December 23, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Avalanche (1978)

by Nick Schager

Avalanche [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the based-on-real-life tsunami disaster drama The Impossible.]

A Roger Corman-produced disaster film buried by its own clichéd cheesiness, Avalanche is ludicrous to the point of playing like a parody. As its title makes bluntly clear, Corey Allen's film is fixated on delivering terror via a massive snow slide, though impatient viewers will be disappointed to hear that said catastrophe doesn't arrive until the 54-minute mark—which is to say, long after the various mini-dramas of its characters have been laid out in torturously uninteresting detail. At the center of the cast is Rock Hudson as David Shelby, a Colorado developer determined to finish construction on his hotel resort on a mountain where studly photographer Nick (Robert Forster) warns that the removal of trees is making the slopes unstable. Being a blustery, arrogant prick who could care less about environmentalist warnings, David ignores such cautions, instead spending his time on a brewing scandal involving himself and a politician—a thread that the narrative soon ditches—and on winning back ex-wife Caroline (Mia Farrow). Why Caroline has come to visit is a mystery, but she somewhat humors David's attempts to reconnect, until she meets Nick, and immediately decides—after telling him that she likes snow storms because they make everything feel "different"—to bed him instead.


Everybody's having sex during the first hour of Avalanche, as David enjoys the company of his secretary—who, in a hilarious morning-after scene, serves him orange juice in the nude in a hot tub—and a lothario pro skier named Bruce (Rick Moses), who claims that "I ski like I breathe or talk or make love," sleeps with a figure skater and, in the process, infuriates his other infatuated girlfriend Tina (Cathey Paine), who's the wife of TV personality Mark (Barry Primus). Barry's macho credentials are established early on when he avoids a mini-avalanche while skiing downhill by leaping into a tree, a feat witnessed by an impressed Forster. But like the other peripheral characters who populate the film, including David's mother Florence (Jeanette Nolan) or another figure skater who's struggling to hone her technique, Barry is a grating nobody whose pre-disaster circumstances are the height of tedium. Still, he's the figure of greatest unintentional comedy, thanks in part to two separate conversations with his would-be lover in which talk of falling down on the slopes leads to leaden sexual double entendres.


Since David's greed and hubris blind him to the coming powdery apocalypse, the weekend's festivities continue as planned, the most amusing of which is a snowmobile race that turns violent as contestants, when not just flying off their rides like clumsy amateurs, attempt to punch and kick each other off their vehicles. Those fun and games are finally interrupted when a plane crashes into the side of the mountain and the avalanche begins. As befitting a Corman production, the effects that follow are of a resourceful variety, meaning that what follows is a combination of stock footage, imagery of falling snow superimposed over shots of people ducking and screaming, and scenes of people being bludgeoned by what are clearly white Styrofoam blocks. It's all pretty pitiful after such an interminable wait for carnage, though there are a few choice moments amidst the chaos, none better than the sight of the aforementioned figure skater continuing to practice her spins, with laughable obliviousness, while the snow crashes down upon her.


The ensuing rescue-mission conclusion of Avalanche is as lethargic as the performances of Hudson and Farrow, the former coming across like a creaky shell of his former dashing self and the latter gliding through the action with a bland, blank smile. The problem, of course, is that after an hour of making plain that none of these characters are worth caring about, the film's attempt to make their survival a pressing concern is doomed, and thus whether Florence can dig her way out of a snowy tomb with a dining room chair, or whether Bruce will be rescued after having been buried upside-down in the snow, are issues of little importance. A chair lift sequence that finds Mark plummeting to his death simply because he's a moronic slowpoke does provide a late laugh. Yet in terms of true humor, nothing quite beats a final twist involving Florence, who after being rescued by David—now convinced that his recklessness makes him responsible for this mayhem—meets a grizzly fate when her ambulance inexplicably skids off a bridge and explodes, killing her in what can only be one of the most random, out-of-left-field deaths in cinema history.

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Posted by ahillis at December 23, 2012 7:54 AM