Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Avalanche
As we often discuss here, Hollywood and the various filmmaking hubs around the world love to chase trends. This is how westerns and musicals came to dominate the US film industry, how blockbusters eventually replaced them, and part of the reason superheroes are so popular today. But in the 1970s, just before the arrival of Star Wars, another genre came into vogue and served a bridge between the last days of the high-gloss musical and the coming of the blockbuster: disaster movies.
While not exactly a new genre — the story of the Titanic was filmed many times prior to the 70s — it suddenly took on some prominence following 1970’s Airport and 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. And though it lived alongside the early blockbusters like Jaws, it is a legitimate genre in its own right. A proper disaster movie will involve a surprisingly expansive cast, establish their particular conflicts and offer the viewer enough time to make value judgements about these characters before the often titular disaster occurs, be it an Earthquake, a Hindenburg, a Towering Inferno or, like in this week’s cheesy movie, an Avalanche.
The plot chiefly concerns land develop David Shelby (Rock Hudson). Defying the advice of his own board of directors, he purchased land in the Colorado Rockies and developed it into a new high-class ski resort. Ready to show it to the world, he invited a prominent TV personality, Mark Elliot (Barry Primus), to broadcast his show from the openning and corralled a number of Olympic-class skiers and skaters to inaugurate the resort’s facilities.
He’s also invites his ex-wife, Caroline Brace (Mia Farrow), to join him for opening week festivities. Obliging, she finds her former husband full of bombast as he tries to reignite their romance. She also finds his alcoholic mother Florence (Jeanette Nolan) being minded by Henry McDade (Steve Kranken), one of Shelby’s accountants.
Meanwhile, skiing star Bruce Scott (Rick Moses) arrives at the resort with Tina Elliot (Cathey Paine), Mark’s ex-wife who ran off with the handsome young skier a year earlier. But Bruce has his eyes on Cathy Jordan (Pat Egan), the pro skater with a longer version of the Dorothy Hamill hairdo. Her abilities on the ice also creates a lot of anxiety for Annette River (Peggy Brown), a less talented skater pushed into the limelight by her coach, Leo (Anthony Carbone), who might also have a morbid obsession with her.
Not that any of this matters to wildlife photographer Nick Thorne (Robert Forster). He calls the mountain home and worries all of Shelby’s plans will create the right conditions for an avalanche. Which, it does of course. The movie is called Avalanche, after all.
But if the storylines all sound a little melodramatic and uninspired, that’s part of the charm. Producer Roger Corman — who will be a bigger player in this year’s Your Weekend Cheesy Movie roster — saw the success of films like The Towering Inferno and decided he wanted a piece of that pie. Of course, if you know anything about Corman, he also wanted to do it in the most cost-effective way possible. As he related on a bonus feature contained in the film’s Blu-ray release, he somehow pre-sold the television rights to the film before production began. Meaning the project was $500,000 in the black before it was ever made.
Nonetheless, as Forster noted in his own Blu-ray interview, the film was “a disaster movie on a budget.”
While effects even Corman admits are terrible aids the cheesy charm, the script offers a surprising cheese factor by forgetting the disaster format. Remember the skaters? Their stories all fall by the wayside with Annette and Leo apparently both dying in the avalanche without resolving their storyline. In fact, the movie is very vague on how many people survived at the skating rink. Cathy makes it through, but we never actually see her make her way out of jeopardy; a thing one typically sees in these sorts of films. Even Bruce’s apparent death is left vague despite the film offering any number of reasons why it would be karmic retribution. In fact, the only second string castmembers to receive definite ends are Tina and Mark — more on them in a moment. Where most disaster movies clearly pay off the subplots they set up by either making a meal out of a character’s death or having a character resolve to change after experiencing a life-or-death situation, Avalanche just kind of shrugs those things off. While one of Corman’s more expensive pictures, it still had to cut corners and it seems shooting death scenes or resolutions for these characters were some of the things sacrificed for budget concerns.
Of course, the choice to de-emphasize certain plots could be motivated by Corman securing Hudson and Farrow as the headliners. Thanks to the pre-sold TV rights, Corman felt he could splurge a little on the cast. With Hudson’s star fading, he was suddenly within Corman’s reach. Farrow was clearly still affordable at this point. But in getting these name actors, the latter half of the film focuses in on their plights at the expense of the other characters. Even Forster’s Nick disappears while Caroline makes her way back to the hotel from his house — the vestiges of a lukewarm romantic triangle — and Shelby attempts to rescue his mother from a mountain-facing lounge buried under the snow. These sequences eat up a surprising amount of post-avalanche screentime.
Abandoning the second string characters makes the film peculiarly lob-sided as their introductions promise a payoff which never comes. TV host Mark Elliot, in particular, is a strange case. In an almost Love Boat fashion, he is introduced as still caring about Tina despite her running off with Bruce. When the skier inevitable cheats on her, one would expect a reunion, but it never comes. Instead, Mark is on a chairlift when the avalanche occurs and ends up dying while saving the life of the young boy sitting next to him. Tina, meanwhile, is crushed when the avalanche first hits the hotel. And while this seems like more resolution than Annette and Leo get, we only see Mark’s death because Shelby heads to the chairlift after saving his mother. Had the film been structured any other way, his fate would be as ambiguous as Annette’s or Leo’s.
At the same time, highlighting Hudson and Farrow is the right call. They are both accomplished professionals and manage to offer convincing performances even as the script sometimes forgets what movie it is trying to be. The mix of bombast, insecurity and obliviousness Hudson gives to Shelby is particularly striking; particularly as the movie almost forgets to blame him for creating the avalanche conditions in the first place. He admits as much to Caroline in the final seconds of the film.
Visually, the film has a very competent TV movie quality thanks to director Corey Allen, who would go on to direct Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s two-hour pilot. The Colorado locations also make it one of the more expensive looking Corman productions ever made, but I’m sure Corman secured the locations for peanuts. Nevertheless, the competence of the filmmaking, and even the performances of the stars, highlights the intriguingly low-wattage stakes. For a disaster movie to be successful, the audience has to care about a handful of the subplots leading into the disaster. But in Avalanche, it is not entirely clear if credits writers Francis Doel, Claude Pola and Allen himself entirely cared. It leads to a goofy film which betrays itself almost immediately, accentuated by some truly silly avalanche effects and half-hearted emotional fireworks. In fact, the half-heartedness of the disaster may the cheesiest element of the film.
Avalanche is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. It is also available in a slightly condensed form as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s 11th season on Netflix.