I remember once hearing film critic Roger Ebert lament that you know you’re in for a bad film when there is a row of star shots lined up at the bottom of a movie poster. Well…all of these films have that, but I can assure you that they’re not all that bad, even Ebert liked some of them.
Cinema in the 1970s was going through a renaissance; embracing the styles and themes of the French New Wave and the auteur theory, (the director being the author of his work). Films were forgoing the old-school studio style of film making and the audience were loving it on pictures as diverse as EASY RIDER, THE GODFATHER, M*A*S*H, and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (director Peter Bogdonavitch embraced the old masters, Welles, Ford, and Hawks but there is without a doubt a French New Wave influence in his work.)
Most of these pictures were made independently but distributed through the studios, so when the disaster picture AIRPORT became successful, with its aging cast of movie stars, a studio bound production, the studios felt they were on to something and started churning out star-studded disaster films by the dozens. These films may have looked like over-bloated TV movies made on a grand scale, they, however, won audiences over, and for a time made the studio execs feel like they were back on top. Here is a list of some of the better ones.
“The best picture of 1944.” – Judith Crist film critic
Airport is: predictable, melodramatic, bombastic, and silly, but it’s also a lot of fun. This was actually my first time watching it despite having seen the sequels on TV over the years as a kid. It’s difficult to watch and not think of ZAZ’s AIRPLANE! Which is one of the films that it lampooned, the others mainly being the John Wayne picture THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY and THE ZERO HOUR (for the curious, THE ZERO HOUR is about a former WWII pilot Ted Stryker, played by Dana Andrews, who feels responsible for the deaths of his men during the war. After being unable to deal with his remorse, his wife leaves him and boards a plane. He follows her aboard in hopes of saving their marriage. Once in flight, the crew and passengers get food poisoning and…well you get it.) anyway back to AIRPORT.
The film is about a distraught man aboard a plane with a ticking time bomb, but before we get to the tension, (is it really tension though, I mean Dean Martin is the pilot and this isn’t PSYCHO so you know he ain’t gonna die.), we have to sit through the usual subplots involving extramarital affairs.
Stewardess Jaqueline Bisset tells Dino she’s pregnant shortly after we meet his adoring wife (PERRY MASON’S Barbara Hale). Office relations; former pilot turned general manager for the airport, Burt Lancaster, must deal with an ignored wife (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS’ Dana Wynter, who is still looking incredibly beautiful by the way, 15 years after that film). Customer relations agent (hottie Jean Seberg, a long way from BREATHLESS), who’s dealing with elderly stowaway (preeminent stage actress Helen Hays -who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance here)- and finally, Lancaster, who has been dealing with a TWA mechanic (scene-stealing George Kennedy, the only actor to be in all the sequels), who’s trying to move a plane that is stuck on the runway due to heavy snowfall.
Some of the gags in the film would find their way into AIRPLANE! as well, like a priest slapping a panicked passenger, Helen Hays drinking then handing it to a nun who then chugs it down.
The film was shot in 65mm (70mm projected, the extra 5mm is for the 6 track sound, in case you were ever wondering.) and the picture looks big, though at times rather cheap. The film went way over budget and Lew Wasserman, owner and string puller of MCA/Universal at the time (and some say Ronald Regan, but that’s another story), tried to put a halt on the production, but producer Ross Hunter fought Wasserman and won.
Legendary, and retired, director Henry Hathaway was rumored to have directed some of the exterior airport stuff probably to bring the picture in on schedule. Wasserman had very little faith in the picture and released it wide hoping to cash in before word of mouth hit, but the public spoke, and it became Universal’s biggest hit ever grossing over a 100 million and making it the second biggest grosser that year; Paramount’s LOVE STORY was number one. As far as Ross Hunter, was he rewarded for his effort? Wasserman crushed him, barring him from the studio. He would go to Columbia and make TV movies (If you want to know more about Lew Wasserman I highly recommend the book Dark Victory: Ronald Regan, MCA, and The Mob. I read that…Christ almost 20 years ago, pretty chilling stuff.)
THE MASTER OF DISASTER: IRWIN ALLEN
AIRPORT may have been highly successful, but it really was Irwin Allen’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that kick-started the disaster genre of the 1970s. Made for a modest 4.7 million dollars, the picture that 20th Century Fox had no desire to make, would earn them close to a hundred million at the box office and garner them with 8 Academy Award nominations and one win, Best Song The Morning After.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE may be the best film of the genre, at least in the ’70s; I think James Cameron’s TITANIC is the best disaster film ever. The POSEIDON ADVENTURE has some good performances; Hackman, Borgnine, and Buttons deliver the best performances in the film, but what I like best is the subtext of Silliphant’s screenplay. Reverend Scott preaches basically that God helps those who help themselves and begs, or rather demands, that the other passengers go with him to find a way out, up into the light as opposed to down into the abyss. With the ship upside down and fiery explosions going on, the passengers’ lives have been turned over and are now in a fiery hell. Scott and Ernest Borgnine’s Mike Rogo constantly butt heads, with Rogo acting like a frustrated Peter to Scott’s angry Jesus. At the end of the film, the Reverend sacrifices himself and it’s up to Rogo to lead the ragtag passengers to the hull, once the rescue teams torch open the hull, Rogo finally sees the “light.”
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, like AIRPORT, was not new Hollywood. The only exception perhaps was the choice to use actor Gene Hackman, hot off THE FRENCH CONNECTION. He was nominated for Best Actor while in production, none of these films were, unless one counts Steven Spielberg’s JAWS; a film that has all the tropes of a disaster picture: an authority figure choosing commerce over public safety, one voice of reason that nobody listens to, a mass panic scene, etc. What separates JAWS is that Spielberg decided to use new up-and-coming actors, and made it more of a character piece with spectacular action and suspense. Gene Hackman’s performance in The Poseidon Adventure makes him much more believable than, say, if Burt Lancaster played him (he was initially offered the role). By this point audiences in the 70s seemed to be drawn to average looking people and not the typical glamorous actors. Today we’re, unfortunately, back to the old standard of pretty boys and pretty girls as cinema has regressed to television.
The film was shot aboard The Queen Mary in Long Beach for exterior shots and used as a blueprint for sets built at the Fox studios in Century City.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE was released December 13, 1972, and became the biggest grossing film of 1973 and, at the time, became the sixth highest grossing picture of all time! It spawned a sequel 1979s BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE with Michael Caine playing a guy that’s salvaging the wreak, I was going to review it for this thing as it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but I didn’t want to sit through it again, maybe another time. I guess that is my review on that one.
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
After 20th Century Fox scored a massive hit with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, they knew they had to make another disaster film. They lost out on a bid to Richard Martin Stern’s 1973 novel THE TOWER to Warner Bros, so they purchased a 1974 novel called THE GLASS TOWER written by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson and handed it over to the master of disaster Irwin Allen. Knowing that rival studio Warner Bros were going into production with THE TOWER he wisely felt that the two films would destroy each other at the box office (this would happen in the future with pictures like VOLCANO and DANTE’S PEAK, and ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT studios never learn from the past.) Allen convinced the studio heads to join forces and make one picture with Fox getting domestic and Warner Bros foreign box office, the two studios agreed, marking the first time in history that two studios made a film together. Now it was up to THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE scribe Stirling Silliphant to merge the two books THE GLASS TOWER and THE TOWER into what was now being called THE TOWERING INFERNO.
Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) has just returned to San Francisco to attend the grand opening of the building he has designed for Jim Duncan (William Holden) when a fire breaks out causing the building to become a towering inferno. That’s about the essence of this sometimes exciting and sometimes ludicrous blockbuster, all-star extravaganza. You can’t fill close to a 3 hrs run time with just fiery mayhem and exhilarating thrills; you also have to have some silly subplots and character introductions like Doug’s main squeeze. Susan (Faye Dunaway) who has a lovely office there in the building equipped with a bed, and before Paul Newman can scream #MeToo, they’re in the sack doing the nasty. 30’s dance man, the iconic Fred Astaire (nominated for Best SupportingActorfor this film, believe it or not), plays con-man Harlee Claiborne. He is hoping to scam Lisolette, the lovely and very under-rated actress Jennifer Jones, who, I might add,retired after her performance here (she did try to get the mother role in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT but lost out to Shirley McClane).
Then there’s swarthy Richard Chamberlain as Duncan’s son-in-law, Simmons, who it turns out cut corners in the electrical department causing the shorts that start the fire, a spark mind you that conveniently sets off in a room filled with paint thinner and used rags. The fire fails to trigger safety mechanisms to the detriment of security guard Jernigan (O.J. Simpson in an excellent performance) almost as good as the one at his trial, when he snaps at Paul Newman you believe it, after all, you don’t want The Juice mad at you.
With hundreds of guests trapped in the building, it’s up to San Francisco Fire Department and fire chief O’ Halloran played by the king of cool Steve McQueen, in a subtle but strong performance. McQueen without a doubt delivers the best performance in the picture. Oh, and the original ROCKETEER George Wallace from the serial KING OF THE ROCKETMEN makes an appearance as a fire chief with an oxygen tank on his back rather than a rocket, a fitting tribute. And there’s Robert Wagner, not sure why he’s in here other than to show him and his scantily clad receptionist burn in slow motion.
THE TOWERING INFERNO is the biggest film in the 70s disaster genre as far as scope and star power. Steve Mcqueen and Paul Newman both are both excellent, especially McQueen, who is believable as the exhausted and resourceful fire chief. Despite having made much better films, they don’t in the slightest come off as taking the gig for a big check, they work with Silliphant’s sometimes cheesy dialog and make it work. The effects are top notch and still quite impressive, goes to show how much more realistic models are than CG. The action scenes are suspenseful; my favorite is the rescue of the passengers in the glass elevator that’s hanging off the track where Chief O’ Halloran must have a helicopter fly over it, and he has to hook it up. Like I THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE most of the actors did most of their own stunts. McQueen broke his ankle jumping off the helicopter.
The picture was a huge hit ranking at number 2, grossing 116 million, just behind Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES. The picture was nominated for 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture and winning 3 for cinematography, editing and Best Song, again going to Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn for the song We May Never Love Like This Again, although I do believe Blazing Saddle is now the more iconic song and was also nominated that year. John Williams’ score was nominated as well and in my opinion his THE TOWERING INFERNO score is the beginning of the blockbuster John Williams scores. Even though he had done many scores prior, including THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, and on TV shows like LOST IN SPACE, Williams became synonymous with big-budget blockbusters.
1974’s EARTHQUAKE isn’t the greatest of the bunch, but I do have a soft spot for it for a few reasons. The first time I saw it was when it premiered on network TV, and it was simulcast on the radio so one could replicate the sensurround experience theatergoers had. I can still see my family sitting around the TV while my dad played with the antennae on his portable radio! The other reason is that the first time I ever went to Universal Studios was in 1974 and they had a lot of props from the film; we even got to see Albert Whitlock’s excellent matte paintings. All this stuff just excited the hell out of me and I would go to Universal Studio’s often that decade with my summer school class as well as with my parents, they must’ve been giving away cheap tickets. In fact, it kind of started to feel like a home away from home. Coming back home wasn’t always fun though as my chest would often hurt from the amount of smog that was in L.A. Enough of California’s smog issues though; let’s move on to our earthquake’s…
Universal’s EARTHQUAKE has its genius after the success of 20th Century fox’s AIRPORT. I imagine cigar chompin’ studio execs saying “an airplane, our disaster has to be bigger, bolder and BOMBASTIC!” They turned to write Mario Puzo, hot off his success with THE GODFATHER (Coppola pretty much re-wrote that script though.) they decided not to find a novel but rather base it on a real event the 1972 San Fernando Earthquake. This quake is one of my first memories. I remember standing in my crib (I was about three and slept in a crib until around 5, is that too old?) everything was shaking, and my mom was scared and stood in the doorway, and I was laughing while my crib was sliding across the floor anyway she grabbed me and we ran outside. We lived about 50 miles from the epicenter in Sylmar, so it was pretty intense, a 6.5 according to Wiki. After Puzo finished the screenplay, it was determined to be too costly and was shelved. After the surprise success of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, the picture was finally green-lit with veteran director Mark Robeson in the director seat and rushed into production to beat THE TOWERING INFERNO to screens.
Director Mark Robeson got his start as an assistant editor at RKO on pictures like Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. When producer Val Lewton joined the studio he moved up to editor on the pictures CAT PEOPLE, and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, then finally director on the moody horror pictures THE LEOPARD, THE GHOST SHIP, BEDLAM, and THE SEVENTH VICTIM. These pictures launched him as a respected director on different films such as the classics PEYTON PLACE, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
Universal may not have gotten big stars like INFERNO’S McQueen and Newman, but hey, Charlton Heston and Eva Gardner aren’t bad, plus they got stellar character actors like the mighty Lorne Greene, all around good guy George Kennedy as the roughneck cop with a heart of gold, Slade, Genevieve Bujol as Chuck’s actress mistress Denise, SHAFT’S Richard Roundtree as an Evel Kenivel styled daredevil Miles; the bodacious Victoria Principle, sporting a Caucasian natural, as Miles’ eye-candy sidekick, Rosa and fire and brimstone evangelist turned character actor the great Marjoe Gortner as deranged grocery clerk/National Guardsman Jody.
Heston stars as Graff, an architect, ala THE TOWERING INFERNO, who works for his father-in-law, Royce (Lorne Greene) who wants to promote him and make him a partner, but Graff wants time to think about it as he’s getting sick of his marriage to Royce’s pill-popping daughter Remy, (the lustrous Ava Gardner collecting a check, by this time she was over Hollywood.) Meanwhile, Graff is banging a struggling actress half his age, while all this is going on there’s a couple of jolts, and the boys at LA’s Mullholland Dam discover that the recent jolt caused cracks.
After a high-speed chase through the streets of Los Angeles, crabby cop Slade gets released to cool down. The high-speed chase reminiscent of then-recent hits, BULLIT, and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but done more like a TV movie which unfortunately EARTHQUAKE plays like. Slade goes into a bar to nurse himself happy; this scene is fun as we get to see things going on in the background much like in the ZAZ spoof films like AIRPLANE. Bald character actor H.B. Haggarty (perennial 70s TV tough guy bit player, whom most might recognize as Tigerman from TV’s BUCK ROGERS) gets into an amusing brawl and a cameo by Walter Matthau (billed here by his real name Walter Matuschanskayasky, sheesh, try saying that five times fast!) here playing a drunken pimp, and most importantly we get to me Rosa (Victoria Principal) and her t-shirt bound assets, ahhh the politically incorrect 70s.
Eventually, the big one sets off for a whole lot of rockin’ and rollin’. These sequences are often spectacular. Like the other pictures the model work, matte paintings, by legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock, are just stunning, I understand replacing paint on glass with today’s digital matte painting but for Christ sake why CGI instead of models, if shot right model work is by far superior to CGI and these pictures are a testament to this.
Once the major quake stops we get a couple of disaster movies rolled into one as there are people trapped in the building that Graff designed like in THE TOWERING INFERNO and once the dam breaks we get a bit of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE as the city floods.
Released November 15, 1974, one month after AIRPORT sequel AIRPORT ’75, of “The stewardess is flying the plane.”fame, and a month before THE TOWERING INFERNO, EARTHQUAKE received Luke warm reviews with Pauline Kael calling it “The picture is swill, but it isn’t a cheat; it’s an entertaining marathon of Grade-A destruction effects”. Was she right, of course, it’s what I call “dumb fun.” Kind of like JURASSIC WORLD or INDEPENDENTS DAY. I know this may be an oxymoron, but why can’t dumb fun also be intelligent, I don’t know, maybe when we find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, we’ll find out. The big attraction, however, was the fact that the picture was presented in “Sensurround.”
Developed by Cerwin-Vega and Universal Studios, Sensurround used a low-frequency bass which is mostly felt rather than heard, much like that jerk who pulls up next to you at the light with his car stereo going BOOM! BOOM! There was a lot of science put into this, I understand some of it, but most of it is, “huh?” The magnetic strip used for audio on film prints can’t accurately reproduce lower frequencies lower than 40Hz.
They created a random noise generator box based on the sounds from the Sylmar earthquake. Once the audio hit this box, the 18” woofers would kick in and before you can sing “We like the cars, the cars that go boom” the theater would start shaking. The prices proved popular with the audience, at least the ones watching EARTHQUAKE and not the ones watching, perhaps, THE GODFATHER 2 in the next auditorium and that is why the gimmick didn’t last long. Universal attached Sensurround on four more pictures, MIDWAY (saw this one with the old man it was like you were there) ROLLERCOASTER, and finally the theatrical release of the TV movie BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (those engines rumbled). Rumors abound that the process permanently damaged eardrums, but that’s not true. What it did damage was theater auditoriums as this was the beginning of cheaply made multiplexes.
The rental of the speakers was $500 a month and proved to be too costly, as the couple watching ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE wanted their money back because they couldn’t Flo yelling at Mel. Other studios got into the vibrating audio as well Fox had Sound 360 on the Jan-Michael Vincent film DAMNATION ALLEY, and Warner Bros had the cleverly titled Megasound that accompanied ALTERED STATES, SUPERMAN II and underrated OUTLAND.
MASTER MATTE ARTIST: THE ART OF ALBERT WHITLOCK.
It’s safe to say that the best thing about EARTHQUAKE is the fantastic matte paintings by Artist Albert J. Whitlock. He was born in London, England in 1915. As a young man, he trained as a sign painter eventually working with director Alfred Hitchcock at Gaumont Studios, where he’d been working since he was 14, on miniatures for THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and THE 39 STEPS, eventually moving to the matte painting department.
His work caught the eye of Walt Disney and was offered a gig in the states where he worked with another legend in the field, fellow Londoner, Peter Ellenshaw, where he created titles for 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Here he continued to master his techniques on films like TONKA, the ZORRO TV show DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, POLLYANNA and even uncredited work on Roger Corman’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM before leaving Disney to head Universal Studios matte department.
Once at Universal he was reunited with his old collaborator Sir Alfred Hitchcock on all his Universal pictures like THE BIRDS, it’s his beautiful matte painting at the end of the film. Since he was a staff artist at Universal his work is diverse and plentiful, later he was highly in demand and was “loaned” out to other studios.
What sets Whitlock’s work apart from others is his process. Artists stopped doing it all on set and started using optical printers, making it a 2nd generation and sacrificing quality. Whitlock, however, back-wound the film, shooting it onto the original negative. He also breathed life into the matte by creating illusions that made the painting more animated. This helpful video explains his process.
A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF MATTE PAINTINGS
Matte painting is almost as old as cinema itself as it has been used since the dawn of cinema. During the Renaissance, the old masters discover perspective by standing up a sheet of glass and drawing lines on it to a horizon line and vanishing points. That is essentially what matte painting is. One puts up a sheet of glass, let’s say in front of a cliff and then positions a camera in front. An artist then paints an image, perhaps a gothic castle, but from the camera’s point of view the painted castle looks like it’s on top of the cliff. Another section of the glass is not painted; this is where actors can be giving the illusion that all is real. Albert Whitlock became an absolute master at this process. His work in the next picture was phenomenal.
THE HINDENBURG (1975)
Universal Studios, high on disaster hits, thought it would turn to a true-life disaster, the tragic destruction of the German Zeppelin, The Hindenburg, that exploded in Lakehurst New Jersey. Basedonthenovelby Michael M. Mooney, the story posits what may have happened aboard the airship before it blew up before film crews and live on a radio broadcast in 1937.
After the FBI gets an anonymous letter stating that the Nazi airship The Hindenburg is to be blown up over America, the Feds contact the German Gestapo to inform them of this possibility. They put their man on the case, Col. Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) He is to board the airship on its voyage to the states from Frankfurt and make sure nothing goes awry. Directed by veteran filmmaker Robert Wise, (THE SET-UP, DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), the film plays a bit like an Agatha Christie novel where you have a choice of possible suspects aboard the airship
Will it be Countess Ursula Von Ruegan (THE GRADUATE and Mel Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft) who’s fleeing Nazi Germany, and a personal friend to Col. Ritter? Perhaps it’s American Edward Douglas (Gig Young)? Maybe it’s song and dance man Reed Channing (Agent Mulder’s dad from THE X-FILES Peter Donat)? Or, perhaps Jewish circus performer Joseph Späh (HOGAN’S HEROES Robert Clary, himself a former Nazi concentration camp survivor)? Could it be Karl Boerth (SUGARLAND EXPRESS, GHOSTBUSTERS William Atherton) a former Hitler Youth and now airship rigger who has the confidence of everybody and likes to sing Die Fahne Hoch and whose girlfriend is a French resistance fighter, hmmmm?
It’s fairly obvious who the terrorist may be even after we discover that the lady who informed the FBI about the planned attack is clairvoyant and saw it in a dream, she also predicted that Bette Davis would star as Scarlet O’ Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND. There’s a fun song and dance scene that’s quite amusing. The real appeal of the picture though is without a doubt is Albert Whitlock’s brilliant matte paintings for which he won another Academy Award for Special Achievement In Visual Effects.
Released on Christmas Day 1975, critics were not too kind to it with Vincent Canby calling it “brainless.” Though not a big hit it did make its money back, about 30 million on a 12 million budget. It’s not a horrible film, but there are a lot of things wrong with it. I’m surprised that since it is an old school film that they didn’t cast Brits as the Germans; after all old Hollywood often cast brits for Romans and Nazi’s. Everyone here speaks with an American accent and smokes like an American, come on, cinematic Nazis are supposed to smoke with the cigarette between the ring finger and middle finger, everybody knows that!
George C. Scott plays it earnestly though. His character struggles with the state of Germany, and he is very believable in it. It’s just too bad the script wasn’t a bit more layered as most people know it was an accident, it used hydrogen as opposed to helium, but if the screenplay had been a bit more sophisticated it could have told a very intriguing yarn, as it stands now it plays like an NBC Sunday Night Mystery.
Now, this is one I saw in its original release. It was opening weekend for SKATEBOARD THE MOVIE, the film with Lief Garret, and ROLLERCOASTER had been out for a while so sadly no Sensurround. I thought SKATEBOARD was stupid, it was my sisters choice, but we did get free stickers. I absolutely loved ROLLERCOASTER and still do, I even have a fan made DVD that has pop-up video pointing out the histories of all the various roller coasters used throughout the film. As I mentioned previously, the big attraction on the film was the Sensurround soundtrack, and it would be the second to last to have that format; the last being the theatrical version of TV’s BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, now that one I got to experience in eardrum busting Sensurround.
ROLLERCOASTER is my favorite on this list by a long shot. It now reminds me very much of Blake Edwards intense masterpiece EXPERIMENT IN TERROR. In that film, Lee Remick’s sister (Stephanie Powers) is kidnapped and held for ransom by a deranged psychopath (WILD, WILD, WESTS Ross Martin) and it’s up to detective Glen Ford to save the day. That picture is wall to wall thriller, no silly subplots about affairs and what not, just the facts. ROLLERCOASTER is the same way.
In an opening sequence, we watch a man climbing on a roller coaster who looks to be some kind of technician, later that night a small exploding device damages a roller coaster track hurling a car off the rails and killing the passengers on board. Unlike most thrillers of this type, including those mentioned above, we see the killer, billed here as Young Man, coldly played by Timothy Bottoms (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) Bottoms plays this character like an intelligent Ivy League Travis Bickel and makes the character quite dangerous. Once word of the “accident” gets out, safety inspector Harry Calder (George Segal, WHERE’S PAPA), who has picked the wrong week to quit smoking, gets his ass chewed out by his boss Henry Fonda (TENTACLES, METEOR, was he hurtin’ for money at this time or just bored?) as Calder had just inspected the ride earlier.
After inspecting the damage and interviewing people, Calder suspects foul play. After another “accident” a group of amusement park owners meets with Calder, the young man has it bugged, they play a recording that he sent them telling them of his demands, a million dollars. Calder suggests they call in the feds. Enter Hoyt (Richard Widmark, KISS OF DEATH he would’ve made a great Joker in the 40s!) and his team, they bid adieu to Calder and send him back, only to call on him later as the young man wants Calder to deliver the money and here it becomes a game of cat and mouse. He delivers the money but once the young man sees that the bills are marked he threatens to blow up another coaster, the American Revolution at Magic Mountain.
The Revolution was brand-spanking’ new at this point, I believe it was the first coaster to have a full loop, and it was back before Magic Mountain was purchased by Six Flags, and had a weird magic mushroom theme. We used to go there a lot back then; they served beer there, so it was easy to get the old man to take us there!
George Segal is excellent in the film and carries the picture; he brings a warmth and humanity that films like this need. It never once feels like he’s just phoning it in. Look for some early appearances from Helen Hunt as Caulder’s daughter and the band Sparks. Thesoundtrackby Lalo Schifrin is catchy as hell.Reviews for the film were mixed, Gene Siskel calling it a “traffic accident masquerading as a film.” I agree with Charles Champlin who said: “It is not so much a disaster story as an unexpectedly articulate and well-polished piece of cat-and-mouse suspense whose derivation is more from Hitchcock than, say, Irwin Allen.” Released June 8, 1977, just two weeks after STAR WARS, ROLLERCOASTER didn’t fare too well and made 8 million on a 9 million budget. I suggest you check this one out as it is an excellent summer picture.
METEOR was another picture I saw at the cinema, I went with the old man, on a rare occasion, and unfortunately, I was not impressed; considering that I was 11 that that’s probably not a good thing. There was a pretty big marketing campaign if I recall, at least there were a lot of commercials for it anyway. The film was a co-production between Hong Kong’s Run Run Shaw and American International Pictures and was one of the last films to have the iconic AIP logo, despite having a phenomenal year with THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, they merged with Filmways, and the name AIP was no more. METEOR was a financial disaster, but AIP only financed 2 million of its 16 million budget. The film only grossed half of what it cost to make.
After a comet plows into an asteroid, it sends a 5-mile wide asteroid on to a collision course with Earth. Ex NASA scientist Dr. Paul Bradley (the consistently busy Sir Sean Connery) is called back by NASA head, Harry Sherman (ON THE WATERFRONT’S Karl Malden) to help out. Here we learn why Bradley quit, it turns out he designed a satellite that could propel nuclear warheads into space if any space debris should approach the planet, but the military instead pointed the missiles at Russia. Meanwhile knowing that Russia has a similar “defense” system, Bradley’s Russian counterpart Dr.Dubov (WIND AND THE LION’S Brian Kieth) is brought to the states, along with his interpreter Tatiana Duskya (the timeless beauty Natalie Wood, who in real life is Russian and speaks it fluently), to join forces and jointly launch missiles at the giant rock.
I imagine producers got together and said: “we can put all the disaster movies into one colossal picture.” And that my friends is precisely what they did, we have an avalanche. Actually, footage from the New World Pictures film AVALANCHE, New World was, at the time, owned by Roger Corman; who once worked for AIP; we also get a tsunami and a flood that creates havoc in a subway tunnel much like in EARTHQUAKE. For genre fans, be on the lookout for cameos by Sybil Danning (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) Bibi Besch (THE BEAST WITHIN, STAR TREK II THE WRATH OF KAHN) and Clyde Kusatsu (MIDWAY, THE FRISCO KID and just about every Asian role in the 70s and 80s)
Overall the picture is pretty lousy from the SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE styled titles, the awful SFX; some of these looked good and are dated but some, like close-ups of models, a quite bad. All the actors do give it there all, though a few provide some embarrassing performances. Some say this picture was the reason that AIP merged with Filmways, but the merger was already in the works by the time METEOR was released. The truth was that executive Sam Arkoff wanted to make bigger pictures and needed the capital to do so. He later regretted the merger and retired shortly after. The lesson is never to sell your dream.
The screenplay was written by Edmund H. North, who wrote DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and the Oscar-winning PATTON, but this was no Oscar-caliber script that’s for damn sure and it would be his last. METEOR was to have another John Williams score, but he bowed out, probably to do Steven Spielberg’s 1941, and was replaced by Laurence Rosenthal which is adequate except for the cheesy synths on the Main Title. When I got home from seeing this in 1979, I got my STAR WARS figures out, lined them up, got my big fake rock I had gotten on one of my many trips to Universal Studios and played METEOR by throwing the big rock at the figures. They all had the same blank expression as the actors in the film.