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Disaster Movies

 When it came to my formative years I was lucky enough to be blessed with parents who had a liberal attitude towards the arts. I was thus free to spend my early teens playing profanity spewing Guns ‘n’ Roses records and enjoying the murderous antics of Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, et al via crusty VHS cassettes. That having been said, before the age of twelve my folks felt that it wasn’t quite proper to let me while away my evenings in front of our local corner shops horror rental library. Somewhat paradoxically they were perfectly fine with my sister and I joining them on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon to witness boat loads of seventies starlets visit with the Grim Reaper via all manner of grisly disaster related mishaps. Some of my earliest movie memories are of mullet sporting Hollywooders burning to death, drowning, falling from skyscrapers or knackered aircraft, crushed by toppled buildings, eaten by a rampaging flock of beasts, or in some instances all of the above. No calamitous stone was left unturned by the seventies disaster movie maestros meaning that nary a weekend passed in our house when the world or part of it wasn't falling apart thanks to some natural or man-made catastrophe. We had the everything from deadly viruses (The Andromeda Strain (1971), football stadium panics (Two Minute Warning (1976), Black Sunday (1977), amusement park tragedy (Rollercoaster (1977), fires of all kind (City On Fire! (1977), death from outer space (Meteor (1979), snowy calamities (Avalanche (1978) and even killer bees (The Swarm (1978). The thing that my parents failed to realise was that these tales of woe were eminently more plausible than a gaggle of rampaging zombies or hatchet wielding maniacs. As such the exploits of Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy were far more chilling than any schlock horror flick I’d have picked up from our Happy Shopper. Still, at least it meant that by the time I was old enough to dance the movie boogie-woogie with John Carpenter and Wes Craven I was a much pluckier viewer than I otherwise would have been. So thanks Mum and Dad for unknowingly scaring me shitless.

Despite the fact that 1,517 people died when the RMS Titanic sunk after striking an iceberg on 15th April 1912, movie makers having been wringing box office dollars from its concept for nigh on ninety seven years now. In fact the poor vessel had barely settled on the floor of the Atlantic when the German film In Nacht und Eis (1912) was knocked up. In 1953 Titanic (1953) was released but had so many story inaccuracies another trip around the ship was bound to be on the cards. Then in 1958 Roy Ward Baker directed a faithful adaption of Walter Lord’s definitive book A Night To Remember, first published in 1955. The film was, at the time, a thorough retelling of the events of the tragedy, Lord having interviewed as many of the disaster’s survivors as he could in order to write his account. There are no fictional needless subplots tacked on to the proceedings in an attempt to try and heighten the tension; a straight factual retelling of the disaster was deemed more than enough to chill the viewer. When James Cameron made his own little movie about the fateful passenger liner it was twelve years after the actual wreck had been discovered on the seabed. He was therefore able to create what is believed to be a much more accurate depiction of the ship and its sinking (Baker’s film shows the ship sinking whole, where as the wreck was discovered in two pieces, indicating that it split in two before disappearing below the waterline). Unfortunately Cameron also chose to wrap his overly long tale in as much sickly-sweet schmaltz and Celine Dion warbling as the big screen would allow, ensuring that Baker and Lord’s vision remains the most accessible Titanic movie portrayal to date.
Tasty Morsel – The movie’s producer William MacQuitty was lucky enough to see the actual launch of the Titanic on 31st May 1911; he was a mere six years old at the time.
- AIRPORT (1970)
The trigger for the 1970's obsession with disaster movies was the $100 million plus that this film raked in during the middle months of 1970. Based on the 1968 Arthur Hailey novel of the same name, director George Seaton managed to assemble an impressive ensemble cast to tell the tale of a Chicago airport struggling to stay operational in the face of a huge snow storm in Airport (1970). Infamous crooner Dean Martin joins such Hollywood heavyweights as Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes (who won an Oscar for her role), Jacqueline Bisset and George Kennedy tackle, among other things, a passenger who is determined to blow himself up mid-flight so that his family can collect a recently purchased life insurance policy. Of course, the riotous comedy Airplane! (1980) has made viewing the picture as the serious story it was meant to be immensely difficult. But Airport (1970) remains the high-point of the series and a gripping thriller for those of you willing to push your genre prejudices aside. Inevitable sequels followed, Airport ’75 (1975) which saw a light aircraft crash into a Boeing 747 killing the flight crew, Airport ’77 (1977) which saw said Boeing crash into the sea and sink to the ocean floor, and finally The Concorde: Airport ’79 (1979) which saw an arms dealer attempting to bring down the legendary supersonic plane. Throughout the series the fashions remained garish, the cast lists spectacular, and the dialogue laden with cheese "You pilots are such men!...They don’t call it a cockpit for nothing honey”. But for whiling away a Sunday afternoon you can’t really go wrong; providing you don’t have a fear of flying, in which case I’d give them a runway sized berth.
Tasty Morsel - As part of his salary Dean Martin received a ten per cent cut of the movie’s profit, which added a succulent seven million dollars to his original pay cheque.
By 1972 Hollywood execs were snapping up every disaster novel they could lay their hands on in order to turn their tales of anguish into box office gold. The rights to Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel The Poseidon Adventure was purchased by 20th Century Fox and placed in the hands of the soon-to-be king of the disaster flick, producer Irwin Allen. By 1972 through a combination of generous Oscar nods for the early disaster films and large box office paydays, studios were able to garner some big name stars to kill in their movies. So it came to be that the great sparring team of Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine were hired to trade blows as a pair of gruff fellows attempting to lead a group of surviving passengers to safety in an upturned cruise liner. Richard Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) genuinely upped the tension stakes for the disaster genre and still today it remains a nerve-shredding ride. The upside down sets and greasy inner ships workings make for a particularly unsettling backdrop, and a healthy penchant for offing lead characters at the drop of a hat will leave you gripping your sofa cushions right up until that first crack of sunlight through the upturned hull appears. The growing inevitability of death as the sea forces its way into the vessel also gives the audience a good squeeze, particularly when considering the large group of survivors who foolishly remain in the ballroom for an outside rescue. A sequel followed in 1979, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1979), but it was a damp squid, swapping a tense escape saga for treasure hunting antics as two teams of salvagers return to the upturned ship to retrieve lost gold before the inevitable final plunge. A Wolfgang Peterson directed remake Poseidon (2006) hit screens thirty four years later, and while the fever pitch tension returned, the grim horror of toasted engine room workers and the floating corpses of New Year’s revellers was replaced with CGI sheen and impossible stunts. A serviceable two-part television remake was released in 2005.
Tasty Morsel – Watching any scenes with the Poseidon’s Captain is a bizarre experience, the main man being played by comedy genius Leslie Nielson, a few years before his big break in Airplane! (1980).
My Dad often recounts the humorous yarn of when he stumbled upon an advertisement poster for this movie which some cheeky little scamp had defaced, removing the "h” and changing the "E” to an "F”. A great title for a movie, I wonder if the errant scallywag ever made it to Hollywood. 1974 was the zenith of the seventies disaster flick. From the mid-seventies onwards writers struggled to come up with new and exciting catastrophes whilst audiences were becoming weary of the wanton destruction. But the all-encompassing obliteration of an earthquake necessitated an equally mammoth movie, and boy did Universal Pictures deliver one. As well as roping together the most studded of star casts yet, including Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, and John Shaft himself Richard Roundtree, they also debuted the awesome power of "Sensurround”. The folks at Universal wanted something a little extra to pull in the punters and after deciding not to go with the dropping of fake, polystyrene debris on the audience during the pivotal shaky scenes, they settled on the mother of all sound systems to generate an unearthly rumble through auditoriums. The set up was so powerful it cracked the ceiling of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during testing and when it was eventually unleashed on the public the vibrations even caused nosebleeds for a few unlucky patrons. The film itself is a rumbling treat providing all the thrills you could want from an "earthquake destroys LA” picture, with the aftershocks causing more than a few grim deaths, from the oddly surreal (see the almost comical elevator plunge with its jumping actors and animated blood-hits-the screen dénouement) to the genuienly terrifying (watch as the supposed safe haven of the multi-storey shopping centre crushes all those within). A sequel was mooted for 1977 in which a number of the survivors from the first film relocate to San Francisco only to be subjected to an even bigger ‘quake and tsunami combo. The earthquake sub-genre itself remains perilously thin, with only the made-for-TV specials The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake (1990) and Aftershock: Earthquake in New York (1990) providing Earthquake with any real competition. However, San Andreas (2015) looks set to right this wrong.
Tasty Morsel – Oddly enough, the location used on the first day of shooting was tickled by a minor earthquake. Stranger still, the location that was being used on the final day of shooting was also hit by a mild earthquake.
The heavyweight champion of the disaster movie world, The Towering Inferno (1974) is the fiery yard stick by which all other disaster movies are measured. The film’s odd gestation saw the rare coming together of Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox when both studios purchased the rights to two strikingly similar fire-in-a-skyscraper novels, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Instead of making two directly competing movies of comparable content, in a rare display of solidarity the studios combined their might to create the disaster movie to end all disaster movies. They got two competing A-list stars, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, to battle it out for top billing and then hired the best stunt and action co-ordinators money could buy to bring to life the most tense and horrific of all the seventies disaster pictures. In a post 9/11 world, a movie that depicts people suffering grim fates in a high rise fire is going to be hard to stomach but even when I saw this movie for the first time many years ago it gave me nightmares. And I mean genuine nightmares featuring many a re-run of the nasty happenings surrounding the San Francisco skyscraper. The plot plays on the inevitability of a horrid death for many of the tower’s patrons to chilling effect, encapsulated by Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery trapped in their 65th floor office as the flames crawl ever closer. The fantastic stunt work as Wagner’s double makes a fruitless dash through the firestorm is jaw dropping, whilst Flannery’s tumble out of the window is shattering in equal measure. The acting on display is far from hammy, the sets bold and believable, and the harsh reality of a movie depicting human tragedy has never seemed as real before or since, blasting away in one fell swoop all preconceived notions that the disaster movie genre is only inhabited by movies that should really know better.
Tasty Morsel – At the request of Steve McQueen, the script was altered so that he and Paul Newman had the exact same number of lines.
By the time the seventies crawled to an end cinemas across the globe were littered with failed disaster movie projects. Each movie that followed in the wake of the above mentioned giants of the genre, whether on the big screen or small, had to one-up their predecessors, finding ever more inventive ways of incorporating the most unlikely of cataclysms into a believable yet nail biting script, Flood! (1976), Avalanche (1978), Cyclone (1978), City On Fire (1979), Meteor (1979), Hurricane (1979), Deathquake (1980), When Time Ran Out (1980). By the mid-eighties the genre had all but died out and any movies which dared to dabble with its battered remains did so with great reluctance from studio backers. Most disaster movies of the time thus tended to be low-key, low budget affairs. The Andrei Konchalovsky directed Runaway Train (1985) was a rare gem that chose the rather minor disaster of a runaway locomotive to weave a delightfully edgy story around. We are quickly introduced to Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, two escaped convicts whose mode of getaway transportation unfortunately turns out to be a high speed freight train with dodgy brakes. The only other passenger left on board once the trains engineer croaks it via an ill-timed heart attack is Rebecca De Mornay, cinema’s most unlikely railroad worker. The trio go from knee deep in brown stuff to neck deep once they realise that the train is on a collision course with a chemical refinery and the train authorities plan to crash the engine on a siding to save the plant and avert disaster. The action is well packed and this taut thriller was just what the genre needed to re-focus its energies on the gripping story telling that was the charm of the early disaster movies hits. Sadly the movies release did not spur on a genre reinvigoration. That came a few years later. Out of control train wise, director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington offered up another superb outing with Unstoppable (2010), a movie inspired by the true events of the 2001 CSX8888 incident in Ohio.
Tasty Morsel – Somewhat bizarrely Marlon Brando championed the film in his autobiography and stated that he indentified with Jon Voight’s character quite closely.
- TWISTER (1996)
It took a while for the stigma of the cinematic clangers from the late seventies / early eighties disaster genre to wear off. There were a few dalliances with the disaster movies from time to time, such as Backdraft (1991) and Outbreak (1995) but a renewed love affair was not on the cards. Until that is Jan de Bont’s windbag full of fun Twister (1996) swept into cinemas and spun away with many a patron’s hard earned cash. Coupled with the success of Airport (1970) tinged thriller Executive Decision (1996), Twister lit a fire under the ass of closet disaster movie scriptwriters all over Hollywood and soon the genre that time forgot was back in vogue. It couldn’t be any old movie that dragged the genre back out of the shadows, and Twister, being one of the best examples of a disaster movie that really works, was the right flick for the job. We are treated to a good sprinkling of characters we actually give-a-damn about, played in this case by such likeable and talented thesps as Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cary Elwes, and a healthy dose of action set-pieces that build to a satisfyingly raucous conclusion; it all adds up to a fine way to spend ninety odd minutes of your day. It was also pleasing to see that movie making technology had finally reached the point where wanton destruction could be realistically filmed. No more wonky sets or phony miniatures to pull us out of the story. Chaos of even more blatant levels reached cinema screens with the release of Independence Day (1996) and movie fans the world over braced themselves for yet another swathe of disastrous offerings.
Tasty Morsel – In a stroke of pure genius one of the taglines utilised for the movie stated "You Will Believe A Cow Can Fly!”.
- ­DANTE'S PEAK (1997)
The volcano picture had never really been a box office money spinner, mostly due to the fact that filming such an event was well beyond Hollywood’s technical capabilities. But by the mid nineties directors had the power to realise their wildest disaster fantasies. So it was Roger Donaldson set about making the ultimate volcano thriller. Taking inspiration from the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, Donaldson decamped to the American north-west, and brought 007 along for the ride. Pierce Brosnan plays a volcanologist who struggles to convince the town of Dante’s Peak, and its mayor Linda Hamilton, that the volcano that their homestead is nestled against is about to blow its top. It does of course, and in fine style, the scenes of panic and destruction being some of the finest ever to grace a cinema screen. There is an easy chemistry between Brosnan and Hamilton, and all without the need to resort to obvious physical fumblings, which is vital when various volcanic hazards spring up in front of the pair. One needs to care for their heroes and heroines if they are to see a film to the end and hopefully see them live to fight another day. Brosnan and co have to negotiate pyroclastic flows, lakes of boiling acid and rivers of molten rock before they can breath easy. Clichéd their journey made be, but its riveting all the same. The movie started a brief double feature battle between various Hollywood studios whereby two films featuring the same disastrous subject matter went head to head at the box office. Dante’s Peak found itself a brash sparring partner with the obviously named Volcano (1997) which sealed its own fate by unleashing its volcanic mayhem on downtown Los Angeles. The movie is as ridiculous as it sounds. Round two of the disaster movie tussle wasn’t far off.
Tasty Morsel – To replicate the mounds of volcanic ash seen in the film the production crew used incredibly fine newspaper shavings.
If 1997 was the year of the volcano then 1998 was the year of the comet. Whether you prefer the thinking man’s "space impact” movie (Deep Impact (1998)) or the flashy fireworks of the Michael Bay’s effort (Armageddon (1998)) really depends on your personal taste. It is unfortunate that the studios behind both movies didn’t do a Towering Inferno and pool their resources, as the perfect comet movie would be pitched right in the middle of the two. Deep Impact concentrates on the characterisation of the various folk (Americans of course) caught up in the pre-comet hoopla, played by such class acts as Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall and Téa Leoni, before attempting to baffle the meteor with science. Armageddon on the other hand kicks off with lots of load noises, rouses spirits with some patriotic space training slow-mo, gives the heartstrings a kicking with a heap of forboding family farewells, then blasts Bruce Willis into space to "have a few words”. Both provide a little bit of comet themed destruction, Deep Impact’s at the end, Armageddon’s at the start of the film. Both movies also spend time mulling over the potential actions of governments the world over as they prepare for what could very well be "The End". Deep underground bunkers are constructed, lists of lucky ones drawn up; its all fascinating stuff. Despite this neither film delivers on the whole destruction of mankind promise, which would have been a real stroke of originality. Still, there’s much fun to be had from guessing which members of the all star casts will make the final reel, and you can even spice things up by betting with your mates as to who will be left at the end. Just make sure they haven’t seen said pictures before or you could end up losing your house keys.
Tasty Morsel – In the scene where Bruce Willis read’s the demands of his motley crew in exchange for their involvement, director Michael Bay actually got the cast members to write their own demands on the papers that Willis reads from.
By the turn of the new millennium the disaster movie well was once again running dry. Fortunately for Hollywood, when Mother Nature becomes tired of ripping up her own planet good old human-kind can always be relied upon to help screw it up some more. Thus 20th Century Fox and director Roland Emmerich latched onto the idea of making a global warming disaster movie. Not wishing to make a film that had a running time of a couple of hundred decades they sped the whole process up, turning a centuries long process into a week long freak weather event. Dennis Quaid plays the meteorologist who predicts the whole sorry affair. He soon has to swap weather maps for snow shoes when he son gets trapped in New York’s public library by the wrong type of snow. The cast is a fairly impressive one, with the likes of Ian Holm, Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum helping Quaid out with the tricky task of making a cast of not particularly likeable characters worthy of our concerns. Less than sympathetic characters aside it is the impressive scenes of devastation that make this movie gripping stuff. Instead of going down the usual disaster movie route of blowing the entire movie’s budget on one initial or final ten minute burst of annihilation, Emmerich, utilising the lessons he learnt filming Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998), sprinkles the entire movie with high-end demolition ensuring that you are never more than one scene away from some disastrous fun. It is a blueprint that all ensuing disaster films should take note of. For those that have yet to sample its delights just check the Channel 4 listings; they seem to have a never ending contract with Emmerich to show the film at least ten times a week.
Tasty Morsel – Displaying the sort of mindful awareness that is severely lacking in modern day Hollywood, director Emmerich spent two hundred thousand dollars of his own money to ensure that the film’s entire production was "carbon neutral”, with all the carbon dioxide produced by the film offset by the planting of new trees and investment in renewable energy projects.
Category: My articles | Added by: Dave (2012-04-20)
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