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 1.3 “The House/Certain Shadows on the Wall”


The third episode of Night Gallery aired on December 30th, 1970.  While Americans were undoubtedly finalizing their plans for a wild New Year’s Eve (because, after all, Nixon was president and every day was a party), NBC and Rod Serling invited viewers to take a tour through a darkened museum, one where every painting told a story.

This episode of Night Gallery featured two stories:

The House (dir by John Astin, written by Rod Serling)

The House opens with Elaine Latimer (Joanna Pettet) talking about a recurring dream.  She’s driving her car through the countryside when she comes across a large house.  Though she’s never seen the house, she finds herself drawn to it, as if she somehow belongs in the house.  As Elaine describes her dream, we come to realize that she’s talking to a psychiatrist (Steve Franken) and that Elaine is recovering from mental breakdown.  Her doctor tells Elaine that the dream is nothing to worry about.

However, when Elaine is driving home, she realizes that the countryside looks familiar.  Soon, she’s pulling up in front of the house from her dreams!  When Elaine gets out of the car, she’s greeted by a real estate named Peugeot (Paul Richards) who asks her if she’s interested in buying the house.  As Peugeot gives her a tour of the estate, he mentions that the house is thought to be haunted….

I liked The House.  It was an atmospheric little tale and, from the minute that Elaine started talking about her dream, the story captured my attention.  (I should admit that I also have recurring dreams about a house that I’ve never actually seen before.)  Admittedly, the story does play out at a very deliberate pace and requires a bit of patience but the dream sequences are effectively surreal and Joanna Pettet gives an empathetic performance in the lead role.

Certain Shadows On The Wall (dir by Corey Allen, written by Rod Serling)

This segment features Agnes Moorehead as the sickly Emma, who is poisoned by her own brother, the despicable Stephen (Louis Hayward).  After Emma’s death, Stephen is shocked to discover that, even though Emma is gone, her shadow remains on the wall.  While Stephen is trying to make sense of that, his other two sisters (played by Grayson Hall and Rachel Roberts) have plans of their own for how to deal with their duplicitous brother.

Like The House, Certain Shadows On The Wall is appropriately atmospheric.  The ending is a bit weak as Stephen gets what he deserves but the shadow itself doesn’t have much to do with his actual fate.  Just when you’re waiting for Agnes Moorehead to make a sudden, ghostly appearance, the story comes to an end.  Still, this is an effective segment and it features excellent work from its ensemble.  I especially liked the performance of Grayson Hall, which features one of the most frightening glares that I’ve ever seen.

The third episode of Night Gallery was a definite improvement over the two that came before it.  Both segments tell intriguing stories, though it’s obvious that the show was still better at coming up with good premises than effective endings.

Previous Night Gallery Reviews:

  1. The Pilot
  2. The Dead Man/The Housekeeper
  3. Room With A View/The Little Black Bag/The Nature of the Enemy

Film Review: Westworld (dir by Michael Crichton)


“Draw,” says Yul Brynner.

“Whatever,” says a tourist who has spent a lot of money to spend their vacation at the Delos amusement park.

BANG!  Down goes the tourist, as the robot revolution of 1983 begins.

Recently, TCM broadcast the 1973 science fiction thriller, Westworld.  Since I am absolutely obsessed with the more recent HBO revival, there was no way I could resist watching the original film.  It was an interesting experience.  While the film is far more simpler and straight-forward than the television series, they both essentially tell the same story.  A bunch of rich humans pay a lot of money to pretend to be either cowboys or knights or Roman citizens for a week.  Everyone has a great time until, eventually, the robots stop doing what they were supposed to do and instead, begin to fight back.

One thing that the movie and the series definitely shared is a less-than-positive view of humanity.  The movie focuses on two businessmen.  Peter (Richard Benjamin) is the nerdy one.  John (James Brolin) is the hypermasculine one.  Peter is visiting Westworld for the first time.  John is a frequent guest who loves gunning down any robots who looks at him the wrong way.  Neither one of these characters is particularly likable.  Peter starts out as a self-righteous hypocrite who ends up sleeping with a sexbot, despite being married.  John brags about how easy it is to kill the robots, mostly because the robot’s are programmed to not fight back.

Meanwhile, the human engineers who work behind-the-scenes and keep Delos running are all blandly incompetent.  When the robots start to malfunction, the engineers can only shrug and wonder why.  They’re so ineffective that, halfway through the movie, they get sealed up in their own control room, slowly suffocating to death while the park collapses around them.

As opposed to the TV series, the robots in Westworld never achieve any sort of real consciousness.  Even when they malfunction, it doesn’t lead to a true rebellion as much as it just causes them to ignore any previous directives about killing the guests.  When the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) starts stalking Peter and John across the park, it’s not an act of ideology or, for that matter, even revenge.  It’s simply that the Gunslinger has been programmed to be a killer and this is what a killer does.

It all leads to an extended chase sequence involving the Gunslinger and Peter and, despite the fact that it doesn’t have much of a personality, it’s hard not to be on The Gunslinger’s side.  If nothing else, the Gunslinger is at least good at what it does.  Peter, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most incompetent heroes to ever show up in a movie.  After spending the first half of the movie being smug and dealing with robots programmed not to fight back, Peter now has to try to win on an even playing field.

Westworld was the directorial debut of writer Michael Crichton.  The film’s flaws are largely the flaws that you would expect from a first-time director.  Occasionally, the pacing falters and the first half of the film sometimes moves a bit too slowly.  (There’s one saloon fight that seems to go on forever.)  During the first half of the film, there’s several scenes involving another tourist (played by Dick Van Patten) who seems like he’s going to play a major role in the film but, after the first hour, the character literally vanishes from the film.

Despite those flaws, Westworld remains an exciting mix of suspense and science fiction.  Though his actual screentime is rather limited, Yul Brynner easily dominates the entire film.  In the role of the Gunslinger, Brynner is a relentless killing machine.  What makes the character especially disturbing is that Brynner plays him without a hint of emotion or expression.  The Gunslinger gets no pleasure out of killing nor does he seek to accomplish any sort of identifiable goal.  The Gunslinger simply kills because that’s what he was programmed to do.

While I prefer the HBO series, the original Westworld is still an exciting and entertaining film, one that probably seems a lot more plausible today than when it was first released 46 years ago.  Watch it the next time your home robot gets bored.

Horror on TV: Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.15 “Chopper” (dir by Bruce Kessler)


Tonight on Kolchak….

There’s a headless man riding a motorcycle, using a sword to behead members of a rival motorcycle gang!  And …. well, really what else do you need to know?  When a headless cyclists start killing people, you don’t worry about why.  There is a reason however and everyone’s favorite nervous journalist is going to find out what it is!

This episode originally aired on January 31st, 1975!

Enjoy!

A Movie A Day #245: The Missouri Breaks (1976, directed by Arthur Penn)


After Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers (played by Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, and Harry Dean Stanton) rob a train, Logan uses the money to buy a small ranch.  Their new neighbor is Braxton (John McLiam), a haughty land baron who considers himself to be an ambassador of culture to the west but who is not above hanging rustlers and hiring gunmen.  One such gunman is the eccentric Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a “regulator” who speaks in a possibly fake Irish brogue, is a master of disguise, and uses a variety of hand-made weapons.  Braxton hires Clayton to kill Logan and his men, despite the fact that his daughter (Kathleen Lloyd) has fallen in love with Logan.

A flop that was so notorious that it would be five years before Arthur Penn got a chance to direct another film, The Missouri Breaks is best remembered for Marlon Brando’s bizarre performance.  Brando reportedly showed up on the set late and insisted on largely improvising his part, which meant speaking in a comical Irish accent, singing an impromptu love song to his horse, and disguising himself as an old woman for one key scene.  (According to Patrick McGilligan’s Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, co-star Harry Dean Stanton grew so incensed at Brando’s behavior that he actually tried to rip the dress off of Brando, saying that he simply would not be “killed’ by a man wearing a dress.)  Brando’s later reputation for being a disastrously weird performer largely started with the stories of his behavior on the set of The Missouri Breaks.

I had heard so many bad things about Brando and The Missouri Breaks that I was surprised when I finally watched it and discovered that it is actually a pretty good movie.  For all of his notoriety, Brando does not enter this leisurely paced and elegiac western until after half a hour.  The majority of the movie is just about Jack Nicholson and his gang, with Nicholson giving a low-key and surprisingly humorous performance that contrasts well with Brando’s more flamboyant work.  While Arthur Penn may not have been able to control Brando, he still deftly combines moments of comedy with moments of drama and he gets good performances from most of the supporting cast.  Quaid, Stanton, Forrest, and Nicholson are all just fun to watch and the rambling storyline provides plenty of time to get to know them.  Whenever Brando pushes the movie too close to self-parody, Nicholson pulls it back.   The Missouri Breaks may have been a flop when it was released but it has aged well.

Horror on the Lens: Panic at Lakewood Manor (dir by Robert Scheerer)


Today’s horror on the lens is a made-for-TV movie from 1977.  This movie has many different names: Panic at Lakewood Manor, It Happened At Lakewood Manor, and Ants.

Panic at Lakewood Manor is a mix of different genres.  It’s a disaster film, a soap opera, and ultimately a revenge-of-nature horror film.  The film begins with our cast gathering at Lakewood Manor, a luxury hotel that’s only partially finished.  In fact, the owners are so determined to complete construction that they ignore the threat posed by …. KILLER ANTS!

Anyway, this is a made-for-TV movie from the 70s so it’s never as graphic as what we’d expect to see today.  That said, I once accidentally stepped on a fire ant mound while I was barefoot and OH MY GOD DID THAT EVER HURT!  AGCK!

If you’re a fan of old movies, you’ll enjoy seeing a lot of familiar faces in this one.  Even Myrna Loy shows up!

(Incidentally, this film was written by Guerdon Trueblood, who directed the brilliant The Candy Snatchers.)