Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, May 20, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: When Time Ran Out... (1980)




Irwin Allen's last two movies had both flopped pretty hard but someone was still giving him money. In fact, the producer would raise his biggest budget yet – 20 million dollars – for “When Time Ran Out...” His latest disaster epic was loosely based off the book “The Day the World Ended,” a recounting of the devastating 1902 eruption of Mt. Peele. Allen was clearly taking no chances. He would hire James Goldstein, previously of the pleasant “Rollercoaster,” to direct. He would bring back cast members from both “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” However, none of these tactics would be successful. “When Time Ran Out...” would be the producer's latest failure and his final disaster movie.

Somewhere in the Hawaiian islands, a fancy new hotel has been built by millionaire Shelby Gilmore. He wants to marry his secretary, Kay, but she's in love with Hank Anderson, an oil driller working on the island. Hank becomes concerned that a near-by volcano may soon erupt. Anderson tries to convince Bob Spangler, operator of the hotel, that disaster is incoming. Gilmore and Spangler do not want to endanger the new business though. Hank is, of course, right. The volcano explodes, flooding the island with lava, poisonous gas, and explosive rock. It's up to Hank and Kay to get as many people to safety as possible.

The title of “When Time Ran Out...” implies a suspenseful race against disaster. The movie is technically about that but the execution drains all the tension out of the material.  “When Time Ran Out...” is hampered by a stereotypical and sluggish script. You can see every beat of the story coming, the grim predictions by the brave hero being ignored by the corrupt officials. You can guess who's going to live – the hero, the love interest, the wacky comic relief – and who will die – the greedy hotel owners, the corners of the love triangle – from the moment we see them. Moreover, the movie feels like it barely moves until the volcano erupts half-way through. There's pretty much nothing interesting about “When Time Ran Out...” on a narrative level.

But other disaster movies have had shitty screenplay and did okay. What about the carnage? Unfortunately,  “When Time Ran Out...” disappoints in that department too. Despite being Allen's priciest production, the special effects in the film are shockingly bad. A moment devoted to boiling hot water crashing over a town looks worst than the similar tsunami scene in the prior year's “Meteor.” A scene devoted to the survivors precariously crossing a crumbling bridge over a river of lava features ridiculously fake looking shots of people falling to their doom. The worst effects are saved for the conclusion. The volcano shoots molten rocks at the hotel, which then explodes in a blast that looks like it was pasted over from another movie. I don't know how Allen's earlier films, which were older and made for less money, looked better than this one.

Rumor has it that “When Time Ran Out...” was the only movie Paul Newman did strictly for the money. Boy, is that evident. Newman is visibly bored. Who can blame him, when the script is this weak? The film features the lamest collection of subplots I've ever seen in a disaster movie. The love triangle between Newman, a bubbly but underutilized Jacqueline Bisset, and a sickly looking William Holden is deeply uninvolving. (Holden would die the next year in a bizarre, alcoholism related accident.) Even worst is the film's second love triangle involving James Francisca, the faux-Heston making his second appearance this month, cheating on his wife with Barbara Carrera. The subplot involving Ernest Borgnine's cop chasing Red Buttons' bonds smuggler is by-far the film's worst. But at least it's less generic then Burgess Meredith's appearance as one half of the token old married couple. Also, Pat Morita shows up as the cock-fighitng bar owner.

His career had survived flops before but Irwin Allen wasn't coming back from this one. You can't say “When Time Ran Out...” signaled the end of the golden age of disaster movies. That had concluded a few years earlier. This was more like the genre's last, desperate attempt to cling to life. But it was no use. The film flopped, was mocked by critics and audiences, and was immediately forgotten. (It also got an Oscar nomination somehow, for Costume Design.) The seventies were over, Irwin Allen. It was time to pack in all your stock characters and huge disasters and go home. [4/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 9 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast


Saturday, May 19, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Meteor (1979)




Telefilm Canada was not the only low-budget film company that decided to get into the disaster movie business near the tail-end of the genre's golden age. American International Pictures, the studio behind beloved films like the Poe cycle or the “Beach Party” series, wanted to make a film about one of the few disasters that hadn't already been covered: A big-ass rock hurling from outer space and colliding with Earth. AIP partnered with Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. Studios, world famous for their kung-fu movies, to make the project happen. The result was “Meteor.” Ronald Neame, previously of “The Poseidon Adventure,” would direct. Despite its international appeal, “Meteor” was another disaster movie that flopped in the late seventies.

Deep in outer space, an American space station is struck by a massive asteroid. Named Orpheus, the five-mile wide space-rock is on its way towards Earth. Before then, a number of smaller fragments have begun pelting the planet. The U.S. Government, with the help of Dr. Paul Bradley, built a satellite equipped with nuclear missiles to protect from such a threat. The satellite, known as Hercules, has instead been used as a deterrent against Russia. The Soviet Union, of course, has developed their own space-based nuclear device. The two super-powers will have to put aside their differences if they're going to destroy Orpheus and save Earth.

“Meteor” attempts to mine the idea of a near-Earth object hitting us for cinematic thrills. The entire story takes place over a week, each day flashing on-screen as the predicted collision with Orpheus draws closer. However, the film's approach to this crisis is very underwhelming. “Meteor” takes place almost entirely inside underground bunkers and offices. Instead of focusing on how the announcement of impending doom would affect the world at large, the film looks at international matter. Far too much of “Meteor” is devoted to American and Russian officials squabbling over political matters. This is in service of a moral about global brotherhood overcoming Cold War rivalry. But it doesn't work. “Meteor” feels too small and lacks tension.

A movie all about the build-up to a meteor hitting Earth wouldn't provide much opportunities for crowd-pleasing scenes of destruction. So “Meteor” has splinters of Orpheus repeatedly striking Earth. These scenes, I'm sorry to say, are also pretty underwhelming. A scene in Hong Kong, probably included to please Run Run Shaw, notably subverts the rules about kids and dogs surviving these kind of movies. Otherwise, the shots of a huge tidal wave washing over the island are not convincing looking. The film concludes with most of New York City getting taken out. Yet the special effects are underwhelming and the affect this has on the characters is never felt. The big explosions and massive chaos makes the audience feel nothing.

It's pretty surprising that “Meteor” is the only disaster movie Sean Connery starred in. These movies were prevalent and, while still a big star, Connery had trouble establishing a career post-Bond. Dr. Bradley is a part that allows Connery to snipe at authority figures while also taking charge of heroics, both attributes he excels at. The character is pretty thin though and Connery can only do so much. All the characters are thin. Bradley has a quasi-romance with Natalie Wood's Russian translator but sparks never fly. Karl Malden makes his second appearance this month as a NASA official. Henry Fonda makes his fourth, playing a glad-handing President. None of the characters make an impression on the audience.

Director Neame does include one really cool shot. When the American and Soviet missiles hit Orpheus, the film rapidly cuts between the two missiles as they make their impact. Other than that, “Meteor” is a complete wash. The film has a super dramatic premise but an utterly weak execution. Of all the movies I've watched for this marathon, it is the first one I've genuinely disliked. No movie about a giant rock colliding with Earth should be this fucking boring. Despite this, it seems like the film got shown on TV constantly when I was a kid. Chalk it up to nineties fascination with apocalyptic asteroids and not the film's actual quality. [4/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast


Friday, May 18, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: City on Fire (1979)




It probably seemed like a sound investment. Telefilm Canada, a film company that partially draws its budgets from the Canadian government, wanted to make a movie that would be a big box office success. The company looked to their neighbors to the south, who had been flocking to disaster movies just a few years ago, for inspiration. If “The Towering Inferno” had been a huge success and only set one building on fire, surely a film about an entire city being set ablaze would be popular? Sadly for the Canadian tax payers, “City on Fire” came out at the tail end of the disaster movie era. The film would not be popular with audiences. It would be relegated to obscurity until being featured on the first public access season of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” where it gained some notoriety.

The city that is soon on fire is apparently meant to be in the American Midwest but is so obviously Montreal. Mayor Dudley has cut corners with construction plans, allowing an oil refinery to be built in the center of the city. He's been more preoccupied with opening a brand new hospital near-by. That's where Dr. Whitman, ex-boyfriend of the mayor's current mistress, works. Meanwhile, an employee at the refinery is fired. As a petty act of revenge, he opens the valves, flooding the sewers with gasoline. It doesn't take long for the gas to be ignited. The fire grows more and more out of control, beginning to consume the whole city. The son of the fire chief is one of the many heroes setting out to save people.

“City on Fire” is very much a B-movie attempting to replicate an A-movie with a modest, three million dollar budget. And that's why I liked it. The film didn't really have the budget to explore a story of this scope. “City on Fire” limits most of its destruction to one street, the buildings all ablaze. The film tries to compensate for this by adding lots of stock footage of buildings exploding or burning. However, there's a certain charm to this. The shots of camera crews on the top floor of the hospital, looking over a city shrouded in burning oranges and foggy purples, are dream-like and creepy. The focus on a small group allows for oddly touching moments, like Dr. Whitman leading a group of kids out of the hospital with a marching game. Or a genuinely cute subplot about a pregnant woman, about to give birth. There's maybe less flash and bang but “City on Fire's” approach has a charm all its own.

Being made on a smaller budget does allow “City of Fire” some freedom. It's a more disturbing fire movie than “The Towering Inferno.” An early scene of a fireman falling through a staircase into a fire is startling. There's a genuinely upsetting sequence showing the huge influx of victims into the hospital. The camera lingers on bodies that are burned, raw, bleeding, bloated, and blackened. One run through a hospital hallway shows a man completely dazed by pain, starring ahead blankly. The nastiest stunt in the movie has a burning man being struck by a car. The stuntman's wig flies off during the shot but this actually adds to the intensity of the moment.

Being a smaller production, “City on Fire” can't afford too many super well-known names. Its lead roles are occupied by Barry Newman and Susan Clark, actors best known for cult movies like “Vanishing Point” and “Colossus: The Forbin Project.” Newman and Clark are both solid in the parts, Newman being especially charming. The big names are: Leslie Nielsen as the incompetent mayor, foreshadowing his eventual turn to comedy. Shelly Winters as a heroic nurse, who takes the time to let the mayor know how much she disapproves of his administration. Ava Gardner as an alcoholic news reporter. Garder mostly plays the condition for humor. Lastly, Henry Fonda's scenes as the fire chief were clearly shot on a different set from everyone else, though Fonda still brings some of that folksy appeal to the part. The producers couldn't afford Charlton Heston but they did snag James Franciscus, his replacement from “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.”

I love “Mystery Science Theater 3000” but some of its fans tend to treat all the movies mocked on that show as irredeemably awful. Subsequently, “City on Fire” has a low IMDb rating and is considered one of the worst disaster movies of all time by some. This is really unfair. The film is likable. There's something scrappy about its attempt to recreate big movie thrills on a much smaller budget. Just taken as a disaster movie, the film does deliver on the expected thrills too. Look it up and give it a shot. [7/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 9 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks*
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

*One of the exploded buildings is clearly based on the Place Ville Marie tower.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: The Concorde... Aiport '79 (1979)




1979 was the year the disaster movie truly died. The once mega-popular genre had been in a tailspin for a while. Films like “The Cassandra Crossing” or “Avalanche” had underperformed. With the failure of Irwin Allen's last two epics, the genre truly entered its death throes. The final nail in the coffin was “The Concorde... Airport '79.” The latest film in Universal's blockbuster franchise, the film attempted to capitalize on the hype surrounding the Concorde hyper-sonic jet. Instead, test screenings went so badly that the studio considered selling the movie as a comedy. The film would end the “Airport” franchise's dominance of the box office, flopping badly. Critics, who had always disliked this series, gave it utterly damning reviews. The seventies were practically over and the decade-defining cinematic fad was going out with it.

In a mission of good will, the Concorde super-jet flies from Paris to Washington, D.C., with plans of returning soon the next day. Among the crew is reporter Maggie Whelan. She has recently uncovered that arms dealer Kevin Harrison has been selling weapons to the Russians. Determined to make sure the story never sees the light of day, Harrison makes several attempts to sabotage the plane. He fires heat-seeking missiles at the Concorde, attempts to sic several fighter jets after it, and plants a device on the plane that will vibrate it apart. It's up to the heroic crew, including Joe Patroni, to keep the passengers safe.

The “Airport” series had flirted with camp before. “Airport 1975” contained several moments of goofy bullshit. “The Concorde,” however, has the series sliding completely into unintentional hysterics. The special effects in the film are terrible, absolutely laughable. The shots of missiles sailing through the air, in pursuit of various targets, are not convincing. Equally bad digital shots are used to depict the Concorde dodging the same missiles. Unimpressive models are used for a deeply ridiculous scene where the jet goes into a nosedive. Accompanying these sequences are hilarious shots of the passengers rolling upside down, which the film repeats over and over again. The climatic disaster, when the plane nearly tears itself apart, is no less goofy. I don't think a device exist that is capable of doing that, nor is there a plane capable of surviving such damage.

While the “Airport” movies have always been packed with disposable subplots, their general premises were simple. “Man hides bomb on plane.” “Passenger jet collides with smaller aircraft.” “Jet crashes underwater.” “The Concorde,” meanwhile, has a deeply ridiculous set-up. The idea of an evil arms dealer trying to destroy the jet is silly. It probably would've been a lot easier for him just to send a hitman to kill the reporter but, by movie logic, I can buy it. The schemes he employ, however, push the movie fully into comic book foolishness. This results in a number of very silly moments. Like a plane cracking up and no one really noticing. Or the other passengers grabbing someone as they literally fall through the floor. Or George Kennedy shooting a flare gun out a window at a fighter jet. The movie's plot is completely meaningless.

The cast of characters are sillier than ever before. After being a chief mechanic, a vice president of operations, and a consultant in previous films, George Kennedy's Joe Patroni is now a pilot. No, I don't understand that career path either. Kennedy is in high spirits, laughing and joking through the film, like a jovial grandpa. Joe's wife died between movies but, don't worry, he receives new girlfriend, in the form of Bibi Andersson's Francine. Kennedy even gets a love scene, which is not something I'm sure I needed to see. Alain Delon is ostensibly the film's hero but contributes almost nothing. More entertaining are the ridiculous supporting roles. Such as Jimmie Walker as a saxophone player who repeatedly tokes up in the bathroom, Martha Raye as an old lady with diarrhea, or Charo as a woman smuggling a chihuahua on-board. Also keep an eye open for David Warner, Mercedes McCambridge, Sybil Danning, and softcore goddess Sylvia Kristel.

Some of the blame for “The Concorde” can be laid at the feet of director David Lowell Rich, who had mostly done TV movies up to this point. (Including two other airplane crisis films, “SST: Death Flight” and “The Horror at 37,000 Feet.”) Amazingly, the movie would spawn an Italian rip-off, in the form of Ruggero Deodatto's “Concorde Affaire '79.” Maybe I'll cover that for the next Disaster Movies Month. As for this “Concorde,” it's a derisory film that I should give a negative rating to. Yet how can I, when the film entertained me so much? “Airport '79” shows the popular series dying an inglorious death but, good lord, if it isn't a spectacular crash. [7/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[X] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[] Group In-Fighting
[] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)




Following the disastrous response that greeted “The Swarm,” Irwin Allen needed a hit. This was a good time to make a sequel to his previous hit, “The Poseidon Adventure.” He had tried before. In 1973, a sequel idea had been kicked around. It would've involved the original film's cast traveling via train to a hearing in Greece. The train would've been caught in a tunnel collapse, forcing the characters to daringly escape another dangerous situation. (A disaster movie about a tunnel collapse wouldn't come until 1996's “Daylight.”) When “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” actually arrived, none of the original cast was present. In 1978, Paul Galico was commissioned to write a novel sequelizng the film, not his original book. This would be the source for Allen's film. It would not reverse his then-poor run of luck, becoming another flop.

During the New Year's Eve storm that capsized the Poseidon, a much smaller vessel is navigating the same seas. The tugboat is the Jenny, staffed by salvager Mike Turner, his second mate Wilbur, and passenger Celeste. The next day, they come upon the massive, upside-down hull of the Poseidon. The down-on-his-luck Turner immediately decides to search the Poseidon, hoping to find gold or diamonds. But he's not alone. Dr. Stefan Svevo has arrived, also intending to search the ship. Soon, the two crews get trapped inside and also meet up with another group of survivors. They also discover that Svevo's motivations are more complicated.

A sequel to “The Poseidon Adventure” is unnecessary. The original told a complete story, leaving little room for continuation. However, “Beyond” isn't the worst concept for a follow-up. It's a little less contrived than the tunnel collapse idea Allen first pitched. But only a little. How the cast gets into the Poseidon, get trapped, and meet up with the new batch of survivors is messy. Things only get worse from there. We discover that Dr. Svevo is an internationally renown weapons smuggler. The reason he's on the Poseidon is the story's dumbest reveal: A nuclear device was being smuggled on the Poseidon. Not only is this a desperate plot turn, one that really re-contextualizes the original's story, it also singles “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure's” weird transformation into an action movie. There's way more machine gun shoot-outs in this movie than in the first. Which seems to miss the point of what made the first compelling.

It's also a repetitive film. The movie cuts, way too many times, to stock footage of the ship's bows exploding. Characters often repeat their motivations, Peter Boyle's Frank constantly referencing his missing daughter. Twice, Karl Malden's Wilbur nearly has a heart attack, resulting in emotional conversations with his friends. Moments like that reveal “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure's” surprising sappy side. There are many long, quiet scenes of characters talking about their feelings. These scenes stop the plot cold, even if people are crawling through tunnels at the time. During one such heart-to-heart, other cast members are standing by, as if waiting patiently for the conversation to end so they can have their own. It's a baffling choice.

Despite the obvious weaknesses of the script and the execution, the cast is pretty strong. Either Michael Caine and Slim Pickins enjoyed working with Allen on “The Swarm” or he paid them really well, cause both are back this time. Caine is livelier this time, indulging that roughish charm of his. Pickins gets a lot more to do, delightfully hamming it up as a drunk Texan. (Even though his character arc is nearly identical to Fred Astire's in “The Towering Inferno.”) Sally Fields brings some pleasing energy to Celeste, in addition to having solid chemistry with Caine. Telly Savalas is coldly intimidating as Svevos, the kind of role he could play in his sleep. Peter Boyle's asshole charms are also put to good work as Frank. Only Malden and Jack Warden, as blindman Harold, falter. Both give maudlin performances.

If nothing else, “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” is better than “The Swarm.” (It's also about forty-two minutes shorter, which surely doesn't hurt.) It's still a really dumb movie, without any of the tension, thrills, or pathos of the original. Allen's direction is still fairly flat. The film's effects, direction, and writing can all strain towards unintentional hilarity. Such as when a door randomly opens up, spilling flames into a room. Or the sudden explosion at the end. It's not exactly boring, the biggest crime a blockbuster can make, but it's not very entertaining either. Even big fans of the first “Poseidon Adventure” can easily skip this inessential follow-up. I can't blame audiences for passing on this one, hastening the end of the disaster movie's lifespan. [5/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: The Swarm (1978)




During the post-”Towering Inferno” boom of interest, Irwin Allen announced several projects. Alongside “The Day the World Ended” and the unrealized “Circus” – pretty easy to guess what that would've been about – was “The Swarm.” Based on a novel by Arthur Herzog, the film would attempt to capitalize on America's hysteria over the ever-encroaching killer bee. Allen would direct the movie himself, his first directorial credit in sixteen years. By the time “The Swarm” actually arrived in theaters in 1978, the public's interest in disaster movies was waning. Despite a big budget, an all-star cast, and a catchy premise, the film would flop hard. The reviews were vitriolic, causing “The Swarm” to quickly be regarded as a laughing stock. The film's failure would signal the end of the disaster movie era.

A military investigation marches into a missile base. Everyone inside is mysteriously dead, save for Dr. Bradford Crane. Crane is an entomologist – an expert in insect – and blames the attack on a swarm of Africanized honey bees. His theory is proven true when a cloud of bees destroys two helicopters. Soon, the killer bees are descending on the small town of Marysville, Texas. This is but the first of many highly fatal attacks. The hyper-aggressive bees are hard to ward off and their venom is incredibly deadly. Soon, the entire American south-west is overtaken by the bees. The military, led by Dr. Crane, attempts desperately to come up with some way to defeat the swarm.

As a kid, I saw some alarmist TV documentary about the killer bee. About how they were going to invade America and murder all of us. That was in the early nineties and the bees still haven't killed me, so I guess we're winning. “The Swarm” does, sometimes, successfully build on those hysterical fears. The scenes of the bees swarming over a picnicking family, killing the mother and father, are effectively grim. The scenes of the bees invading Marysville, leading to much mayhem, generate some okay panic. Later scenes, where an attempt to fight the swarm with flamethrowers, feature exploding ambulances and airplanes, work well. The film's production utilized a lot of real bees, which does provide a genuine squeamishness to some scenes.

For the moments that work as intended, there are many that do not. “The Swarm” frequently veers into the world of unintentional comedy. Survivors of the attacks, still delirious from bee venom, frequently hallucinate giant bees hovering over them. In one sequence, a giant bee seems to leap out of Michael Caine's eye, a real laugher of a moment. The bees are resilient enough to work their way into a military facility but, in one scene, a trio of young boy foils them with an aluminum trash can. The scenes of Michael Caine arguing with various military officials about what to do get so overheated, so quickly, that they make the audience laugh. Scenes of people screaming in slow-motion as the bees cloud the room, sometimes resulting in a nuclear explosion, result in giggles, not screams.

The unintentional humor jives badly with a movie that is among the grimmest in the disaster genre. The scenes of bees stinging people to death are more visceral and personal than the typical carnage. In a sharp subversion of what usually happens, at least two children are killed by the bees. (We don't see any pets stung to death but, considering the scope of the fatalities here, it can be assumed that poochies and kitties bite it.) “The Swarm” is so grim that a sense of futility quickly sets in. The little boy doesn't live. An attempt by Jose Ferrer's scientist to make an anti-venom goes horribly wrong. The flamethrowers fail. The poison fed to the bees fail. A train, full of all of the lovable country bumpkins, is attacked by the bees. It derails, rolls down a cliff and explodes, killing everyone inside. Combined with the film's two hour and thirty-six minute runtime – yes, really – the audience really starts to wonder what the fuck the point of any of it is.

“The Swarm” features many veterans of the disaster genre. Lee Grant and Olivia de Havilland both survived “Airport '77,” to appear here as a news reporter and a resident of the small town. Henry Fonda, as the Marysville doctor, and Richard Widmark, as a military official, return from “Rollercoaster.”  Jose Ferrer, after appearing in “The Big Bus,” plays a scientist in a squeaky wheelchair here. Even the small roles are occupied by recognizable faces like Ben Johnson, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, and Cameron Mitchell. Starring in the film is Michael Caine and Katharine Ross. Caine's best qualities are crushed by the melodramatic script. Ross, meanwhile, isn't given much to do but stare in shock at the chaos around her.

The version of “The Swarm” released in theaters in 1978 was 116 minutes long. A pretty standard runtime for a film of this type. For whatever reason, a nearly three hour long extended cut was released on Laserdisc in the nineties and remains the most widely available version. This painfully long version presumably gives more attention to utterly unnecessary subplots, like the going-ons around Marysville or a pregnant woman's fate. Allen's direction too frequently dissolves into watching people stand in rooms and talk. Jerry Goldsmith's score is ridiculously overblown. Too long, too grim, and too ridiculous, it's not hard to figure out why “The Swarm” was such a flop. It still got an Oscar nomination, for Costume Design. I don't know why. [4/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Gray Lady Down (1978)



As the seventies inched towards their close, it really did seem every possible mode of transportation had been transformed into a disaster movie. Calamity had struck travelers on land, over sea, and in the air. But a vehicle that travels under the water was one we hadn't seen yet. Submarines are exciting locations and it certainly seems like things could go wrong with them easily. So “Gray Lady Down,” based on the novel “Event 1000” by David Lavallee, would roll in front of cameras. The film was yet another disaster flick produced by Universal Studios and starring Charlton Heston. However, it's an idiosyncratic example of the genre, breaking or ignoring many of the troupes and rules you associate with films of this type.

Deep below the waves, the crew of the U.S.S. Neptune, an American submarine, go about their duties. Captain Paul Blanchard will be retiring after this journey but is reluctant to leave his crew behind. In the early morning hours, the sub is struck by a Norwegian freighter. The damaged submarine sinks 242 fathoms down, coming to rest precariously on a ledge over an ocean abyss. The crew is stuck on the edge of doom. The Navy prepares a risky rescue mission, sending a small submersible piloted by Captain Gates, but it won't be easy.

As far as seventies disaster movies go, “Gray Lady Down” is fairly restrained and realistic. There aren't too many explosions, save for the initial collision between the sub and the boat. There's almost zero melodrama, as the soldiers and sailors all work together without too much conflict. The cast is fairly contained, focusing only on two tight group of characters. Though the story's events are certainly extraordinary, they are not improbable at all. There's a lot of silent scenes, as people grimly attempt delicate procedures. The realistic approach to the material creates a measured, almost reticent film. “Gray Lady Down” is suspenseful but in a terse, quiet way.

Since “Gray Lady Down” is more focused on suspense and destruction, there's very little of the spectacle the disaster genre usually gives us. When the Neptune is struck, we see the submarine's interior spin. The crew is tossed back and forth. Water bursts into certain areas. As the Neptune slides along the cliff, we get other moments of disorientation, even an explosion or two. There's a surprising scene where a chamber fills with water, leading to a heroic sacrifice. However, this is not where the film's interest primarily lies. The focus is mostly on how dangerous the situation is. A porthole, slowly breaking apart under the titanic pressure, is a constant source of concern. The smaller submersible looking for the ship and attempting to rescue those inside is also decent source of suspense.

A positive element of "Gray Lady Down" is the camaraderie between the men in the sub. The scenes of the guys trying to pass the time are interesting. Some panic under the stress, others are more serene. They even watch “Jaws” on a projector at one point. A good cast backs this up. Heston is even more grave than usual, sporting a sea captain beard and frequently steering grimly into the distance. David Carradine gives a very solid performance as the pilot of the smaller sub, appearing serious but with some attitude. Ned Beatty, following his appearance in “The Big Bust,” is Carradine's somewhat goofy sidekick. Stacy Keach and Ronny Cox also have decent supporting roles, as the man in charge of the rescue mission and an especially nervous crewman. (Sadly, Cox and Beatty have no scenes together, preventing a proper “Deliverance” reunion.) Christopher Reeves is highly touted on the DVD case, despite only appearing in a few scenes, as Keach's assistant.

Much like “The Cassandra Crossing,” “Gray Lady Down” knows it has to give the audience a big disaster. This obligation, however, runs counter to the story's tension. The conflicting goals result in a downbeat ending. Then again, that matches up with “Gray Lady Down's” more grounded approach to the material. Instead of getting a big, crowd-pleasing, special effects movie, it's a slow and suspenseful voyage into the deep. The film almost acts as a deconstruction of the disaster genre for those reasons. It's an interesting watch, though not nearly as satisfying as the films that came out around it. [7/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 4 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast