Disaster of a Disaster Movie: “Earthquake!”

How could they have taken something so scary like an earthquake and made it so dull?
Earthquake 1974 poster

I love a good disaster film whether it’s about a catastrophic event or just because it’s a campy, bad film. So many films qualify as both although I think “The Concorde…Airport ’79” was the best/worst (‘The Swarm” is a close second).

“Earthquake” from 1974 falls in the middle, just middling all the way (I added the exclamation point in the title to give it some excitement). That’s despite the fact that being in the middle of a real-life earthquake “sequence” as the seismologists tell us, actually fills one with tension and dread. After the earthquake on July 4th here in Southern California, I awoke at 5 in the morning to the sound of birds going a bit crazy, cawing like mad. I thought that animals were supposed to react like this before a big quake. Well, I guess they were sensing the bigger one that was coming. And there may yet be more.

Sara Donchey of KCAL/CBS News was on-air with Juan Fernandez when the second, bigger 7.1 quake hit and although it’s perfectly understandable for someone to slip away under their desk, it’s also hilarious.

I could just run that on a loop all day.

But again, a real earthquake is horribly frightening while it’s happening, wondering if it will truly turn into some kind of disaster film. When the shaking starts, visions of disasters from the past (complete and utter devastation in places like Turkey, Italy, Chile) immediately flood the brain as well as images from the disaster films of yesteryear like “Earthquake”, despite how boring that film may have been. Luckily, none of that came to pass at least here in LA although the birds this morning were cawing a bit, still not as much as the previous morning.

The heyday or golden age of disaster films took place in the 1970s. The trend can be attributed to “Airport”, starring Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Burt Lancaster, and an “all-star” cast (George Kennedy! Helen Hayes! Van Hefling! Maureen Stapleton!), because it made nearly $600 million in today’s dollars. So then there was a flood (yes, there was an actual movie called “Flood!” starring Robert Culp) of similar-ilk movies. Initially, they were popular: Airport ’75 and ’77’, ‘”Poseidon Adventure”, “Towering Inferno”, and “Earthquake”. The bottom then dropped out as the films got as dull as their titles: “Fire!”, “Rollercoaster”, “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”, “The Swarm”, and “Meteor” among many others. Of course there was the so-bad-its-good “The Concorde…Airport ’79” with Charo, Martha Raye, Avery Schreiber, John Davidson, Jimmy Walker and a host of other all-stars, along with the intentionally funny parody called “The Big Bus” starring Stockard Channing and Joseph Bologna, trapped on a nuclear-powered bus tricked out with a bowling alley and swimming pool.

The subgenre of natural-disaster film had a particular problem in that nature will unleash it’s fury when it feels like, often without warning, so it’s a bit difficult to fit these events around a three-act structure. “Poseidon Adventure” got it right and is perhaps the best of the lot, because the tidal wave hits the cruise ship and turns it upside down (sorry for the spoilers!), leaving the all-star cast with the problem of then getting out of the ship. Others, where the disaster is imminent and you have to watch people getting ready for it to hit, are dull as dishwater. “Meteor” was the worst since the cast was just waiting and waiting for this slow-moving rock (I think it was paper mache mounted on a rotisserie) to hit Earth. When it finally did hit, you were in deep REM mode.

The LA-set “Earthquake”, starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, tried to get around this problem by just scheduling earthquakes when they were needed for the sake of the story. To distract from this heavy-handedness, they attracted audiences with “Sensurround”, a gimmick where newfangled bass-heavy speakers were installed in theaters to simulate the vibration and shaking of an earthquake. A few more movies afterward utilized this gimmick. I only experienced it once, in downtown Tokyo, when “Battlestar Galactica” played in the theaters there. I have to say it was thrilling whenever they cranked up the rumbling when Vipers launched into space.

Without the gimmicks and good matte paintings depicting the devastation, “Earthquake” was essentially a TV movie. It was directed by Mark Robson who gave us “Valley of the Dolls” and “Peyton Place”. All of the camera-shaking sequences with falling debris looks more like the studio needed to get rid of some old sets and decided to film the demolition and save some money (much in the way the destruction of the “King Kong” sets doubled as the burning of Atlanta sequence in “Gone With the Wind”).

Anyhow, all you really need to see is the trailer. It has the “exciting” falling debris bits with all the boring people storylines excised. Enjoy and stay safe!

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