Monday, January 5, 2009

A Hell Of A Town

There was no way I was going to miss EARTHQUAKE at the Egyptian, not a chance. How often do you get to experience the modern miracle of Sensurround? Sure, it was a lot of fun getting to see the film in a packed sold out theater as part of the American Cinematheque’s Disaster Movie series but Sensurround was the truly memorable part of the evening. It’s really why we were there. Sensurround, for those not familiar with it, was an elaborate sound system designed to allow the audience to feel the audio sensations of the movie they were watching using an elaborate speaker setup that I couldn’t really begin to understand. In the case of this film, of course, it was designed to make us feel like we really were in the middle of an actual quake. This was the first of four movies Universal released with the gimmick, followed by MIDWAY, ROLLERCOASTER and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Of course, EARTHQUAKE was a natural for the process, probably most of its reason for being anyway but with or without it, the film survives as a huge, glorious chunk of 70s cheese.

The film follows a group of individuals on the day the Big One hits Los Angeles, with the motley cast of characters played by the esteemed likes of Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene, George Kennedy, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Victoria Principal and a variety of others including a drunk billed as Walter Matuschanskayasky but is of course Walter Matthau who probably worked a day on the film and based on his outfit is presumably playing a pimp of some sort. As the first hour goes on, we alternate these storylines with seismologist experts and other officials debating over the possibility of what some believe will be a quake of legendary proportions. Unlike the Irwin Allen films, where the warnings go unheeded due to arrogance or the skinflint desire to reduce costs, here it’s simple political cowardice that prevents an evacuation order to go out. Because, sure enough, the quake does hit, causing massive death and destruction. In other words, it’s exactly what we paid to see.

It’s a terrible movie, no doubt about it, with very few things to pick out as actually good. There’s lots of interesting use of Los Angeles locations, giving us a nice glimpse at what the city looked like back in the 70s, for starters. It is kind of endearing to see Genevieve Bujold work at making that terrible romantic banter with Charlton Heston actually kind of charming. Heston has an amusing moment where George Kennedy tries to carjack him to help out quake victims and there’s a sequence involving a stairwell suddenly losing several floors that is actually kind of suspenseful. But as much as everyone remembers things like the idiotic animated blood splat in the legendary elevator sequence (it got a round of applause and I gladly joined in) much of the earthquake effects work and matte paintings by Albert Whitlock are genuinely stunning, almost surprisingly so on the huge Egyptian screen. The John Williams score, while very much locked into the decade, is extremely effective as well. The main title is appropriately cool (well, in a “Quinn Martin Presents” kind of way), but the quieter sections manage to lend the film whatever dramatic power it actually has—I’ve always particularly liked the melancholy finale that plays over the end titles following the slightly unexpected ending.

There’s not much good beyond that, starting with the awkward pacing right from the very beginning--dealing with so many characters the first hour somehow manages to feel choppy and lethargic at the same time. Directed by Mark Robson, the look of the film also has that patented crappy Universal-70s look to it which manages to make it look as if it were shot for television even if it is being framed in Panavision. Most of the sets are pretty phony as well and probably went on to be used in episodes of “Columbo” or “McCloud” or something by the next week. It was written by Charles Fox and the legendary Mario Puzo, apparently went through numerous drafts before going in front of the cameras and somehow it still manages to feel like I’m spending more time writing this piece than they ever spent on the script. Many of the leads from Heston to Gardner to the ultra-bizarre Marjoe Gortner are terrible, making it all the more interesting when familiar working actors like Lloyd Nolan, John Randolph, Donald Moffat and George Murdock turn up and actually make their stock roles pretty effective in this context (I particularly like Nolan’s moment with George Kennedy at the end). But as bad as much of the acting is, it’s hard not to remember and slightly cherish elements like the Heston-Gardner-Bujold love triangle or Gortner’s wack job trying to have his way with Victoria Principal, in the most ridiculous looking afro you’ve ever seen. If I go another thirty years without seeing this movie I’m going to remember these things and I’ll love that I do. I guess all this was enough to get the film nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes and if that’s not a good enough reason to never take those things seriously I don’t know what is.

And, almost needless to say, it was a blast to be at the Egyptian for it. The screening was introduced by Genevieve Bujold, of all people, who delivered an emotional speech about how this film marked the beginning of her life in Los Angeles, where she has lived ever since. This led into the movie which opens with the all-important disclaimer about the effects Sensurround will provide and how the management assumes no responsibility for any ill-effects that may occur. Sort of an overload of bass and subwoofers that can cause a rumbling sensation, the process makes its first appearance when the quake hits and fittingly, it begins when one of the characters is in a movie theater (watching HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, also from Universal). Sensuround is a goof, but it’s a pretty cool goof and by a certain point is a pretty effective one as well. One brief surprise jolt late in the film immediately followed by an onscreen acknowledgement of it is a particularly good moment. For the record, seeing this film makes me never want to live in a house on stilts or go to a makeshift medical center in an underground garage right after a massive quake a plan which, when you think about it, probably wasn’t very well thought out.

Do I love EARTHQUAKE or do I hate it? Is it a miserable waste of two hours or is it entertaining in spite of all logic? Should I look at it as a cautionary tale of what may happen one day in this town or should I just eat my popcorn? Maybe the answers don't matter. All I know is that I got to see EARTHQUAKE in Sensuround on Hollywood Boulevard. That’s not something you get to do every day.

“This used to be a hell of a town, officer.”



Exiled from Contentment said...

I was around 12 the last time I saw it and didn't care for it, but I just had to know what it was like to experience it in Sensurround. I'm glad I went, although my opinion on the flick remains the same.

What I really picked up on this viewing was just how downbeat Earthquake was for a "fun" movie. Even the survivors are losers in one way or another; the cop was pretty much going to quit before the quake and I don't get the sense he changed his mind about that by film's end, the daredevil guy blows his chance at performing his stunt, the outcome of the Heston/Bujold/Gardner triangle, etc. If this was made today, they'd probably try to throw in some silver linings for the audience to walk away happy.

And didn't Ms. Bujold end her speech praising Barack Obama? That was pretty funny. I wonder if there were any Heston types in the audience who didn't particularly care for that.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing BATTLESTAR GALACTICA in Sensurround!
Our biggest cinema in town had just very recently upgraded its equipment and obviously not quite adjusted yet.

Every time the Galactica appeared on screen, the subwoofer (somewhere located in the middle) began to rumble and make crashing sounds! While some parents complained about the noise, it left quite an impression on me. Everytime I watch that movie on DVD I expect that rumble. ;)

Ah, those were the days! Wait another month or two and you could see the next SFX-fest!


The Driveindude said...

I'm glad you enjoyed your sensurround experience. I must've seen Earthquake at least a dozens times at the old Paramount Theater, now the El Capitan and at least the same amount of times when it moved across the street to the Chinese. All in sensurround and oh what a glorious time I had.

Incidentally. Rollercoaster played in sensurround at the Paramount and Midway played at the old Pix theater which is now the Henry Fonda Theater and also in sensurround. When those bomb blasts and 30 inch guns fired on those destroyers... WOW.

I envy you and Dennis for making it to the Egyptian but I'm glad you had a good time.

Darren said...

Jeez, where were you? I didn't see you...

Mr. Peel said...


That downbeat excess is probably part of why some of the movie feels so odd, good or bad. I suppose Bujold’s kid waking up at the end is about as close to a happy ending as it ever gives us. And yes, Bujold ended her speech with a passionate, “Long live love! Long live cinema! Long live Barack Obama!” I heard cheers, but maybe they didn’t come from everyone.


Now I want to see GALACTICA in Sensurround! Maybe the Egyptian will do this again sometime.


You saw it at both those theaters? And the other films too? I never even knew that the Henry Fonda had once been a movie theater, go figure. It really was a great time at the Egyptian, thanks very much.


I was right behind you the whole time! Didn’t you see me? All right, I was actually in the center up near the back. But it was pretty crowded. Hope you enjoyed it!

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I wonder what Brad Bird will make of '1906'...


Anonymous said...

I saw "Midway" & "Rollercoaster" (which is not a bad thriller) in Sensurround but never "Earthquake" (although I have seen it on DVD.) I completely forgot about this screening. Thanks for the write up (& glad to hear Ms. Bujold is happy here in L.A.) "Earthquake" is bad for all the reasons you note & yet it is forever watchable & entertaining.

- Bob

Mr. Peel said...


I certainly got that entertainment value out of EARTHQUAKE. I actually wrote a bemused piece about ROLLERCOASTER a little over a year ago after seeing it but that was only on DVD, not in Sensurround.

Anonymous said...

I remember going to see "Midway" at one of our local theaters back in 1976. I have always been very interested in military history. This movie isn't too bad from a history standpoint. Of course the Chuck Heston narrative didn't exist at all. About twenty minutes of footage was left out of theatrical release but it was included when it was first aired on TV. Anyway.... I watched the movie yet again only a week ago and I noticed the "Sensurround" logo in the credits. It reminded me of the poor effect that was created in the theater environment with the big speakers that were used. There was far too much bottom end and we couldn't hear the dialogue at all. People were complaining. "Earthquake" was just lame all the way around. I didn't even know that "Battlestar Galactica" was in Sensurround. That's probably because it was only released at the drive-in in our city. The only thing I remember about "Rollercoaster" is the belly dancer who performed as a midway attraction....Oh yeah! and the song too. "Ooh! Ooh! Rollercoast on down...." I guess it wasn't even in the movie. I remember that "Two Minute Warning" and "Black Sunday" were made in that era.... Happy stuff. It's kind of funny but Charlton Heston appears in several of these movies. Alas, to go back in time.

Mr. Peel said...

I’m going to have to seek out MIDWAY on disc since I don’t expect it to be played any time soon, certainly not in Sensurround. When the New Beverly showed BATTLESTAR GALACTICA last fall, they ran a brief Sensurround disclaimer before the film. Of course, they weren’t showing the film with the process but it was cool that they included that as part of it.