Film Review: Avalanche (dir by Corey Allen)


The 1978 film Avalanche tells the story of a beautiful resort that’s been built in the mountains of Colorado.  Self-righteous photographer and activist Nick Thorne (Robert Forster) keeps insisting that it’s not environmentally safe to build a resort up in the mountains.  According to him, there’s too much snow building up and it’s inevitably going to lead to an avalanche.

The owner of the resort, David Shelby (Rock Hudson), insists that Nick doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Sure, David may have had to cut a few ethical corners to get his resort built and he may currently be under criminal investigation but that doesn’t make David a bad guy.  All he wants is to have a nice and expensive resort located in the most beautiful and dangerous place on Earth.  Does that make him a bad guy?

Unfortunately, if David was watching the film with the rest of us, he would be aware of all the shots of snow ominously building up on the side of the mountain.  However, David would still probably be distracted by the presence of his ex-wife, Caroline (Mia Farrow).  David would love to get back together with Caroline but Caroline finds herself growing attracted to Nick.  When David isn’t chasing after Caroline, he’s trying to keep his mother, Florence (Jeanette Nolan), from drinking all of the liquor in the resort.  Good luck with that!  Florence is an eccentric old person in a disaster film so, of course, she’s going to be drunk off her ass for the majority of the run time.

There are other dramas occurring at the resort, of course.  TV personality Mark Elliott (Barry Primus) is upset because his ex, Tina (Cathey Paine), is hooking up with arrogant skier Bruce Scott (Rick Moses).  Bruce is upset because Tina expects him not to cheat on her.  Ice skater Cathy Jordan (Pat Egan) is hoping to conquer her insecurities.  Rival ice skater Annette River (Peggy Browne) is …. well, she’s there.  To be honest, I’m not really sure what the whole point of the ice skating rivalry was since they all end getting buried in snow regardless.  Then again, maybe that is the point.  An avalanche doesn’t care about your personal dramas.  All it cares about is destroying tacky resorts that overuse wood paneling.

Yes, the avalanche does come crashing down the mountain eventually.  It takes a while, though.  There’s almost an hour of Rock Hudson walking around with a pained look on his face before the snow finally comes crashing down.  For all of Nick’s talk about how the avalanche would probably be the result of too many people skiing, it actually happens because someone crashes a plane into one of the mountains.

Obviously, the avalanche is the main reason why anyone would want to watch a movie called Avalanche.  Anyone with any knowledge of the disaster genre knows that no one watches these movies for the human drama.  They watch them because they want to see at least 10 minutes of solid destruction.  A disaster movie can get away with almost anything as long as the disaster itself looks good.

The disaster in Avalanche does not look particularly good.  This film was directed by Roger Corman and, despite being one of the most expensive films that Corman ever produced, the avalanche effects are definitely a bit cut-rate.  At the same time, the cheapness of the special effects does provide the film with its own odd charm.  Just consider the scene where one of the ice skaters gets covered in snow while spinning around with a triumphant smile on her face.  (Sure, she might be dead and she’ll certainly never make it to the Olympics but at least she finally mastered a fairly basic skating move.)  The avalanche effects are super imposed over the image of the skater spinning but it’s obvious that it didn’t occur to anyone to tell the skater, “Hey, act like there’s a gigantic amount of snow crashing down on you!”  It’s so inept as to be charming, like when a child draws a really ugly picture but it’s cute because at least they tried and, as a result, you wait until the child leaves your house before you throw it away.

The thing I love about Avalanche is how everyone is even more ineffectual after the avalanche than they were before it.  Usually, in a movie like this, the disaster leads to unexpected heroism and the villains getting the comeuppance.  In this one, the avalanche just inspires more stupidity.  Fire trucks and ambulances literally collide with each other while heading for the resort.  At one point, a group of fireman set up a net directly underneath someone falling out of a ski ramp chair just for the person to somehow land a few inches to the left of them.  Though the film sets David Shelby up to be the villain, it’s hard not to feel that everyone at the resort is just an idiot.

Listen, I love Avalanche.  It’s terrible but it’s a lot of fun and the less-than special effects go along perfectly with the overheated (or, in some cases, underheated) performances.  Rock Hudson wanders through the movie with a strained smile on his face that has to be seen to be believed while Mia Farrow and Robert Forster both try so hard to make their underwritten characters credible that you can’t help but kind of appreciate their devotion to a lost cause.  If nothing else, the shots extras reacting to superimposed shots of the avalanche makes this film worth a look.  This is a cheap and silly movie and if you don’t enjoy it, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

TV Review: Night Gallery 1.1 “The Dead Man/The Housekeeper” (dir by Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas)


As I wrote yesterday, I recently decided to sit down and watch every episode of the horror anthology series, Night Gallery.  Yesterday, I watched and reviewed the pilot movie.  Tonight, I watched the first episode of the weekly series.

Though the pilot originally aired in 1969, Night Gallery did not start to air as a regular series until December of 1970.  The first episode of season one was broadcast on December 16th, 1970.  As all of the episodes did, it stated with Rod Serling walking through a dimly lit museum and inviting the audience to look at a macabre painting.  Each painting was inspired by a different story.  Or were the stories inspired by the paintings?  To be honest, I don’t think the show ever made that clear.

The first episode featured two stories, both of which dealt with mad scientists.

The Dead Man (written and directed by Douglas Heyes)

The first segment was The Dead Man, an enjoyably atmospheric if somewhat difficult-to-follow story about a scientist, a young man with an amazing ability, and the woman who is torn between the two of them.

Carl Betz plays Max Redford, a doctor who has discovered that, under hypnotic suggestion, John Michael Fearing (Michael Blodgett) can simulate any medical condition, no matter how severe.  When Max reveals his discovery to his associate, Dr. Talmadge (Jeff Corey), Talmadge is concerned that Fearing will suffer permanent damage as a result of Max’s experiments.  Nonsense! Max explains.  All he has to do is give Fearing the proper signal and he’ll pop right out of his condition, as good as new.

Max decides to put Fearing to the ultimate test by having him simulate death.  However, when Fearing goes under, he dies for real.  Was it just an accident or did Max — who suspects that Fearing was having an affair with his wife (Louise Sorel) — secretly mean for Fearing to die?

The Dead Man raises some intriguing questions about life, death, and medical ethics.  It also has a quartet of good performances with Carl Betz doing an especially good job as Max.  Michael Blodgett showed up in a lot of early 70s films and TV shows and he was always convincing as a decadent hedonist.  The entire segment is full of creepy atmosphere but the ending is a bit of a let down.  After a great set-up, the segment just kind of fizzles out.

The Housekeeper (written by Heyes, directed by John Meredyth Lucas)

In the second segment, our mad scientist is named Cedric Acton (Larry Hagman).  Whereas Max Redford, in the previous segment, was misguided, Cedric Acton is just crazy.  Through the use of black magic (it involves a frog), Cedric has been experimenting with soul and brain transference.  (There’s an oinking chicken and a clucking pig in his laboratory, just in case anyone’s wondering how the experiments are going.)

Because Cedric loves his wife’s body but hates her personality, he wants to put the soul of his kindly housekeeper (Jeanette Nolan) into the body of his wife, Carlotta (Suzy Parker).  At first, the experiment is a success but things get complicated and …. well, I’m not really sure what it all leads to because this is one of those stories that just kind of ends without really offering up any type of resolution.

The Housekeeper is meant to be a comedy but it’s a bit too mean-spirited to really work.  This segment really calls out for karma to intervene and for Cedric’s soul to end up in something else’s body but instead it just ends with Cedric continuing his experiments.  It’s more than a little dissatisfying.  Larry Hagman does a good job playing Cedric, though.  He’s convincingly crazy.

Especially after the pilot, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the first episode of Night Gallery.  Both stories had potential but they were let down by weak endings.  Oh well.  Hopefully, tomorrow’s episode will be an improvement!

Hijack! (1973, directed by Leonard Horn)


Jake (David Janssen) is a down-on-his-luck trucker who is offered job by a mysterious man named Kleiner (WIlliam Schallert).  If Jake agrees to transport a cargo across the country, he will get not only $6,000 but Kleiner will also pull some strings get Jake back in the good graces of the trucking company.  If Jake takes the job, he will be given a slip of paper with a phone number on it and, according to Kleiner, that piece of paper will get him out of any trouble that he runs into along the way.  The only condition is that Jake is not allowed to know what he’ll be transporting.  Jake agrees and soon, he and his partner Donny (Keenan Wynn) are driving the truck through the desert.  They are also being followed by a group of men who will stop at nothing to steal the cargo.

This made-for-TV movie is called Hijack! but no one ever gets hijacked.  Instead, with the exception of a brief romantic interlude between Jake and a truck stop waitress (Lee Purcell), this is a nonstop chase movie but the chase itself is never exciting enough to justify that exclamation mark in the title.  It was probably made to capitalize on the success of Steven Spielberg’s made-for-TV classic, Duel, but it never come close to capturing the nerve or intensity of that film.  There’s one good scene where the bad guys come after the truck in a helicopter but otherwise, this is a pretty anemic stuff.  Even the eventual reveal of what Jake and Donny are hauling across the desert is a let down.

David Janssen specialized in playing grizzled loners and Keenan Wynn specialized in playing eccentric old coots so both of them are adequate in the main roles.  The bad guys are largely forgettable and, as she did in so many other TV movies in the 70s, Lee Purcell brings what life that she can to an underwritten role.

Under the Sea: Goliath Awaits (1981, directed by Kevin Connor)


1939.  War is breaking out across Europe.  The British luxury liner Goliath is torpedoed by a German U-boat.  Presumed to be lost with the ship are a swashbuckling film star, Ronald Bentley (John Carradine), and U.S. Senator Oliver Barthowlemew (John McIntire), who may have been carrying a forged letter from Hitler to Roosevelt when the boat went down.

1981.  Oceanographer Peter Cabot (Mark Harmon, with a mustache) comes across the sunken wreck of the Goliath.  When he dives to check out his discovery, he is shocked to hear big band music coming from inside the ship.  He also thinks that he can hear someone tapping out an S.O.S. signal.  When he looks into a porthole, he is stunned to discover a beautiful young woman (Emma Samms) staring back at him.

Under the command of Admiral Sloan (Eddie Albert), who wants to retrieve the forged letter before it does any damage to the NATO alliance, Cabot and Command Jeff Selkirk (Robert Forster) are assigned to head an expedition to explore Goliath.  What they discover is that, for 40 years, the passengers and crew have survived within an air bubble.  Under the leadership of Captain John McKenzie (Christopher Lee), they have created a new, apparently perfect society within the sunken ship.  Cabot discovers that the woman that he saw was McKenzie’s daughter, Lea.

McKenzie is friendly to Cabot and his crew, explaining to them the scientific developments that have allowed the passengers and crew to not only survive but thrive underwater.  The only problems are a group of outcasts — the Bow People — who refuse to follow McKenzie’s orders and Palmer’s Disease, an infection that only seems to infect people who are no longer strong enough to perform the daily tasks necessary to keep McKenzie’s utopia functioning.   Even when people on the boat die, they continue to play their part by being cremated in Goliath’s engine room and helping to power the ship.

Everything seems perfect until Cabot announces that he has come to rescue the survivors of the Goliath.  Even though Goliath is starting to decay and will soon no longer be safe, McKenzie is not ready to give up the perfect society that he’s created.  McKenzie sets out to prevent anyone from escaping the Goliath.

Goliath Awaits is a massive, 3-hour production that was made for television and originally aired over two nights.  (The entire 200-minute production has been uploaded to YouTube.  Avoid the heavily edited, 91-minute version that was released on VHS in the 90s.)  It’s surprisingly good for a made-for-TV movie.  Because a large portion of the film was shot on the RMS Queen Mary, a retired cruise ship that was moored in Long Beach, California, Goliath looks luxurious enough that you understand why some of the passengers might want to stay there instead of returning to the surface.  Beyond that, Goliath Awaits takes the time to fully explore the society that McKenzie has created and what it’s like to live on the ship.  McKenzie may not be as benevolent as he first appears to be but neither is he a one-dimensional villain.

Mark Harmon is a dull lead but Robert Forster is just as cool as always and Christopher Lee is perfect for the role of misguided Capt. McKenzie.  The movie is really stolen by Frank Gorshin, who is coldly sinister as Dan Wesker, the Goliath’s head of security.  McKenzie may by Goliath’s leader but Wesker is the one who does the dirty work necessary to keep the society running.

Goliath Awaits also features several character actors in small roles, with John Carradine, Duncan Regehr, Jean Marsh, John McIntire, Jeanette Nolan, Alex Cord, Emma Samms, and John Ratzenberger all getting to make a good impression.  (Ignore, if you can, a very young Kirk Cameron as one of the children born on the Goliath.)

Goliath Awaits is far better than your average made-for-TV movie from the 80s.  With any luck, it will someday get the home video release that it deserves.

 

Embracing The Melodrama Part III #7: True Confessions (dir by Ulu Grosbard)


The 1981 film True Confessions tells many different stories.

It’s a story about Los Angeles.  It’s not necessarily a story about Los Angeles as it exists.  Instead, it’s a story about Los Angeles as we always imagine it.  It’s the late 40s and, having vanquished the Nazis in Europe, men are returning to California and looking for a new life.  Meanwhile, aspiring starlets from across the country flood into Hollywood, looking for stardom.  It’s a city where glitz and ruin exist right next to each other.  It’s the mean streets that were made famous by Raymond Chandler and, decades later, James Ellroy.

It’s a murder mystery, one that is based on one of the most notorious unsolved homicides of all time.  The bisected body of woman named Lois Fazenda has been found in a vacant lot.  When the newspapers discover that Lois was both a prostitute and a Catholic, she becomes known as “the Virgin Tramp.”  One need not have an encyclopedic knowledge of unsolved crimes to recognize that Lois Fazneda is meant to be a stand-in for Elizabeth Short, the tragic and infamous Black Dahlia.

It’s a story about corruption.  Crooked cops.  Rich perverts.  Greedy politicians.  Sinful clergy.  They’re all present and accounted for in True Confessions.  As quickly becomes apparent, Los Angeles is a city where you can do anything as long as you have the money to pay the right people off.

And finally, it’s a film about two brothers.  Tom and Des Spellacy grew up in a strong Irish Catholic family but, as they got older, their lives went in different directions.  Tom (Robert Duvall) became a detective, the type who is willing to cut corners but who, in the end, takes his job seriously.  Des (Robert De Niro) entered the priesthood and is now a monsignor in the Los Angeles diocese.  Des is ambitious and he has a powerful mentor, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack).

Though Tom and Des have gone their separate ways, they are still linked by Jack Amsterdam (Charles During).  To the public, Jack is a wealthy and respected businessman.  However, Tom and Des both know the truth.  When Tom first joined the department, he worked as a bagman for Jack and he knows that Jack made most of his money through a prostitution ring.  Des know that Jack donates to the Church as way to cover up his own corruption but Des looks the other way.  The Cardinal, after all, wants Jack’s money.

When Tom starts to investigate Lois’s death, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that Jack is probably the one responsible.  Meanwhile, Jack and his lawyer (Ed Flanders) start to pressure Des to convince his brother to let the case go.  Finding justice for Lois Fazneda could mean the end of both Tom and Des’s career.

Based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, which was adapted into a screenplay by Dunne and Joan Didion, True Confessions is an imperfect but intriguing film.  This is one of Robert Duvall’s best performances and he brings a manic edge to the role that keeps the audience off-balance.  In the role of Jack Amsterdam, Charles Durning is the epitome of casual corruption and Burgess Meredith does a good job as an aging priest.  On the other hand, Robert De Niro seems strangely uncomfortable in the role of Des and you never quite believe that he and Duvall are actually brothers.  Director Ulu Grosbard does a good job of creating a proper noir atmosphere but, at the same time, he denies the audience the dramatic climax to which the film appears to be building up to.

That said, for whatever flaws True Confessions may have, it’s an always watchable and thought-provoking film.

Horror on TV: Thriller 2.17 “La Strega” (dir by Ida Lupino)


For tonight’s excursion into televised horror, we have an episode of Thriller!

This episode is called T and it deals with an artist (Alejandro Rey) who saves a young woman (Ursula Andress) from drowning.  It turns out that the local villagers believe that the woman is a witch.  The artist has no time for superstition and takes the woman back to his home.  She starts as his model and then becomes his lover.  She may not be a witch but her mother (Jeanette Nolan) definitely is…

And, of course, this episode is introduced by the one and only Boris Karloff!

The episode premiered on January 15th, 1962.

Shattered Politics #18: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir by John Ford)


The_Man_Who_Shot_Liberty_Valance“When the legend become fact, print the legend.” — Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Though I understand and respect their importance in the history of both American and Italian cinema, I have never really been a huge fan of westerns.  Maybe its all the testosterone (“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do…”) or maybe it’s all the dust but westerns have just never really been my thing.

However, I will always make an exception for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is not just a great western but a great film period.

But you already knew that.  It’s a little bit intimidating to review a film that everyone already knows is great.  I even opened this review with the exact same quote that everyone uses to open their reviews of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  To a certain extent, I feel like I should have found a quote that everyone hasn’t already heard a thousand times but then again, it’s a great quote from a great film and sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with agreeing with the critical consensus.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with a train stopping in the small western town of Shinbone.  The residents of the town — including newspaper editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) — are shocked when Sen. Rance Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) get off the train.  Sen. Stoddard is considered to be a front-runner to become the next Vice President of the United States.  Scott is even more shocked to discover why the Stoddards are in town.  They’ve come to Shinbone to attend the funeral of an obscure rancher named Tom Doniphon (played, in flashback, by John Wayne).

Sitting in the funeral home with Doniphon’s coffin (and having reprimanded the local mortician for attempting to steal Tom’s boots), Rance tells Scott why he’s come to pay respect to Tom Doniphon.  We see, in flashback, how Rance first came to Shinbone 25 years ago, an idealistic lawyer who — unlike most of the men in the west — refused to carry a gun.  We see how Rance was robbed and assaulted by local outlaw Liberty Valance (a wonderfully intimidating and bullying Lee Marvin), we discover how Rance first met Hallie while working as a dishwasher and how he eventually taught her how to read, and we also see how he first met Tom Doniphon, the only man in town strong enough to intimidate Liberty Valance.

At first, Rance and Doniphon had an uneasy friendship, epitomized by the condescending way Doniphon would call Rance “pilgrim.”  Doniphon was in love with Hallie and, when he attempted to teach Rance how to defend himself, he was largely did so for Hallie.  Rance, meanwhile, was determined to bring law and society to the west.

And, eventually, Rance did just that.  When Shinbone elected two delegates to the statehood convention in the territory’s capitol, Rance attempted to nominate Doniphon for the position but Doniphon refused it and nominated Rance instead, explaining that Rance understood “the law.”  When Liberty Valance attempted to claim the other delegate spot, Rance and Doniphon worked together to make sure that it instead went to newspaper editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien).  And when Liberty Valance attempted to gun Rance down in the street, Rance shot him.

Or did he?

That’s the question that’s at the heart of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  However, as a film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is far less interested in gunfights than it is in politics.  Perhaps the most important scene in the film is not when Rance and Liberty meet out on that dark street.  Instead, it’s the scene at the statehood convention where the reformers (represented by Rance) and the cattlemen (represented by John Carradine) battle over who will be the territory’s delegate to Washington.  Between John Carradine orating, the horses riding in and out of the hall, Edmond O’Brien drinking, James Stewart looking humble, and John Wayne glowering in the background, this is one of the best political scenes ever put on film.

When Rance first arrives in the west, there is no political system in place.  With the exception of the ineffectual town marshal (Andy Devine), there is no law.  The peace is kept by men like Tom Doniphon and, oddly enough, by Liberty Valance as well.  (Whether he realizes it or not, Shinbone’s fear of Liberty has caused the town to form into a community.)  What little official law there is doesn’t matter because the majority of the Shinbone’s citizens can’t read.

When Rance arrives, he brings both education and the law.  He makes Shinbone into a town that no longer needs Liberty Valance but, at the same time, it no longer need Tom Doniphon either.  Hence, it’s Rance Stoddard who goes from dishwasher to U.S. Senator while Tom Doniphon dies forgotten.  Rance represents progress and unfortunately, progress often means losing the good along with the bad things of the past.

(It’s no coincidence that when Rance and Hallie return to Shinbone, the first person that they see is the former town marshal, who no longer wears a star and who, we’re told, hasn’t for years.  Time has passed by.)

It’s a bittersweet and beautiful film, one that features four great performances from Stewart, Wayne, Marvin, and Vera Miles.  Personally, I like to think that maybe Sen. Stoddard had a daughter who married a man named Smith and maybe they had a son named Jefferson who later made his way to the Senate as well.

It would be fitting.

Horror On TV: Thriller 1.30 “Parasite Mansion”


Down here in Dallas, channel 47 is the local Me-TV affiliate.  Me-TV specializes in showing old TV shows from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  The network sells itself as a nostalgic refuge for people who are several decades older than me, a place where they can go to escape from Seth McFarlane producing sitcoms and Maury Povich conducting DNA tests.

But you know what?

I like Me-TV and I’m glad that it exists.  It probably has something to do with me being a history nerd at heart.  I love the chance to see what the world was once like.  Add to that, some very good shows were produced in the 50s and 60s.  Just because a lot of us weren’t there to experience them firsthand doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate them in rerun syndication.

Case in point: Thriller.

Thriller aired for two seasons in the early 60s.  It was an anthology series, in the tradition of The Twilight Zone.  Whereas The Twilight Zone was hosted by Rod Serling, Thriller was hosted by horror icon Boris Karloff, who always introduced the macabre material with a bemused gleam in his eyes.

Parasite Mansion was the 30th episode of Thriller and it originally aired on April 25th, 1961.  In this episode, Marcia (Pippa Scott) crashes her car outside of a dilapidated Southern mansion.  When she awakens, she finds herself in the position of being the unwilling guest of the eccentric family that lives inside the mansion.  I like this episode, largely because I can never resist Southern gothic atmosphere.

Incidentally, the family’s matriarch is played Jeannette Nolan and, if she sounds familiar, that’s probably because she was one of the many actresses to voice Mrs. Bates in Psycho.