Survival Quest (DVD)
Written and directed by Don Coscarelli
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
One of the most disturbing events of my lifetime has been the accelerated shrinking of the American middle class. Back when I was growing up, it was commonplace for a single-income family to be able to buy their own home, keep two nice cars in the attached garage, pay for the kids' educations, and even take a vacation or two over the course of the year. Nowadays we're lucky if we have enough money to rent a clean two-bedroom apartment in a semi-decent part of town, keep the gas tank full in one car, buy cat food and litter (who can afford kids?!?), and maybe enjoy a cut-rate weekend getaway a few towns over. And that's with two incomes!
Now that you're all depressed, you're probably also wondering what any of that has to do with the movies. The way I see it, a parallel situation exists between the modern American lifestyle and the modern cinematic experience. It used to be that there were at least three basic kinds of films: The low (or no) budget, bottom of the barrel type stuff that nobody much cared about; the big budget "summer blockbusters" that made movie-going into an event; and falling in the middle was just about everything else -- movies that cost a few million bucks to produce, were seen by a reasonable and respectable number of people, and wound up making everyone involved a decent living. In present-day Hollywood (just as in Washington, DC), the powers-that-be have obviously decided that "there ain't gonna be any middle any more" since all we seem to be getting are the extreme ends of the spectrum. There's no doubt in my mind that a movie like Survival Quest would never be made today, which makes it all the more special and worthy of attention.
Right off the bat I need to make it clear that Survival Quest isn't a bona fide horror film; but it was written and directed by genre legend Don Coscarelli, stars the much beloved Lance Henriksen, and offers up some pretty good suspense and violence (albeit late in the game and with minimal bloodshed). It also provides a glimpse into the early work of Paul Provenza, Dermot Mulroney, Mark Rolston, and Catherine Keener, who have all gone on to fame, fortune, dental work -- and more than a few of those "upper class" films mentioned earlier. Survival Quest tells the tale of a group of regular folk who have signed up for Hank's mountaineering adventure class. This goes well beyond your typical camping weekend as it doesn't have "survival" in its name just for fun. Hank is, of course, played by Henriksen, looking more lean and mean (and shirtlessly sexy) than we've seen him in quite some time. Our Quest-ers include the aforementioned Provenza as Joey, a city slicker out to prove his manhood; Keener as Cheryl, a recent divorcee in need of some female empowerment; and Mulroney as Gray, a convict who's given the chance to use the Survival Quest challenge as a means to re-enter society. They're joined by the elderly Hal (Hammer), the tough-talking Jeff (Hoffman), and Olivia (Lind), a skittish bride-to-be who, in a plot twist surely no one will see coming, develops a mutual attraction with Gray.
The scenery is absolutely beautiful, and our team is ready to begin the life-altering experience of hiking, climbing, swimming, and soaking up some of Hank's vast wisdom. He gives them specific goals to achieve and has them take turns playing leader. After a rough beginning, the group begins to bond and meets with great success. Unfortunately, they're not alone in the wilderness. A band of over-eager testosterone-fueled paramilitary types have chosen the same time and place for their own training mission. Led by the stereotypically macho Jake (Rolston), the men are ready to do whatever it takes to not just survive but also take down anything -- and anyone -- who crosses their path. As is to be expected, Jake is the worst type of leader imaginable; instead of inspiring his guys, he agitates and belittles them to no end. Eventually the two teams converge, and tragedy strikes. Hank and Jake are taken out of the equation, and it's up to Cheryl (who happens to be wearing the leader badge at the crucial moment) to steer her squad back to safety while avoiding the remaining members of Jake's crew.
There's nothing particularly groundbreaking in Survival Quest, but it does a good job of telling its story and involving the audience enough so that we care about the characters. To their credit, the actors give their all in this film. They get down and dirty in the muck and mire and perform stunts that in this day and age would certainly be handled by others. The transfer is impeccable with lush, bright colors, and the locations are so breathtaking they made this reviewer go hunting through the storage shed for her tent, Coleman stove, and hiking boots. Now I just have to find Lance! The extras are a real disappointment, however, as they are virtually nonexistent. A narration-free behind-the-scenes is pretty much it. Coming on the heels of Phantasm II in 1989, Survival Quest probably gave Coscarelli the change of pace and energy boost he needed before revisiting that series. It also undoubtedly served as a bit of inspiration and engendered some feelings of déjà vu for the writer/director when filming his Masters of Horror episode "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," which also has a survivalist theme. It sure would have been nice to hear about some of that in a commentary or, at the very least, in a making-of featurette containing cast and crew interviews.
Movie fans in general -- and horror fans especially -- are seemingly following right along with the trend of only caring about films that generate big box office returns and/or rank highly with critics. But let's get serious for a minute. Every film can't be "the greatest ever!" or "a steaming pile of shit." There are a lot that fall somewhere in the middle (that word again) and can be considered above average; it is in this under-appreciated segment where Survival Quest can be found. Hopefully this review and others like it will prevent its being overlooked and forgotten. Join the revolution. Buy or rent the DVD, and let your voice be heard. Vive la middle class!
Survival Quest: Behind the Scenes
3 out of 5
1 out of 5
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