You would not believe the grievous data losses I have suffered lately. I just lost like three or four reviews I had written—including one lost in the hard drive crash and RE-written. I’m a douche. Fucking douche! I don’t know why I’m telling you this—I just need to vent.
Anyway, so this disaster movie, one of the few that is NOT from Irwin Allen—and it shows in the relative quality. This came after Airport, when disaster movies were the new rage, and competed that year with The Towering Inferno and Airport 1975 [which also starred Heston and Kennedy]—the three of which comprised the top 3 movies at the box office that year. Anyway, this one is co-written by Mario Puzo and directed by Mark Robson, who started out as part of Jacques Tourneur’s stable on films like Bedlam and Isle of the Dead, then went on to helm things like Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls. But let's get to our requisite all-star cast: Charleton Heston! Ava Gardner! Genevieve Bujold! George Kennedy! Marjoe Gortner [of Starcrash]! Victoria Principal! And music by John Williams!
We open with Heston as Stewart Graff jogging in L.A. [Missing Persons were strangely silent on this topic], then going home to lift some weights. His wife, Ava Gardner as Remy, chides him for being obsessed with physical fitness, then Heston takes his shirt off and—AAAUUUGGHH! The horror starts early. It’s a rather amazing case study in how physical standards have changed, because someone who looked like this would NEVER be allowed on screen [let alone to take his shirt off] today. But I took some solace in the fact that I have a better-than-movie-star body! For 1974. While we’re ripping on people, let’s turn our disdainful gaze toward Ava Gardner. A friend of mine is having this obsession with her right now, so I have actually watched a fair amount of films featuring Gardner in her prime lately… and I told him that he shouldn’t even watch this. He should remember her in her prime. Here she looks like a meteorite struck the Earth via her face, and it doesn’t help that she plays a horrible jealous shrew wife. She has reason to be jealous, as Stewart is dating young and sexy Genevieve Bujold pretty unrepentantly, then again, maybe if she wasn’t such a hateful shrew, he wouldn’t be. Who can say. Anyway, she’s the kind of person who fakes overdoses to get attention, as she does in her first moments here. I like a person with some gumption.
So that morning there was a little tremble, and the guys who work at this big dam are concerned. One of them goes down in an elevator to check it out, but comes back up drowned, the elevator full of water! Typically not a positive sign. Soon the typical buerocrat who says that it’s all no big deal will show up.
But let’s introduce our other characters. First there’s Slade, the upright cop played by George Kennedy. He is among the 70s pantheon of cops who go too far to catch criminals [see Dirty Harry], and is called into question for blowing some guy away in public. But listen to the rather too-enthusiastic effusion of detail that go into his description of a grievous crime: “[the killer] got stoned and slammed into a little Mexican girl, about 6 years old… She was thrown 15 feet and killed instantly. Blood covered three whole cement squares—not spattered, SOLID—just like paint.” Well, officer, sounds like you conducted a pretty thorough examination of the crime scene. What about her spattered brains? Surely you pored over them for shards of shattered skull, did you not? Also in our mix is Genevieve Bujold as young and hot actress Denise, mistress to Graff and mother of the requisite adorable moppet. There’s also an Evil Knievel –style motorcycle stunt guy played by Richard Roundtree, who tries to ride a loop on his cycle and—comes right out, smashing down into the ramp! Apparently this was a real crash the stuntman had, and since he walked away from it unscathed, they left it in the film. It goes to show how a real stunt can still get a rise out of one, as opposed to something like the stunts in Speed Racer, which generate no excitement because we know throughout that no one was ever remotely even near a moving vehicle.
There are other characters. Victoria Principal wears a massive permed spherical wig. Lorne Green [God DAMN is he handsome] is the head of some company that is going to promote Graff or something, and also the father of Remy. There is a bar that contains Walter Matthau [not credited under his own name] as a drunk—a very unfunny, tedious drunk who goes through all sorts of moronic “comedy.” Also at the bar is former wrestler H.B. Haggerty, who I recognized as the hot rapist from Foxy Brown, but turns out I’m much more familiar with his work than I realized—he also appears in Dirty Harry, Black Fist, and was Tigerman #2 in Buck Rogers! There is also some young graduate student geologist who has gathered some data saying a huge earthquake is going to hit in the next 48 hours. Should they evacuate the city? But what about lost revenue? There’s also a somewhat odd National Guard member in Marjoe Gortner, star of the infinitely horrendous Starcrash, who gets called a fag by three thugs, who announce their plan by saying “Let’s degrade the warrior!”
Then—EARTHQUAKE! The main event is staged fairly well, has a fairly good overall shape, and is ultimately still fairly effective! After a lot of ground-level shaking and signs falling, we join a guy in a skyscraper. He looks out the window at buildings crumbling in the distance [effective!] but in the right foreground is a part of HIS building [see right] and if you watch [you’re supposed to be looking elsewhere], two people literally just run to the window and jump out. Not like they fell or anything—the just run and jump right out of the building. Then a guy runs to a crowded elevator, grabbing a woman and shoving her out so he can get in. The elevator car falls straight down the shaft, crunching all the people to a viscous human paste of blood and bone tissue, but the film quaintly lets a discreet blood spatter superimposed over the people symbolize the carnage [see below]. We see trucks shaking on elevated freeways, then cut to a long shot of a model, where the truck falls off and lands. If you watch carefully, you can see that the bottom of the pylon holding up the freeway is YANKED to the side, causing the freeway to “collapse.” Denise is out when houses supported on a hillside start rolling down on her! Overall, the earthquake starts fairly small and moves smoothly through different topics—street level, skyscrapers, houses, freeways—with a good, building rhythm. Of course, in the theater, this would have been delivered in Sensurround, which meant that they boosted the bass way up [you can actually hear how bottom-heavy the audio still is] and had special woofers in the theater so the sound would shake the seats. Anyway, the earthquake ends with a bang—and perhaps THE silliest sequence in the entire film. There’s a house. Some RANDOM guy in the crowd suddenly turns and makes to run into the house. We have no indication that this fellow lives there or even KNOWS the people who live there. On the porch, he turns to respond to some RANDOM off-screen voice that yells: “Turn off the gas!” While this happens we notice that the guy has a lit cigarette in his mouth. He runs inside the house and—BOOM! It’s just a hilariously complicated and ludicrous set-up to explain the explosion. But—it’s a massive earthquake! Who needs to explain an explosion during an earthquake? It just happens.
SPOILERS > > >
So now we begin the various aftermath stories. There’s a long scene that I found totally tedious where people are lowered down a broken stairwell right at the side of the building, with others falling out left and right. Greene has a heart attack on his way down. Denise’s kid has fallen into this canal, where live electrical wires have fallen, and water just released from the dam is headed! Crazed National Guard guy Jody egregiously guns down three looters! Rose [Victoria Principal] is taken in by Jody, hoping to escape a looting rap, but ends up terrified as he starts coming on to her and he’s to insane to say no to!
Amongst all this is the love triangle of Graff, Remy and Denise. Graff drops Remy off at this underground mall, where a shelter is set up, and leaves her there as he goes off to find Denise, which doesn’t make Remy feel too good. He eventually finds her and brings her to the shelter, which soon collapses on itself in a big aftershock. It’s kind of funny to see these brick pillars fall over, but land so lightly they’re obviously wooden and hollow, with brick texture pasted on. Now Graff and company have to get his wife and mistress out of there, when uphill—the dam collapses! It’s a race against time as the water floods toward them, bringing several wooden chairs in its wake! Seriously, there is just a preponderance of shots of the rushing water carrying forth a bunch of wooden chairs. Graff gets Denise out okay, but Remy gets washed away by the rushing water! Graff has to choose—leave with his smokin’ hot young ladyfriend who isn’t a vicious shrew and forget his wife, who’s probably dead anyway—or stay and try to save her, and their obviously failed marriage. Graff chooses death at his wife’s side! Take heed, ladies, those out-of-shape married older men may seem so irresistibly appealing, but when the rushing waters of doom are upon you, it’s always the other woman who gets left to shift for herself amidst the barren hellscape. Word to the wise.
< < < SPOILERS END
Disaster movies are a little bit like White Castle: you know it’ll be awful and make you feel bloated and sick, yet beforehand it can seem like a really good idea. This movie is actually somewhat of an exception, as it actually has somewhat of a shape and some characters that aren’t completely moronic. I credit the fact that we actually have a decent, old-school director, and a screenplay co-written by Mario Puzo. Rather than throw out too many characters that it can’t adequately deal with, like most disaster films, this film focuses on a few main stories, that are reasonably compelling [like the Graff love triangle], and jettisons the uninteresting ones—for example, I was expecting a lot more dreary drama with the people at the bar or with the graduate student who saw it all coming—but the movie wisely just drops them and focuses on its main story. The film also has an overall shape, building up to the earthquake, giving the big event a decent energy and rhythm, then spacing the struggles and aftershocks out well to wrap up most of the stories and provide a big destructive finish. So it wasn’t that bad!
Not much more to say. If you’re looking for a disaster film, this one contains a few less of the histrionics and over-the-top cheese of many of them—although an extremely low rate of Karen Black—but on the other hand, you’ll still respect yourself in the morning.
Sure! It’s not that bad at all, for what it is, and the earthquake itself is still relatively effective.