Friday, July 21, 2017

Avalanche (1978) – MST3K Review


David Shelby (Rock Hudson) has created the ultimate 1970s winter resort, and he is getting ready to show it off to the world. His ex-wife Caroline (Mia Farrow) arrives to congratulate him on his accomplishment, and he takes it as a sign that she wants to get back together with him. Talk about reading the room wrong. But David’s hot temper and impetuous ways still annoy Caroline. David’s attitude also get’s in the way when Nick Thorne (Robert Forster) shows up to tell him that all the land development has made conditions ripe for a massive avalanche that will destroy the resort!

But David tells Thorne to go suck some eggs and proceeds to party like it is 1978! Well sure enough, heavy snowfall meets out of control airplane and boom you have an avalanche. Who will survive? Who will meet a frozen fate? And who will end up hurtling to the bottom of a gorge and exploding on impact? No, I’m not making this up. Produced by Roger Corman… well that should tell you enough right there.

Movie Review:

The title character makes his big entrance.
Ah, that Roger Corman. He just doesn’t miss a trick does he? Disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake were all the rage 70s. So why not make your own, for a smaller budget of course. Get a couple big name stars to get butts in the seats and make a profit.

Well, the disaster movie craze hit its peak around 1975 or so. By 1978 we were really dredging the bottom of the barrel with this genre when movies like The Swarm bombed in the box office. Avalanche came out the same year, and even with the one-two punch of Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow as your main stars, I doubt this movie did very well at all. I don’t think anyone was clamoring for snow based disaster thrills in the post Star Wars world.

That said, just because the movie wasn’t a hit in its time doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, right?

Yeah, this is a bad film. Sorry folks.

"If it ever stops being the '70s, we'll all be in trouble."
What is sad is that you can see Avalanche following the disaster movie tropes with religious fervor. You have your two leads having relationship problems. You spend way too long developing them and a host of other minor characters. This way when the disaster hits, you’ll be involved in their fate and thrill to see if they live or die.

The main problem here is that none of the characters are engaging enough to care about. Sometimes it is the acting. Sometimes it is the writing. Sometimes it is a combination of the two. But I only liked one character in the entire film. The rest were just fodder for the snow and ice to take out.

Now we know what happened to Danny after
the end of Time Travelers!
What lucky character appealed to me? That would be Henry McDade, because I think the character got a raw deal. He spends the bulk of the movie following David’s mother (played with verve by Jeanette Nolan) and trying to keep her out of trouble and from drinking herself into a stupor. That is her main character trait, she drinks a lot and yells “Aloha!” Anyway, McDade is stuck with this woman because David is his boss and David says he has to. I just feel bad for the poor guy. But when the snow hits the fan, McDade actually stays with the old lady and does his best to save her. He shows more compassion than almost anyone else in the movie. And SPOILER ALERT – he survives. Good for him! Maybe I’m also partial to the character because he is played by Steve Franken. We just saw Franken in The Time Travelers as the lab fanboy Danny. Anyway, this simple character is the only one I cared about in Avalanche

This movie came out four months before Ice Castles.
That's Corman for ya!
The rest of them… jeez. There is a jaded skier who hits on underage girls. His “love interest”, I think, is a Dorothy Hamill look alike, who has an obvious skate double. She’s bland. There is another skater who is nervous and keeps botching her routines. Her coach gives her motivational speeches. The meaningful music tells me I’m supposed to care about them. Bland performances and little screen time makes sure I don’t. There is the Television Host who seems like a nice guy for the two minutes we see him. He ends up trapped with small boy on a ski lift. It almost works, but the peril gets neutralized because of obvious stunt doubles and silly camera work. You end up chuckling instead of gasping in horror.

He's even sincere about McDade's goofy hat.
Then there are our three lead characters in Avalanche. The best performance is given by Robert Forester, who is one of those actors who always delivers solid work in just about anything I’ve seen him in (including The Black Hole). The role of Nick Thorne is cliché-ridden and not terribly interesting, but Forester makes the most of it. He is sincere in his conviction that an avalanche in immanent. He is sincere in his attraction to Mia Farrow. He is sincere in his wiliness to help people when the avalanche hits. But he is such a one-note character, it is hard to care about him. Forester does the best he can with a poorly written role.

"You are never going to stop shouting, are you David?"
Mia Farrow on the other hand does not much of anything with a poorly written role. Much like Forster’s character, Caroline doesn’t really have an arc. She shows up at the resort annoyed with David, but she still loves him. It ends with her annoyed with David, but she still loves him. Along the way she says she’s interested in Thorne, but her acting doesn’t show it. She says she may be willing to give David another chance, but her performance says otherwise. Well, that’s not right, her performance is just kinda there. It is tempting to say that Farrow is just there for the paycheck. But I think the role was so boring that she decided not to give too much effort. She has no chemistry with anyone in the “love triangle” and while she has a couple of good moments yelling at David, she doesn’t do much of anything in the story either. She’s just there because we needed a woman in the “love triangle” that goes nowhere.

David in a rare moment of not shouting.
Rock Hudson takes the opposite approach. I get the feeling that Hudson read the script to Avalanche and liked that he wasn’t playing the nice guy for once. David is an egotistical jerk, who places his desires over everyone’s safety. He even endangers his own (drunken) mother. I can see Hudson liking that aspect of the role. I can also see him reading it and realizing how stupid the whole thing was. So instead of just playing low key, he goes big and broad. Hudson rants and raves. He snarls and barks. He is a complete asshole to just about everyone else in the film. He does it so well that you pretty much want him to suffer a humiliating death by snow boulder. I’ve never seen Hudson play this kind of role this broadly before. On the one hand it is fun to watch. But in the service to the film, it just doesn’t work. I think we are supposed to feel some kind of catharsis that he gets what he deserves at the end. He does seem a little subdued at the end, but the crushing reality that his actions have killed his mother, dozens of people and destroyed his dream for the resort just seem to be given a “oh well, that sucks” feel from the tone of the ending.

Much like this review, Avalanche spends way too much time going on and on about these flat characters before any hint of disaster appears. But when the avalanche arrives, about 55 minutes into the movie, it delivers some thrills, right? Well, kinda sorta. For the budget and knowing this is a Corman production it works out Ok. Lots of scenes feature super imposed ice/snow visuals over people flailing about. That provides some unintentional laughs. The disaster on the ice rink and the whole thing that happens in the kitchen are laugh out loud ridiculous looking.

Um, should we be watching this?
The most thrilling sequences of disaster are the ski lift rescue and unearthing David’s mother and McDade from the encased dining room. The ski lift has a pretty good build up to the final rescue. The whole thing gets more and more unstable as the news anchor and the kid hang on for dear life. There is electricity in play, and the fire department has trouble getting to them. It’s edited a bit clumsily, but it gets the job done. And since I actually liked McDade (and I admit the drunken mother was kind of likable too) I wanted to know what would happen to them.

Avalanche also tries to have a message about the media not caring about people, but doing anything for the story. The camera crew doesn’t try to help the news anchor and the child. They just stand there and film it, wanting to catch the moment they fall or get electrocuted. There is also a message about harming the environment, and letting greed and ego get in the way of compassion. It is all heavy handed, and doesn’t really go anywhere. I guess it is supposed to add some kind of depth to the film, but it just feels like padding to a movie that feels way too long already.

And then 1978 smacks you right upside the head!
For me that is the biggest crime Avalanche commits. The movie drags. Not just because of the slower 1970s pacing, but because it wastes over half of its running time on the flat uninteresting characters. They are written and executed so poorly it makes for an uninteresting film. You can’t wait for the snow to start falling. The movie picks up when the disaster finally hits, but so much of the entertainment comes from the hilariously bad special effects and over the top acting that you are laughing at the movie, not thrilling to it.

Yes, Avalanche is a disaster of a movie. But is it a disaster that Jonah and the Bots are ready to take on?

Episode Review:

Looks refreshing.
I don’t think Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever tackled a straight up disaster film before. The closest we got was the wonderfully hilarious San Francisco International, which was a 1970s television pilot filled to bursting with past their prime actors spouting out over-ripe dialogue and providing thrills on the tarmac. The movie was a perfect fit for riffing and it remains one of my favorite episodes of the entire series.

So Avalanche has a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, things just don’t work out so well this time around. That doesn’t mean that Jonah and the bots aren’t giving it their all, because they really are.

"Old man Peabody used to own all this..."
For those first 55 minutes or so, they riff away at the movie as best as they are able too. So much of the film deals with silly melodrama and talky scenes with Rock Hudson shouting at everyone that it was a bit of a struggle to keep things fresh. Jonah and the bots focus on the ripe dialogue and over baked performances.

And don’t worry they don’t go for any overly nasty pokes at Rock Hudson. There are a couple of subtle riffs playing off his lifestyle, but they focus more on his ranting and 70’s outfits. I will admit that MST3K has gone for the nasty jokes about celebrities in the past. Bela Lugosi’s drug problems played into quite a few riffs in Bride of the Monster and in the Rifftrax commentary for Plan 9 From Outer Space they went overboard (and Lugosi is hardly in the film). So it is nice to see Jonah and the crew not taking that tactic this time out. Keep it classy guys.

Jonah and the bots get their groove on too!
Since Avalanche falls smack dab in the midst of the disco era, and we have a party scene you get some of the best riffing during that sequence. As the scene starts Jonah say, “1978 you have so many crimes to answer for.” Tom adds, “We have an avalanche of polyester on the dance floor tonight.” As the Baked Alaska desserts are brought out the boys throw several funny quips at the oddity of the whole scene.

Crow says, “Not that I’m complaining, but by this time Gene Hackman was half way through the Poseidon.” And you are really starting to agree with him, when the avalanche hits. You get some unusual POV shots from the avalanche to which Crow comments “The Avalanche has a Go Pro on.” The disaster provides so much fodder for Jonah and the bots that they go into overdrive.

"You see when a man loves a tree very much..."
Seriously the quips come so fast and furious that you do end up missing quite a few of them. There is some great material in there from the kitchen cheerleader to the observation from Tom that “He fell in slow motion and they still couldn’t catch him?” It is a shame the riffing goes so quickly that it gets tangled up in itself. Luckily this is the last episode to really have this problem. From The Beast of Hollow Mountain forward, the riffing hits the perfect pace.

One more thing to look for at the end of Avalanche is a hilarious series of quips from Jonah and the bots as they pretend to write up reviews for David’s resort in Trip Advisor. These are all very funny, and the boys do a great job delivering them as the meaningful music plays in the finale.

If Neil Simon wrote the next Fast and Furious film.
The host segments are OK, with one stand out sequence. For the invention exchange the bots create a cool new Dustbuster that uses the human mouth as it’s suction device. Jonah gets a bunch of stuff caught in his “filter”. The Mads create a program that will create an instant font and look for your movie poster. All you have to do is say the title. The system is super sensitive, so it starts to pick up the Mad’s conversation with amusing results. At the first break the bots are convinced that the loud and pushy Rock Hudson is cool, so they try to emulate him. Jonah talks them down. Then it is time for our special guest as Neil Patrick Harris shows up as Kinga’s online boyfriend. The two sing a duet about how they are in love but don’t want to actually touch each other. Patton Oswald as Max steals the show as he pines for Kinga with his own little interlude.

I think I would pay to see Rabbitoxicity.
But my favorite of the host segments is inspired by a riff during the film. The boys come up with Syfy channel original movie title and realize that those ridiculous MegaShark versus Crocosquid movies need to stop. So they create a whole bevy of titles and trademark all of them so Syfy channel can’t make them. These are hilarious, and the amount of titles they come up with is impressive. Kinga and Max try their hand at a few too. When the movie ends Gypsy comes down to provide some songs and entertainment inspired by the boozy performance of David’s mom in the film. Her music touches everyone, even Kinga.

Like the previous episodes in Season 11, this one is entertaining, but it just doesn’t go much further than that. The movie’s first half is so dull, and the guys do the best job they can. The second half overwhelmed with the rapid-fire riffs that you get lost in all the jokes. With some pruning of the riffs in the second half this could have risen a full grade.

But as it stands I can only give it three kitchen cheerleaders out of five.

This episode is available on the Netflix Streaming.

"Dear Trip Advisor, I found a cheerleader in my salad and
the dressing was not on the side. 1 1/2 stars."


  1. Who doesn't like exploding snow? Talk about under the weather. I could easily sit through this one due to the snowy environment, and particularly now that we are in the dog days of summer and it's 100 degrees heat. Disaster movies were a big deal in their day if not a bit predictable. I'm not sure what the first one was, but my guess would be The Poseidon Adventure. I wondered if Crow or Tom did their best Haley Joel Osment imitation and went: "Icey dead people."

    1. Yeah it was perfect viewing for the very hot day I watched it. The first disaster film is usually considered to be "Airport" from 1970. I'll admit, I've never actually seen that film or the follow up "Airport 75", or "Airport 77" or "Airport 79". Damn how many of these "Airport" movies where there!

      No my friend, your quip is golden, and Jonah and bots didn't think of it. You would make an honorary bot!

  2. Joss Whedon veterans are turning up on this iteration of MST3K, aren’t they? Neil Patrick Harris was the villain who pined after Felicia Day in “Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.” Maybe Nathan Fillion is next.

    You’re probably right about Rock. Mia is capable of nuance. She showed it with Woody (on film that is) many times. If your character is written as un-nuanced, however, I guess there is not much to do with it. I honestly don’t remember if I saw this movie, which perhaps says something. Forgetting a film completely is a rare occurrence for me. Something tells me I did see it, but maybe not; it’s possible I started to watch it but then opted not to finish it, or maybe I just saw a TV trailer. As that may be, I gather the movie is eminently forgettable. I’m glad the bots made it less so.

    1. Heh heh, you'll have to wait an see who shows up next. I didn't mention it outright in my review of "Reptilicus!" but Will Wheaton was in that episode with Erin Grey as the guest stars. Wheaton worked with Felicia Day on her net-series "The Guild" (he was playing a real jerk in that one). So maybe the connection is with Day, not sure. But I know Wheaton and Day are friends.

      Yeah Mia really surprised me with her performance. I'm not sure what was going on there. I found out just after I posted the review that the director was really unhappy with the final product and claimed that budget cuts and pushing to get the film rushed to completion hurt the final product.

      I don't blame you if you forgot this one. The MST3K version makes for fun viewing, but not essential viewing.

  3. A disaster film can keep audience interest one of two ways - spending millions of dollars developing fantastic action setpieces and spending tons of effort creating sympathetic characters - or they can do what this film did - make everything cheaply and drag it all out to interminable levels. It does make the last part of the film highly entertaining though, as it gets more and more over the top and ridiculous. It isn't enough now for the rescue vehicles to travel to the scene of the disaster, they have to swerve all over the road like the Keystone Cops and crash into each other. It isn't enough for the main characters' mother to plunge off of a bridge - she has to go hurtling into a ravine full of ice cold water and explode like something out of a Final Destination movie. It was HILARIOUS.

    Another highlight of the movie was the Seventies architecture of the ski resort, with its wood paneling, carpeted walls, mezzanines that looked like they were designed by M. C. Escher, and light fixtures that looked like they had been swiped from an alien's swanky bachelor pad. It gives even the Gobbler ( a run for its money in terms of tackiness. I love it.

    1. Yeah the resort was really something special. Every time we got a new view of it, the whole thing just looked more and more ridiculous.

      I don't know about the movie itself. Disaster flicks aren't really my favorite to begin with, but this one was so tedious it just hurt. The riffing helped quite a bit, but it took so long to get to the good stuff. I'm glad Jonah and the bots were along for the ride.

      Thanks for commenting.