Sunday, August 1, 2021

What a disaster: Oh for God's sake—you want to panic a whole population because you feel a "heaviness"?


Directed by Corey Allen
Written by Frances Doel, Gavin Lambert, Claude Pola, and Corey Allen

Spoiler alert: moderate

As the disaster film movement swept through the 1970s, it must have looked like the genre would remain the definition of populist cinema for the foreseeable future.  The major studios' investment in disaster blockbustersby the middle of the decade, this investment was frequently reaching eight figures perhad, it seemed, paid off handsomely.  The hits of the movement reaped box office returns that penetrated into the nine digit range.  Perhaps, then, it was only a matter of time that exploitation-master Roger Corman would finally jump on this bandwagon, too.

Maybe needless to say, Corman's disaster movie was somewhere between a day and half a decade late, and a dollar and several million dollars short, which is exactly how it was received at the time, that is, a cheap, crummy also-ran.  Corman's company, the decidedly-not-a-major-studio New World Pictures, had a better ROI off their first foray into "disaster cinema," a Mexican creature-feature called The Bees, because after New World bought the American distribution rights to it, Warner Bros. had paid them not to release it until after Warners had released The Swarm.  That's the kind of savvy move that had made Corman king of his small corner of Hollywood.  But I like to imagine that Avalanche meant something more to him.  Maybe not art; maybe just mini-mogul ambition.  Yet by all accounts it was Corman who ruined Avalanche, or at least got cold feet about his commitment to it, effectively setting up his director Corey Allen (no relation to Irwin, or, as far as I know, to me) to fail. Avalanche had an already-paltry publicized budget of $6.5 million, and Allen has sourly observed that Corman cut it to the bone.  It remained one of New World's most expensive productions, but that's not a reasonable standard, and we're probably looking at something more like $4 or $5 milliona sum that in 1972 could lavishly produce The Poseidon Adventure and in 1978 could buy you half a tank of gasand Corman himself refers to a figure as low as $1.7, though I'm not sure I believe it since his story involves a $2 million broadcast rights deal that made his film profitable before it was even released, thereby burnishing that old savvy reputation.  And while the money Cornan did spend is not, if I'm being fair, invisible, it didn't just fail to establish Avalanche as competitive with Jennings Lang's and Irwin Allen's theatrical spectaclesit barely represented enough resources to compete with the movies Irwin Allen made for television.

Maybe that's why Avalanche flopped when it arrived in August 1978, but who knows whether more money would have made any difference commerciallymaybe Corman was just being clear-eyed about what he'd gotten himself into when he suddenly turned skinflint once the first flush of enthusiasm at playing with the big boys had faded.  After all, Avalanche found him entering the field just as audiences were abandoning the stands.  Either way, Avalanche deserved to be ignoredyet there's enough here that I wonder what real resources could have done with it.

So: as it would probably have to, Avalanche centers itself around a swanky new Colorado ski resort, offering up the kind of breathtaking Rocky Mountain vistas that would permit a man to contemplate the utter majesty of nature right before it kills him.  The resort is the life's work of David Shelby (Rock Hudson), and he's sacrificed much to get it, not least his marriage to journalist Caroline Shelby, who's rather insistent that it's actually Caroline Brace (Mia Farrow) when she arrives to take part in the resort's grand opening festivities at David's invitation.  Even now, David has no time for her; he's busy doing last-minute paperwork and organizing a bunch of winter athletic events for the opening.  These include a skate-off between a pair of Olympic figure skating rivals (Pat Egan and Peggy Browne), as well as a competition showcasing the talents of big-time skiing champ Bruce Scott (Rick Moses, giving off big "that Hansel, he's so hot right now" vibes, except sleazier), who winds up galvanizing the sacrificial meat B-plot by sleeping around on his unstable girlfriend, Tina (Cathey Paine), who herself happens to be the estranged, unfaithful wife of the events' announcer, TV personality Mark Elliott (Barry Primus).

David doesn't have time for this, either, sparing three or four lines in apology for enabling his guests' drama.  But then, David doesn't even have time for his own mother, Florence (Jeannette Nolan), foisting her off on his put-upon bookkeeper McDade (Steve Franken).  Above all, David categorically does not have time for the eco-weenie doomsaying of the itinerant nature photographer, Nick Thorne (Robert Forster), who's traveled the world but seems to live next door, particularly as Nick's prophecies of unsustainable development leaving the resort vulnerable to an avalanche are the very last thing this particular unsustainable developer wants to hear.  Which means in turn that Nick can make some time for Carolineright before an ill-advised flight David's chartered to deliver even more last-minute paperwork slams right into the side of the mountain, triggering the avalanche Nick feared.

And this is all perfectly functional as a disaster movie plot.  It's arguably more functional (and more inherently interesting) than usual.  But there are some massive missteps in execution along the way, starting with the way Allen (or, quite possibly, just his producer in the editing suite) introduces all these various threads with such jarring, bludgeoning rapidity that it feels like the movie's on 1.5 speed, cramming itself into a 91 minute runtime that may well make Avalanche the shortest disaster film since 1933's Deluge ran 70.  I could be talked into admiring the rampaging efficiency of iteven Nolan's inappropriate-granny bombast, manifested in lines like enthusiastically asking her ex-daughter-in-law if she's a "swinger" nowexcept it's so emphatic about painting these personalities in broad strokes that it forgets there's supposed to be canvas underneath.  And so in this movie that's about the bitter end of a marriage between its two leads, we get a good sense of why they'd get divorced, mostly because it is entirely impossible to imagine why (or even how) they got married in the first place.  And we are are never, not once, clued in as to why Caroline is here at her ex-husband's resort, besides to motivate character exposition, to foreshadow the crumbling of David's empire, and, if I'm being really uncharitable, to provide another human-shaped object to fill time with until the titular character arrives.

"Human-shaped objects" is unfortunately the only apt description: despite what I'm happy to call a reasonably stacked central cast (certainly for a Corman movie, but even for a real movie!), it's absolutely the wrong cast.  Hudson and Farrow are some of the most mismatched screen partners it's even hypothetically possible to have, generating critical levels of anti-chemistry, a generation or more apart in style, and Hudson frequently conveying David's desperation to regain Caroline's lost affection by way of a rough handsiness that Farrow has apparently decided will trigger in Caroline a terrified freeze response like a stranger just screamed at her.  Faced with a script that doesn't ever bother to explain why she's here, Farrow only bothers finding reasons she shouldn't be.  The only time their relationship achieves even marginal plausibility is when Caroline dips into psychojargon to diagnose it, never the best sign of a good performance on either side.  Still, Hudson, away from Farrow, isn't bad.  (This is no surprise to me: I'm an unabashed Hudson fan.*)  His confrontations with Forster are solid; his interplay with Nolan is silly, but believable.  Hudson has at least thought about his character, and is making choices about how to array his body in front of Allen's camera to tell David's story in an interesting way, and about how to put emotion into his lines as best as could be managed under these circumstances (the smallness he finds in David when David can't hear his mother's heartbeat is capital-A Acting of the sort that nobody else here even tries).  Farrow I'm not certain ever made any choices beyond "Caroline involuntary shudders at her ex-husband's touch"I'm not certain Farrow and Hudson didn't just actually despise each otherand in lieu of choices, Farrow falls back on her elf-next-door autopilot; and thus her tryst with Forster's mountain man photographer comes off mainly on the basis of how much appeal a horny 80 year old lady's voice coming out of a young woman's body holds for you.  (For me, I readily concede it's not nothing and while Farrow is mostly terrible, her Forster scenes at least have some capacity to be awkwardly cute.)

That is the gaping hole in the human phase of Avalanche, and it's a fatal one, since it means the film basically lacks any compelling (or merely credible) central dynamic to enjoy before the avalanche arrives.  Yet it isn't a total wash, even if one's not likely to deem anything else in the movie "good," either; it's more like there's just something uniquely fun about the way (Corey) Allen mixes the melodrama of an (Irwin) Allen-style disaster flick with the rough-and-tumble frivolity of a Corman production, from the juvenile semi-porn sex romping to a surprisingly Ben-Huresque skimobile race that might involve better stuntwork than the avalanche does.

Whatever else, it's clear that Allen put the effort in, Avalanche getting the benefit of a muscular if woozy mobile camera courtesy Pierre-William Glenn (a Truffaut collaborator, no less).  It's sometimes nearly overdirected (visually-speaking, obviously, as there's little sign Allen ever directed his actors), but just as often his engagement pays off; a dinner/dance-party involving all of the principals is, ultimately, mostly a platform for David and Caroline's incomprehensible relationship and a bunch of wacky nonsense for everyone else (especially a full minute's worth of dialogue between Bruce and one of the figure skaters about "how best to take a fall" which achieves legitimate humor in how transparently they're describing sexual positions) but Allen combines the jammed-together editing and the cinematography's penchant for giddiness to find a genuine mood, a kind of lightheaded, late-70s hang-out-and-fuck vibe that suits this scene remarkably well.  It helps that this is a noticeably well-appointed Corman flickI said the money wasn't invisiblewith the cozy Purgatory Resort (yes, its actual name) doing a great job of more-or-less playing itself while Allen, in recognition that disaster movies are about collectives, marshals extras who more-or-less feel like they exist for reasons other than to serve as backdrops.  Shit, Allen turns on a dime and decides that the athletes' B-plot actually is nasty 70s melodrama, selling the attendant breakdown in ways that might theoretically have been effective in some context.

And then there's Avalanche's avalanche, and whatever goodwill Allen had ginned up out of his side-stories and try-hard direction is lost like skiers in translucent, optically-printed snow.  I suspect the fundamental, insuperable problem is that they chose their disaster unwisely, and while there are many disasters amenable to 70s-era movie magic, even mid-budget movie magic, a huge avalanche swallowing a landscape and crushing human bodies is barely something that modern CGI can do well, and not for cheap even now.  (It's also over pretty much before you know it, which is always a problem with some disasters.)  Avalanche's avalanche, anyway, was "directed"assembledby Lewis Teague, who'd go on to do several things I like quite a bit.  This was his biggest task yet for Corman and not one thing about it suggests an auspicious beginning for a decent filmmaker.  It's frankly barbaric, even by New World standards, and all the window-dressing Allen had put up to make Avalanche not scream "Corman B-movie" is torn away.  Teague leans foremost upon stock footage, and at least the stock footage looks real even if it also looks like five or six different mountains, on top of how it looks like it was filmed in 1952 and kept in a bucket of nails.  But as eventually Teague is obliged to show people getting swallowed by a wall of snow, he's also obliged to rely on a big heap of deliriously-bad and poorly-integrated visual effects, supplemented by astonishingly-fake practical effects.  I earnestly wonder how much of that however-many-millions went to the bulk purchase of styrofoam, and whether the actors had fun bouncing it harmlessly off each others' heads in-between takes.

Teague tries to rope it all together with quick-cut editing that does not adequately disguise his inability to savage bodies, let alone actually smash up the Purgatory Lodge, and I guess the effect is "kinetic" (whoever's doubling Bruce can ski like a sonuvabitch, and Teague gets a lot out of him), though it only achieves "exciting" or "visceral" when Teague blows the hell out of a bunch of David's cooks with their own kitchen.  Even on this count, in the particulars of its staging, you're more likely to laugh at it than wince.  The most respectable thing about it is that this disaster is more indiscriminate than usualI'm actually impressed by the jet-black humor inherent to Bruce's spurned lover on the cusp of a suicide attempt with pills, only to die screaming when her room collapses under a flood of icebut the screenplay is still pretty clear about who's "safe," which means that Caroline, David, and Nick (that is, all our main characters) are only in danger themselves for about forty-five seconds.

And that sucksthe last half-hour is basically just contriving reasons for us to try to care about the people still in danger, some good, some bad, though the "bad" includes putting David's mom and Caroline into a new, somewhat-unrelated, and not-especially-plausible danger for the climaxbut what sucks more is the wasted potential of it all, something underlined by a denouement that snakes its way into the kind of melancholy ambivalence that makes you desperately wish a better movie had been put in front it.  (Avalanche feels like its ending was written first, with Allen and co-screenwriter Claude Pola scrambling to get to where they wanted to go.)  Avalanche, anyway, never was a movie about a disaster pushing ex-spouses back togetherit is the very antithesis of the tropeand for a brief and thrilling moment, even Farrow finds the right notes to play a scene, while a big man sits alone in the ruins of big dreams.  It's the kind of downbeat 70s ending you want from all your 70s disaster flicks.  It's only too bad it found its way to the end of this one.

Score: 5/10

*A real Rockhead, yes.

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