Monday, April 21, 2008

The First Annual Christmas Craptacular All-Night Movie Marathon (2006).

To help pass the Holiday Doldrums and celebrate the complete annihilation of my car last week (-- and to give my keester a little dry-run stress test before B-Fest), I settled in for an all day and most of the night marathon of Disaster Movies (-- it just seemed appropriate.) Twenty straight hours of pure cinematic catastrophe -- and it started accidentally when I tuned in Turner Classic Movies and caught the opening credits for Airport -- the film that started the "We're Doomed and totally Screwed" genre that flourished for the next decade before it sputtered out in the early '80s.

Most people credit Irwin Allen with the creation of the disaster movie -- and they also mistakenly think he was behind the Airport franchise. He wasn’t. But, being the natural contrarian that I am, I'll give more credit to author Arthur Hailey than George Seaton and Universal.

Now, I think the roots of the modern disaster film can be traced back to a teleplay Hailey did back in the '50s called Flight to Danger, later remade theatrically as Zero Hour (1957), which was later spoofed into oblivion by the Zucker's Airplane! (1980). Thus, it was that and his novel, Airport, which set the template for love triangles, matrimonial humps, geriatric comedy relief, and outright disasters that exponentially got worse and worse as the minutes ticked by until, by some miracle, or dogged perseverance, the day / plane / mankind was saved.

Airport (1970) opens with the titular locale being pummeled by a snowstorm. Burt Lancaster runs the show, and from a stuck plane blocking a runway, to noise complaints from the neighboring subdivisions, to the fact that Van Heflin has smuggled a bomb on board a flight to Italy to cash in on a Life Insurance policy for his destitute family, everything seems to be going wrong.

And while swinging pilot Dean Martin takes a time out from knocking-up stewardesses to try and land the crippled plane, on the ground, George Kennedy -- the Patron Saint of Disaster Movies, hell yeah, Patroni will save us all! -- red-lines things to get the much needed runway clear for an emergency landing or the same tarmac will be littered with the corpses of every Hollywood actor over the age of 65.

Next up comes my all time favorite -- The Towering Inferno (1974), where we find out what happens when you cram 135 floors of steel and glass with polyester, taffeta and every flammable accelerant known to man.

Paul Newman designed it, William Holden built it, and then Richard Chamberlain screwed it all up, so now it's up to Fire Chief Steve McQueen to save all their sorry asses. And I try not to laugh while Newman and McQueen set the charges to blow the water tanks, when they pause to look each other in the eye, and I burst into a lively rendition of "We May Never Love this Way Again..."

And for those of you playing at home, that was the Love Theme from The Towering Inferno, used ad nauseam whenever two love leads express their affections for each other before one or both of them is turned into a charcoal briquette. And who are we kidding? Get McQueen a Big Gulp, wait ten minutes, fly him to the roof and that fire would be out in no time. Hee-hee! Burn, baby, burn.

And you wanna know something? I think Los Angeles was lucky that the Richter went off the scale in Earthquake (1974), leveling most of the city. Why? It left little or no furniture or scenery lying around for Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and Marjoe Gortner to rip apart with their bare teeth.

To me, Earthquake is easily the weakest entry of the Disaster Movie cycle but it was also the nadir of the genre -- it truly is an awful and laughable film-watching experience; it distilled the Disaster Movie back to its basic component elements and the results is a very sour mash. Even George Kennedy can’t salvage it. (Sigh.)

Thus, the Disaster Movie was never the same again after 1974, and things quickly went downhill in a helluva hurry. But I still giggle whenever I ponder how in the hell we were supposed to buy Lorne Greene as Ava Gardner's father. (She appears to be at least thirty years his senior.) Who knew she was the lost Cartwright brother?

Next comes Black Sunday (1977), where Bruce Dern plays a deranged vet -- as only Bruce Dern can do a deranged vet, who is recruited by some terrorists to crash the Goodyear Blimp into the Orange Bowl during Superbowl X and detonate a bomb filled with ball bearings to aerate the crowd. Crusty Robert Shaw manages to untangle the plot and saves the day.

This one was a little more serious than I remembered and kinda derailed the mood, to be honest, so I took the opportunity for a much needed bathroom break and food run. But I made it back in time for the climax. And for the record, Pittsburgh was beating Dallas 21 to 10 before things went awry.

Recharged by a couple of Taco John's grilled burritos and a gallon of Diet Dew, we jumped back in with both feet, ready to duck and cover with American International Pictures' last gasp, Meteor (1979).

Part Disaster Movie, part Cold War parable, Sean Connery, Karl Malden's hair piece, and Natalie Wood manage to bring detente with Rooskie Brian Keith to allow a joint attack on Orpheus -- the Texas sized rock plummeting right for us. Fragments have already struck the planet -- allowing me to see part of Avalanche (1978), too, until two orbiting "Peace Platforms" armed with four-dozen tactical nukes are linked up and launched, providing just enough TNT to get the job done.

Ever wonder where the "Star Wars" defense initiative was born? Could be here (-- and I can't help but wonder if the late Ronald Reagan had a hard on whenever he watched this movie.)

Next, we ventured back into airline disasters with the next flick -- Airport '77 (1977), which I once composed a poem for that I think I'll repeat it here:

Yup, this is the one where art thieves crash a plane into the ocean. Jack Lemmon's slumming, Lee Grant's gnawing on the seats, and Christopher Lee's cashing a paycheck. But! The real problem with this movie, as much as I love Darren McGavin as the flight engineer, the film needed much more than a five-minute Patroni / Kennedy cameo.

And that about wraps up the more conventional Disaster Movies that I have in my video library -- explaining the unforgivable absence of The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Airport '75 (1974) -- and, no, I'm not forgetting Airport '79 (1979). Even I have my limits. Thus and so, we moved on to those a little less conventional.

Irwin Allen makes a welcomed return as The Swarm (1978) easing us from conventional disasters to Nature Gone Amuck. Allen and his long time collaborator, screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, gleefully forewarn us of the ecological threat of Killer Bees by killing off as much of the cast as possible.

Good grief. I was around during the initial Killer Bee scare back in the 1970s; and believe me, all the Killer Bee films spawned by said scare were so much more detrimental to my health than any bee sting imaginable. In the end, Allen rips off an old school killer bug movie -- Beginning of the End (1957) -- with a false mating call, promising the Killer Bees a little Killer Bee nookie, only to lure them into the ocean where a butt-load of napalm is waiting. (And who got to fill out the environmental impact statement on THAT stunt.)

Then, our smooth transition to Nature’s Revenge runs right into a brick wall with the next eco-disaster flick -- Night of the Lepus (1972), which, of course, features Bunnies. I mean, Giant Bunnies. Well, make that GIANT MAN-EATING KILLER BUNNIES!

Here, a natural remedy to curb the rabbit explosion plaguing certain ranchers goes awry, resulting in a strain of -- oh, hell, you get the idea.

Now, the sheer absurdity of this movie is something to behold. The plot is a fairly generic '50s Science Fiction retread, and even the same styled gonzo-effects are lovingly recreated with the use of live bunnies made to look giant-size by having them bounce around miniature sets and amping up their thundering paws on the soundtrack. Believe me, that's nothing compared to the man to varmint hand to hand combat scenes using a stunt-man decked out in a really bad bunny suit. You just can't make this shit up.

Then, as we approached hour 19 of this "seemed to be a great idea at the time" endeavor, I weighed the options between putting this marathon out of its misery by either watching Grizzly (1976) -- an almost verbatim, scene for scene JAWS (1975) rip-off, only this time with a really big bear -- or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978). Tomatoes won, mostly because it was shorter and I was running out of gas.

Fast and quick: tomatoes have become sentient and homicidal. All part of some government conspiracy that is eventually broken up, thanks to the diligent work of Mason Dixon (-- imagine Doc Savage as the Man of Bologna --) and his field agents. Man, it's gonna take a while to get that #&*@ "Puberty Love" song outta my head.

Personally, I think Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is a lot better than people give it credit for. Aside from the nifty theme song, it actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions -- when it was actually trying to be funny. ("Anybody got any ketchup?" C'mon, that's funny.) No small task in these purposeful spoofs.

And that about wraps it up. That's it. I can't takes no more. So, until next year, time for bed. Happy Holidays on and all. Or Bah! Humbug, where applicable.

Originally posted on December 24, 2006. 

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