Horror has often been compared to pornography for being a “specialized” genre. The basis of this comparison is that the purpose of the horror genre is to frighten – an instinctual, automatic response – just as pornography is intended to sexually excite the viewer. In both cases the kind of stimuli that triggers a response is very specific to a viewer’s personal history and unique biology. However, to reduce horror (or, indeed, pornography) to this basic function is incredibly reductive. I am not alone among horror fans in that experiencing “fear,” or even pretending to be afraid, is not at all central to my attraction to horror films or stories.
I have been straightforward on my blog about the fact that many of the films I post are not overtly frightening…at least to me. I don’t think some of them even intend to be frightening though they clearly belong to the horror genre. I believe that the genre of horror is better understood and defined by its themes rather than its function. A horror film always primarily addresses the topic of fear – or at least a topic that may cause fear for some people – while not always intending to instill fear in the process. Considering this, one way by which I evaluate the quality (good or bad) of a horror film is by the extent to which it explores and contributes to the understanding of fear as a concept and an experience. I watch horror films like a scholar of fear looking for new contributions to the field of study. There is a pleasure in learning and gaining knowledge about the human experience, but there is certainly also an entirely non-intellectual, immersive emotional response to fear, as a topic, that can’t be repressed by its detached consideration. Even the most jaded, experienced forensic scientist at some point looks into the face of a cadaver and, triggered by some uncontrollable emotional association with the dead person’s features, finds themselves overwhelmed with sadness and horror. I appreciate horror that doesn’t lose sight of the “human”…or is fully aware of doing just that.
As you have no way of knowing what my intended topic was, you have no way of knowing that I’ve just strayed from it. I wanted to write about the differences in what makes people frightened by a movie. Today’s movie, SOLE SURVIVOR, is one of those movies that has developed a cult following and a reputation for being very scary. I personally find it very unnerving. And yet there is also a large proportion of viewers who find it too slow and even boring. I can’t account for this. I can’t just say that one group is, you know, culturally “advanced” and patient (perhaps more imaginative) and the other group is a bunch of neanderthals with an attention deficit. At the same time, I can’t help agreeing that there is something more “elevated” – a deeper, more significant horror – depicted by movies like SOLE SURVIVOR than the average kind of “boogie man jumping out from the closet” slasher movie (which I also love). If the latter depends upon triggering the instinctual panic of dealing with a predator, the former deals with the existential horrors of death, fate, human limitation, and so on.
If one’s emotional response to horror fiction is based upon one’s own experience, one could speculate that the extent to which a person is drawn to either the existential or the primal is based upon the kind of horrors they’ve actually experienced in their life. You could hypothesize that those who have lived more sheltered lives of safety might be more frightened by the depiction of abstract, universal threats while those who deal with the real experience of survival might be triggered by depictions of direct, physical confrontations. But this is also reductive. I truly can’t account for differences in folk’s “fright” response to fiction. It is so complicated and so personal that it is, indeed, as diverse as sexual taste. This is part of what makes the horror genre so interesting and, while other movie genres tend to fall victim to the mono-culture of majority consumers, appealing to diverse tastes for fear is what keeps the horror genre alive (like a “final girl” in a slasher movie). There is always the potential market for unique, subversive, unusual, specialized visions of horror. No matter how cookie cutter certain cinema aesthetic trends become, there will always be a horror movie resisting them.
In the slasher craze of the early 80s, SOLE SURVIVOR certainly went against the grain. Its tempo is measured, almost melancholic, and it evokes fear with the ominous, elusive presence of an unknown threat as opposed to the direct swing of a knife or chainsaw. Thematically and stylistically it was not without precedents. One can see the influence of shows like The Twilight Zone or the cult movie CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Nonetheless, it was a movie out of its time and, as a result, managed to outlive many of its competitors in the minds (and nightmares) of its audience. It had a limited video release and maintained its reputation via the clandestine distribution of bootlegs up until a beautiful, letterboxed DVD version was released by Code Red in 2008.
That DVD is now out of print and, in the barrage of the internet telepresence, SOLE SURVIVOR is slipping back into cult obscurity. It doesn’t help that another, lesser (but newer) film has the same title. Part of the problem of the internet is that, under such circumstances, the tyranny of algorithms drowns out the old with the new. I remember when a The Tomorrow People remake was recently released on a major US television station and suddenly any reference to my most beloved show while growing up, the original 1970s The Tomorrow People, was pushed back all the way to page eight of a Google search: it was out of time and so pushed out of space. Cultural artifacts are losing their power to inform (or resist) the present. They have too many competitors.
And yet SOLE SURVIVOR persists in its influence. When the 2008 DVD was released, Code Red billed it as “FINAL DESTINATION before FINAL DESTINATION.” I don’t really see the comparison with that movie beyond the fact that the protagonist is a plane wreck survivor. A more direct influence is obvious in the recent film IT FOLLOWS. The long shots of ominous, unusual characters slowly tracking and stalking the protagonists in that film seem directly inspired by SOLE SURVIVOR…as does the overall tone (if not the underlying themes). Considering the popular and critical success of IT FOLLOWS, it may be time for SOLE SURVIVOR to reemerge from the sea of horror and have another shot at cementing its reputation. Like IT FOLLOWS, SOLE SURVIVOR bores some people and horrifies others for very similar stated reasons. If you appreciate one you’ll probably appreciate the other. There’s no doubt, however, that it deserves its special place in the hearts of many horror fans. For those touched by this particular strain of horror, it goes very deep and will very likely live forever.
This is a full frame version of SOLE SURVIVOR and therefore, I hope, less likely to be taken down by Youtube. I only found one streaming copy online and it was this full frame version stretched into the wrong aspect ratio: impossible to watch for visually oriented folks like myself (all those stretched out faces!) I’ve corrected its formatting and re-uploaded it to my own Youtube channel:
SOLE SURVIVOR (1983):