“Welcome back, disaster fans!” Today, we’re taking a trip down memory lane to revisit the disaster film classic, Avalanche, a 1978 gem directed by Corey Allen and is a perfect example of the genre as it blended elements of suspense, drama, and of course, plenty of death-defying action but all down on an incredibly low budget.
By1978 the big-budget disaster movies that once ruled the decade had pretty much given up the ghost but that was not going to stop low-budget king Roger Corman from taking a shot at it with his movie Avalanche, a plot that revolved around David Shelby (Rock Hudson), millionaire entrepreneur and owner of a ski resort who’s more focused on profits than safety. When a massive avalanche hits the resort, Shelby must navigate the treacherous snow and rescue his guests before it’s too late, and because you can’t have a disaster film without an estranged couple of some sort we also have his ex-wife Caroline Brace (Mia Farrow), in fact, I’m fairly certain it’s a legal requirement to include this trope when making a disaster movie. But the most surprising thing about this film is that even before frame one had been shot one of the big television networks offered Corman $2 million dollars for the broadcast rights and as the budget was only $1.7 million he was already in profit mode before production had even started, which certainly a nice way to start production. Now, the network wasn’t going to pay that kind of money for the film to star one of the Roger Corman players so in this instance we have a New World Picture with two bona fide movie stars and that’s how Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow became attached.
Despite the familiar plot, Avalanche manages to entertain with its laughably bad special effects and over-the-top performances and manages to be entertaining despite itself. As the stoic hero, Hudson delivers a performance so wooden that I bet they’d hired people to ensure woodpeckers wouldn’t have a go at him – watching this thing it’s hard to believe he was an Oscar-nominated actor – and to add to the drama we also have wildlife photographer Nick Thorne (Robert Forster) whose job in this film is to warn David about the dangers of an impending avalanche but more importantly to sleep with Caroline so we can have a romantic triangle. We certainly aren’t going to fill the ninety-minute running time without some serious padding and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Prepare for such excitement as:
• David being investigated for illegal campaign contributions, which got him the land for his resort.
• World-class skier Bruce Scott (Rick Moses) cheating on his emotionally damaged girlfriend.
• Sports announcer Mark Elliot (Barry Primus) and his cheating spouse (Cathey Paine).
• We get Bruce Scott narrowly escaping a small avalanche simply to heighten the oncoming threat.
• David’s mother spends most of her time with David’s bookkeeper and getting a tour because that’s exciting.
• Nick Thorne steals explosives to trigger a small avalanche, which achieves nothing.
• David is also sleeping with his secretary so we can get in some nudity.
Rock Hudson is basically playing a cross between the idiot mayor from Jaws and his character from Giant as he both ignores the dangers of a potential avalanche in the fashion of “We can’t close the beaches, it’s the Fourth of July!” but he’s also a rich and arrogant bastard whose attitude towards women is a tad prehistoric. Normally this would be enough to place the blame for the oncoming disaster squarely on his shoulders, but not this movie, it has to hammer home just how much of an unremitting asshat David is by demanding that his assistant fly in important papers despite the terrible weather conditions, which results in that poor dude’s plane crashing into the mountain which then causes the titular avalanche. So not only is David a callous, sexist, arrogant jerk he’s also a manslaughtering asshat.
The avalanche scenes themselves are a mix of old scratchy-as-shit stock footage, halfway-decent miniature models and a whole lot of white styrofoam boulders being tossed at the actors, which all kind of adds to the film’s charm if not its believability. The big climax does provide a suitable amount of carnage caused by the avalanche itself, which is pretty exciting with snowmobile racers sent flying, skiers swept away under tons of snow, people trapped high in the air on damaged chairlifts and the ski lodge being almost totally destroyed.
And because this is a Roger Corman production it must have at least one “water were they thinking” scene, and for this movie that comes in the form of the emotionally damaged girlfriend of skier Bruce Scott, who upon seeing him in bed with another woman decides to kill herself with an overdose of pills, which is terrible and emotionally devastating, but before she can down the bottle pills she is killed by the avalanche. That is some hard-core dark shit. But believe it or not, that isn’t even the weirdest death in this movie as there is a bit where the sports announcer and a small boy are hanging for dear life from a broken chairlift and just as the boy is rescued, dropped safely into a net held by the first responders, power lines hit the chairlift cable and the poor sports announcer is electrocuted, he then falls to the hard-packed snow below, missing the safety net that was held by the rescue team and dies, because they really suck at their job.
The big dramatic death in the film has to do with David’s mother Florence Shelby (Jeanette Nolan) who along with David’s bookkeeper (Steve Franken) is trapped in the buried ski lodge and in danger of asphyxiating due to broken gas lines. They are rescued in the nick of time but then the ambulance that is rushing poor Florence to the hospital loses control and careens off into a chasm and explodes, proving that sometimes it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed or be in a Roger Corman movie.
I do give the film bonus points for it ending with Caroline telling David that she loves him but still getting in a cab and leaving him in the dust, so at least director Corey Allen had the decency to leave us on a nice note, sadly, the dramatic ramblings of the script really hamper much of the film and makes this a lower-tier disaster movie. That all said, while Avalanche may not be a cinematic masterpiece it’s definitely a fun and cheesy flick, one that’s worth a watch for fans of the disaster movie genre, that is if you can get past the low-budget effects and pointless subplots.
Trivia Note: The makers of Meteor borrowed some of the avalanche footage from this movie because, apparently, bad optical effects and styrofoam snow were at a premium in Hollywood during the 1970s.
New World Pictures manages to land two major stars in this low budget disaster movie but are unable to land much else. Though some of the practical effects and stunts during the avalanche were decent there wasn’t nearly enough of them to justify the ninety minute running time.