peppard, Donald Pleasance, Ken Wahl and others — were non-Australians.

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British actor Robert Powell was a television veteran who had appeared in numerous supporting roles before landing a starring role in the minor action-adventure film The Italian Job (1969). A few years later Powell played the lead in the musical bio-pic Mahler (1974).

Powell perhaps made his biggest impact in another leading role, however, as the blue-eyed lead character in the TV mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

That film — which shown across Europe on various networks (often split up into as many as five episodes) before making its U.S. premiere as a two-part mini-series on NBC in April ’77, with the second episode airing on Easter Sunday — made Powell an internationally-recognized leading man.

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Prior to The Survivor, Powell also played leading roles in the films The Thirty Nine Steps (1978) and Harlequin (1980), among others.

After The Survivor, he continued to appear in major motion pictures and on television right up into almost the present day, with his last appearances coming earlier this century (his last IMDB credit was as the narrator on the UK mini-series The Bible in 2013).

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British actress Jenny Agutter is probably well known to Night Flight fans from her roles in critically-acclaimed cult films like Nicolas Roeg‘s Walkabout (1971).

She also appeared in cult favorites like Logan’s Run (1976), Monte Hellman’s China 9, Liberty 37 (1977), An American Werewolf in London (1981), and many more films we love.

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The film also features the legendary actor James Cotton in his last film role as “The Priest,” who is approached by Keller and Hobbs, believing he’s the only one in town who believes in his innocence and her disturbing visions.

Cotton continued to appear in supporting roles on television (he died in 1994).

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The Survivor was later re-made in America as Sole Survivor (1983).

Watch The Survivor and other titles from Severin Films section on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.