Flickhead
Book Review
By Ray Young

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Disaster Movies

A new book by Glenn Kay and Michael Rose

402 pages, illustrated; Independent Publishers Group, softcover, $18.95

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    Discussions of American film in the 1970’s invariably gravitate toward the peak years of Coppola, Scorsese, Altman and Ashby, the brilliance of Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown, the fruits and glories of the so-called ‘New American Cinema.’ Yes, those were heady years, but for every maverick and masterpiece there were truckloads of trash, and most of that decade was made up of crappy car chases, schlock cop movies, vapid teen dramas and badly dubbed karate flicks, outright junk that had a lot of us keeping one eye on the clock and the other on the exit.
    It was also the l’age d’or of the disaster movie, a bloated sub-genre that took off with Airport (1970) and crash landed with the accidentally hilarious The Concorde: Airport ‘79 (1979). In their new book, Disaster Movies, authors Glenn Kay and Michael Rose take a humorous gander at “a genre in which a lack of subtlety and an exploitative nature are almost required elements.” They trace back to its roots (Deluge, a turgid end of the world melodrama from 1933 that’s supposedly of “incredible importance”) to disaster in the wake of Spielberg, Lucas and CGI—“avalanches, earthquakes, floods, meteors, sinking ships, twisters, viruses, killer bees, nuclear fallout, and alien attacks”—in a volume perfect for light reading.
    Most of the ‘study’ has to do with the creaky, star-studded white elephants that once stampeded across the screen in Sensurround. “Many of the special effects in the older films don’t look quite so special anymore,” writes Mr. Kay, “and most of the films involve cornball subplots, a surprising amount of flag waving, and, at times, some really bad acting.”
    They also served as a barometer of star power: Charlton Heston, George Kennedy and Ava Gardner (dubbed the “disaster movie queen” by the authors) made easy money grunting and sweating through the debris. Meanwhile, riding back in coach, Helen Reddy, ‘Hootchie Cootchie’ Charo, John Davidson and Jimmie ‘Dy-no-mite’ Walker prepared for future guest spots on Murder, She Wrote and Columbo.

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Because of ads like this, Roger Ebert concocted the ‘Box Rule,’ a theory that movie posters with little boxed pictures of the cast (a design cliché of the 70’s) generally indicated junk. Not very scientific, but appropriate more often than not.
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    Broken down into categories—“Big Space Rocks” (giant asteroids threaten Earth), “Really Bad Storms” (tsunamis and hurricanes), and “Mad Bombers, Killer Bees, and Wild Animals” among others—the authors provide elaborate plot outlines of movies hatched from single-syllable scenarios. Dressed with meat and potato witticisms (“It’s British,” they write of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, “which means you should expect a lot of chatting”), Kay and Rose also supply ratings that stretch from ‘avoid at all costs’ and ‘at your own risk’ to ‘recommended’ and ‘highly recommend.’ Both Andrew L. Stone’s simmering The Last Voyage (1960) and Renny Harlin’s half-baked Die Hard 2 (1990) come ‘highly recommended,’ so use your own discretion.
    After a few chapters, the fever spread and this impressionable fool found himself scouring Netflix for a quick fix. But what to rent? Should one revisit The Poseidon Adventure (1972) after so many years? Despite the authors’ declaration of a “star-studded extravaganza,” visions of creepy Red Buttons in hot pursuit of a possibly retarded Carol Lynley (as ‘Nonnie’), or Ernest Borgnine trapped in a Twilight Zone marriage to Stella Stevens and barking “Preech-uh” at Gene Hackman were ridiculous enough back then. Could any new revelations be gleaned from The Towering Inferno (1974), “a fantastic suspense/action movie” even though the passing decades have driven it to obsolescence…to say nothing of the ludicrous misuse of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden and Faye Dunaway? Clocking in at a butt-numbing one-hundred-sixty-five minutes, the ‘highly recommended’ rating here will likely sail over the heads of anyone born after the sheen of that cast began to fade.
    Rather than rent old standbys, I opted for the hitherto unseen The Cassandra Crossing (1976). Directed by George Pan Cosmatos (or ‘Comatose’ to us wags), and a mirage of a cast headlined by Sophia Loren, O.J. Simpson, Richard Harris, Ingrid Thulin, Lee Strasberg, Alida Valli and, naturally, Ava Gardner, it comes with Kay and Rose’s stamp of approval. But the disc took forever to arrive and, when it did, the thing was cracked in half. Netflix offered a replacement, but by then the moment had passed and sober thinking prevailed. The Cassandra Crossing, like most of the films discussed in Disaster Movies, is surely more fun to read about and imagine than actually endure.

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