Monday, October 01, 2007

CHOSEN SURVIVORS Reviewed

The assembled cast of CHOSEN SURVIVORS examine an unwelcome visitor to their subterranean stronghold.

CHOSEN SURVIVORS
1974, 20th Century Fox, DD-2.0/MA/16:9/LB/ST/CC/+,$14.98, 98m 22s, DVD-1

Filmed at Mexico City's Churubusco Studios with Mexican actors supplementing what was then a made-for-TV-level cast, CHOSEN SURVIVORS finds ten people -- mostly scientists (Bradford Dillman, Barbara Babcock, Diana Muldaur), but also a rich executive (Jackie Cooper), an aging athlete (Lincoln Kilpatrick), a how'd-he-get-in-here novelist (Alex Cord), and a young woman (Christina Moreno) whose only apparent skill is hysteria -- who are isolated by the US Military in a silvery bunker some 1,800 feet underground. There, a videotape of vacuous-looking LA newscaster Kelly Lange informs them that they are one of a number of "chosen survivors" of a nuclear attack which has taken place in North America. Beyond this, it's impossible to write about this film without spoilers, so be warned.

Surprisingly, despite the strict racial balancing of the group and absence of any gay characters, the survivors' responsibility for repopulating the Earth is largely overlooked. Just as well, as no two cast members spark any romantic chemistry (Cord and Muldaur, already paired it seems, lie in bed together as though embalmed), and once Richard Jaeckel turns up, they become an odd-numbered bunch as well. The movie doesn't really get going until 25m into the story, when a decorative cage of birds is raided by vampire bats, somehow able to penetrate the stronghold from the caves surrounding it. When subsequent fatal attacks coincide with a failing lighting system, Dillman (giving a twitchy Anthony Perkins performance) announces that the whole program has been a hoax carried out as an experiment in human behavior that has gone horribly wrong. With the only emergency alarm within easy reach disconnected by the bats, the task falls to Kilpatrick (THE OMEGA MAN) to "go for the gold" by grapple-hooking his way to the top of an elevator shaft to manually press an otherwise unreachable "Help" button.

The film suffers from cheesy special effects and a dreary droning score, but -- being a performance-based melodrama -- is most adversely affected by a capable cast uninspired by the script's clich├ęd dialogue ("I just never thought it would really happen...") and characterization (Cooper actually pulls a Thurston Howell by promising Kilpatrick a small fortune if he can get him back to civilization, and perhaps most incredibly, novelist Cord uses the term "per se" in the midst of an angry outburst). Nevertheless, it conjures up some intermittent suspense and unease, thanks to Sutton Roley's able direction and some exceptional bat wrangling. This is one of those films that plunge its setting into total darkness at the worst possible moments, followed by unnerving neon-blue emergency reserve lighting, so it works less well on video than on the big screen, where it more completely affects the viewer's own environment.

CHOSEN SURVIVORS garnered some halfway favorable reviews when it was first released in May 1974, but it was only sparsely distributed by Columbia Pictures. Movies like this became very trivial very quickly with the release of JAWS the following summer, and, since then, CHOSEN SURVIVORS has been one of the more difficult horror films of its period to see. Now available as a 20th Century Fox "Midnite Movie" double feature with Terence Fisher's black-and-white and barely-feature-length THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964), it's a welcome enough collector's item release though it has not stood the test of time particularly well. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer does what it can with the blandly photographed materials, which look alternately musty and nostalgically misty with mild grain and acceptable color. Considering the film's production background, it's surprising that no Spanish track is included, but the English audio is supplemented with a choice of English, Spanish and French subtitles.

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