NIGHTSTREAM Film Fest: 'Survival Skills' Is An 80's Cop Training Video Come To Life
Plot: 'Survival Skills' takes place literally inside of an 80's style retro Police Officer training video complete with tracking errors and static. In the video, we follow new Police Officer Jim Williams (O'Donnell) through his first day on the job led by a narrator (Keach). Officer Williams first call is a domestic dispute which he is unable to let go of, sending him into a spiral of destruction despite his overly optimistic demeanor.
Directed by: Quinn Armstrong (First feature)
Starring: Stacy Keach (Titus), Vayu O'Donnell (Cell)
The package that 'Survival Skills' is delivered in is absolute nostalgia porn. But much like the real thing (porn) there is a "tasteful" version and a cheap one. We won't get into the semantics of the other thing but when it comes to nostalgia, you can't just throw on some synth music and throw some kids on bicycles because it worked in 'Stranger Things' like so many films are doing these days to get instant 80's cred.
'Survival Skills' has a completely original take and recreates the tone of awful employment training videos but most importantly the almost creepy societal standards of "normalcy" that existed in corporate America back then (and still today in some aspects).
Those tapes (and other middle class societal propaganda) would speak to us as if we were robots un-allowed to process any emotion and left you with a creepy non-human feeling in the pit of your stomach. 'Survival Skills' does a fantastic job of re-creating that aesthetic throughout and it's definitely the films best quality. Officer Williams is a gullible, bright eyed, bushy tailed, all American world pleaser that feels as if he belongs in a video game (ironic considering O'Donnell just played a General Manager in Madden 2020). When he begins to realize that life isn't a Captain America "So you want to be a Police Officer?" promotional video his reaction is less sad and more creepy. This is where the horror feels start to creep in because you can just sense he isn't processing any of this correctly and it's a little scary.
It does somewhat feel like 'Survival Skills' missed an opportunity here to really leave its mark. Despite executing a great idea to aesthetic perfection, the story doesn't ever really drive the car off the side of the cliff you think you're headed for. There are multiple moments here where a horror feel kicks in but never follows through. Whether it's a cop who creepy as shit, mid-interview just starts to repeat the same words over and over again until the camera fades to black or a chase scene involving a box cutter; There were hints that something extremely fucked up was coming and it never really arrives.
Though 'Survival Skills' doesn't live up to it's own potential in the end, it's absolutely worth seeing for both how they navigate a wild and original idea and the fantastic performances of O'Donnel and Keach. Side note: It was amazing to see the dad from Titus again. Blown away that we haven't seen Keach in more substantial roles over the years in Rip Thorne, Brian Cox type roles. 6.5/10
Thanks for reading! We'll have more coverage from the NIGHTSTREAM film festival all week! You can get your tickets to the films like 'Survival Skills' here.