Monday, February 22, 2010

Rock Slides...

As has been detailed in many other posts on this site, the 70s was the heyday of the disaster movie, with airplanes and cruise ships the targets of calamity and with every conceivable form of dangerous natural phenomena the subject of a feature film. There was Earthquake, Tidal Wave (a Japanese film augmented with some English inserts!), Hurricane, Meteor and today’s entry: Avalanche.

Roger Corman, a low-budget producer who reveled in making horror movies, knock-offs and drive-in style fare that he knew would wind up financially successful, if not critically so, decided to jump on the bandwagon with his own entry. To direct, he enlisted Corey Allen, a former actor (the cute baddie who went over the cliff in a drag race with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause) turned TV director.

He then put together the decidedly oddball pairing of Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow as the leads, a divorced couple. A long way from Giant and Rosemary's Baby, these two were apparently in some sort of career trauma or else were paid handsomely to appear in this dud. In the glory days of Hollywood, leading ladies playing opposite diminutive Alan Ladd had to stand in a ditch to even out their height or make him taller. Here, the massive Rock towers above Mia, giving them a disproportionate appearance together, but no effort was made to mask it.

As is frequently the case in the movie biz, Mia was two decades younger than Rock. However, to play his mother, they cast Jeanette Nolan, a woman who was only fourteen years his senior. It’s okay, though, because she looks even older, thanks to the ghastly way she’s photographed here and, to seal the deal, she’s rigged up with a white fright wig that looks like someone scalped the title character from the 1977 TV-movie Snowbeast and slapped it on her head.

Hudson plays the owner of a ski resort that is hosting a winter sport competition. (Heinous clothes and d├ęcor abound everywhere!) He invites Farrow to the grand opening in the hopes of rekindling their extinguished love. Despite his pining for the waiflike Farrow, he has a voluptuous secretary who brings him his morning orange juice in the nude! (This, incidentally, is the only 1970s era disaster film to include nudity.) The once beautiful Hudson, whose office in the film includes a steaming hot tub, has, thanks to many years of cigs, booze and late-night parties, decayed significantly by this time and doesn’t even bother to try to hold his stomach in when wallowing around shirtless in the (jarringly dirty-looking) water. He affects two styles in this film: blankly wooden or over-the-top, barking orders and yelling vigorously.

Farrow, upon whom I remarked in the post on Hurricane (which she would film after this), is not someone who should ever be filmed wet. It doesn’t suit her. She appears here with her almost translucent, alabaster skeleton swathed in a garishly patterned swimsuit, topped off with a white, snug swim cap. Plopping into the resort’s swimming pool, she flagellates around like a protoplasmic toad, striking poses that even a doll with four broken limbs could not accomplish. There, she flirts with hunky, but aging, contractor Robert Forster who looks at this sight and remarks that “the view looks pretty good from here.” (!!)

Forster keeps warning Hudson that the chalet he’s building on top of a mountain is becoming a danger because the tree removal is taking away the restraint system that holds the snow caps in place. Hudson wants to hear none of it, though, of course. He wants to be King of the Hill, with Mia as his queen, but she’s already locked eyes (and more) with Forster.

During the opening night gala (to which she dresses up in a pair of jeans, boots, a navy blue sweater and a plaid shirt!), Forster and Farrow boogie down to the pitiful music being played as a plethora of extras fidget nervously all around them, some of them attempting to act as if they’re dancing (and, snapping!) while others, like the chap shown here, can’t help stealing a glance at the stars and contorting himself awkwardly while dressed in one of the decade’s most putrescent shirts ever. Also staying at the resort is ace skier Rick Moses, a blonde hunk who has brought along his current bedmate Cathy Paine, a woman who, incidentally, is married to another man. She clearly has a reputation as a nutcase because people start staring at her and warning her to “go easy” before anything much has happened. However, when she and Moses have a falling out, she goes deranged, pulls a knife on him and starts overacting fiendishly. Finally, Moses has had enough and tosses the glass of milk he’s been drinking in her face and she reacts to it as if it’s nitroglycerine. Paine had just played one of the Manson girls (Leslie Van Houten) in the TV movie Helter Skelter not long before, so perhaps the craziness hadn’t completely worn off. Moses’ character is quite obviously patterned after famed skier Spider Sabich, who was shot (accidentally or on purpose, depending on who you believe) by his lover, singer Claudine Longet, purportedly right as he was considering breaking off their romance.
When, 2/3 of the way through the film’s running time, the title event finally comes, the effects range from utterly preposterous to not that bad. On the preposterous side, cascading piles of snow are blue-screened onto shots of the hotel and even onto a spinning skater who somehow has no clue that the ground is rumbling violently or that the entire audience of her program has either gotten up and run screaming or has been trampled or crushed to death as the white death covers the bleachers and eventually her! She doesn’t know what hit her. Literally!

Other times, though, the effects aren’t too shabby. The dining room has piles of snow, ice and rock powerfully blasted into it. Paine’s bedroom wall comes apart as the debris pounds toward her. Workers in a kitchen are tossed around as the ceiling caves in. However, in a hilariously lame moment, if you believe that the chef depicted here falls to the floor without also dragging down this cauldron of soup, then you’re sadly mistaken.

Nolan and a man who’s been assigned to escort her through the festivities are trapped in an avalanche-created cavern with nothing but broken furniture and a piano. As the oxygen (something she’s never hesitated to use up in massive quantities since her first scene!) begins to dissipate, she decides to mark to occasion by plunking out a song on the snow-wounded instrument before collapsing onto the ground.

Meanwhile, a ruptured gas line is ignited by an exposed pilot light, blasting the surviving kitchen staff, including a mini-skirted waitress into every direction, but always (in keeping with the theme) into shelves of food or, in the gal’s case, down a long worktable of ingredients as if she’s a bowler who forgot to let go of the ball!

Then we come to the rescuers. Honestly, in this case, the rescue attempts are more lethal than the disaster itself! Moses is trapped under the snow and people are prodding the ground with metal rods, seemingly everywhere except the spot he is in. Then Barry Primus, Paine’s estranged husband who happens to also be there for the festivities, is stuck on a disabled ski lift. He helps a boy next to him to drop into a rescue canvas below, but then an electric shock send him off too soon. Nevertheless, the rescuers are right below him still, with the canvas ready. Look at this picture and tell me why, then, he lands with a thud on the ground instead! Nice…

Best of all, though, is the ambulance that Hudson puts his mother into. With Farrow along in the back for moral support, the ambulance drives by signs that say Speed Limit 10 MPH and Icy Roads as if they are in the final lap at Talladega! They round one bend so severely that Farrow is tossed from the vehicle completely as the ambulance careens off the road into a ravine and explodes as if it had been carrying a nuclear warhead on board. Then Farrow rolls over as well and is left dangling on a rickety piece of broken fencing.

Tacky in pretty much any way it can be, the movie is entertaining nevertheless because of the near constant level of unintentional comedy. Though the stars do embarrass themselves nicely, with the possible exception of Forster, the supporting players provide the better portion of giggles. Then there’s the finale in which Mia finds a stray bottle of champagne nestled in a pile of snow and pops a cork with Rock, who has so much to celebrate… Not!

Note how the poster for Mexican audiences differs slightly with exclamatory words along the top (to engender a feeling of excitement that really is not present much in the movie itself) and different headshots of the leads. Some of the stock avalanche footage from this flick would be used later in the film Meteor when little bits of asteroid landed in Switzerland. Jeanette Nolan would later appear on The Golden Girls, in another grey wig, as Betty White’s mother. This time she was a mere 11 years older than her onscreen child!

Available on DVD only in a now out-of-print version that is of questionable video quality, it’s hard to say how much better a decent copy of the movie would make the viewing experience, as it was fairly cheapo from the start. Better video quality may actually inadvertently expose even more the horrid blocks of plastic and Styrofoam that are being passed off as ice and snow!

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