Schlock Value: Late 70s Disaster Films - Part One
In this special weekend installment of Schlock Value, TFS's resident Schlockmeister General Dan Colón teams up with Managing Editor Matt Curione to cover the tail end of the 70s Disaster Film craze. In Part One, Dan takes a look at the 1978 Rock Hudson starring film Avalanche! Stay tuned for Part Two in which Matt tackles 1979's Meteor, starring Sean Connery and Natalie Wood.
In the early 70s, Irwin Allen invented the modern disaster flick with 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and 1974’s The Towering Inferno. Audiences were clamoring for all-star casts pitted against some of the worst natural and man-made disasters imaginable, and like anything else, the smaller studios were there to try to get a piece of the action. In 1978, New World Pictures (Caged Heat, Gone in 60 Seconds, Death Race 2000, Piranha) released Avalanche, directed by Corey Allen (no relation to Irwin) and produced by schlock king Roger Corman. The film, which stars Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, and Robert Forster, tells the story of vacationers who struggle to survive after an avalanche wipes out a ski resort. Despite being one of New World Pictures’ most expensive productions, the film was a box-office flop, and was later sold to CBS to recoup some of their losses. Don’t let that sway you however, as this one has more to offer than you might be thinking.
Being the marketing expert he was, Roger Corman knew exactly how to sell this thing. The trailer starts off introducing the main characters: Rock Hudson, the owner of a ski resort up in the mountains, is being harassed by local activists for “destroying the environment.” Mia Farrow is his ex-wife, hoping to maybe reconnect with him, but instead falls for Robert Forster, one of the aforementioned activists who is concerned about the potential danger of an avalanche. From that point on, it’s all pandemonium as we get glimpses of all the snowy carnage that’s to come. Considering the budget, it was a smart move to show off so much of the destruction. After all, how often have people been burned by these little B-movies that promise something, and yet barely deliver? We know right away this one’s going to have plenty of thrills. The poster is also pretty incredible. Beneath the promise of a “winter wonderland” becoming a “nightmare of destruction,” it features a beautifully dramatic scene of skiers and other vacationers being tossed about as the entire side of a mountain is crashing down on their resort, with the title in giant white letters embedded into it. Everything looks like it’s going to come rushing down off the poster. It’s fantastic.
The film opens with a low rent Shining-style opening credit sequence: lots of helicopter shots of mountains while a car makes its way up to the resort. Inside the car is Caroline Brace (Farrow), who has been invited to the resort’s grand opening by her ex-husband, David Shelby (Hudson), a wealthy (and arrogant) real-estate developer. Although it’s clear that Caroline has only made the trip to be polite, it’s clear she has no real interest in rekindling things with David. But that won’t stop him from trying, as he forces kisses from her a handful of times throughout the film, desperate to get her back. We’re also introduced to Nick Thorne (Forster), a local nature photographer who is concerned about the effects the noise from one of David’s nearby construction sites will have on the mountain. Unfortunately, no one else seems to think there’s any cause for alarm (because of course). There are also a handful of other characters including David’s mother Florence; Mark Elliott, a TV sportscaster covering the weekend events; his estranged wife Tina; and her lover Bruce Scott, a douchey, blonde-haired pro skier.
On the eve of the grand opening, David throws a party to celebrate. By the end of the evening, Caroline, having rejected David’s desperate advances, ends up going home with Nick instead. Love triangle! Douchey ski pro Bruce also pairs up with a woman other than the one he’s with (and is later caught in the act), and poor old David ends up spending the evening with his secretary. Scandalous! After a night of lovemaking and infidelity, the resort’s opening is in full swing as professional winter athletes show up the next day to participate in a number of exciting events including figure skating, snowmobile racing, and skiing. During this time, Nick steals some explosives to trigger a small avalanche, hoping that will alleviate the threat of a larger, more destructive avalanche. Unfortunately, he is unsuccessful. About an hour into the film, David sends his assistant on an errand to fly in some important paperwork despite the dangerous weather conditions, and of course this results in the small plane crashing into the side of the mountain, triggering the titular avalanche. Oh boy, does it pay off. Skiers and snowmobile racers are swept away, people are trapped on chairlifts, there’s an explosion, and a great deal of the resort is absolutely demolished. The remainder of the film, as you’d expect, is all about the rescues. Some make it, many don’t, and the search and rescue teams show off how ineffectual they are. In the end, before David is buried under a considerable amount of paperwork and legal trouble, Caroline is able to find closure with her ex-husband before heading home.
Fans of Roger Corman should find lots to love about Avalanche. Sure, the script isn’t very good, but Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, and Robert Forster, being competent actors, are able to elevate the the material from bad to watchable (even enjoyable at times). Despite a few moments where he comes across a little creepy, Hudson is excellent in the role of David, and Farrow is wonderful, bringing a natural vulnerability to Catherine. The two are a joy to watch together (mostly). Forster, of course, is great, just as he is in everything else. Without a talented cast, the first 50 minutes of the film, which is mostly a relationship melodrama, could easily have been a real slog, but they manage to pull it off reasonably well. That said, the real star of the show is the special effects work. Corman, always one to put every dollar on the screen, absolutely nails the big disaster sequence. Once the avalanche is triggered, what follows is a 10 plus minute smorgasbord of destruction and mayhem comprising of stock footage, miniatures, and actual on-site set pieces cut together to make up an incredibly impressive disaster sequence. Each of the characters we’ve been introduced to gets a moment to shine here, but by far, the best moment involves Tina, the unfaithful wife who caught her lover Bruce with another woman, sitting on her bed with a handful of pills and a glass of water when suddenly, WHAM, her entire room collapses on top of her, burying her beneath mounds of snow and wood paneling, completely undercutting the inherent darkness of the moment. It’s a true WTF moment if ever there was one.
If there’s one thing that could have been handled better, it’s the final 20 minutes when the search and rescue team moves in. There are a few more jaw-dropping WTF moments, but despite them, it still drags a bit. And the final scene between Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow wraps up their narrative entirely too neatly. I mean, the entire resort was just destroyed, people have died, and they’re still worried about whether or not they’ll get back together. Tonally, it’s a bit off-putting. But since the movie is practically over by this point, it’s a minor grievance.
If you’re looking for a cheap and easy disaster flick, Avalanche is a solid contender. It delivers in all the right places, and overall, it’s much better than it has any right to be. It’s no Force Majeure, but it’ll do in a pinch. Kino Lorber released a terrific Blu-ray back in 2014, loaded with bonus features, but you can find it for free on YouTube. I highly recommend it.