BluRay/DVD Reviews

EARTHQUAKE (Universal Home Entertainment) 1974

By • Sep 5th, 2013 •

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EARTHQUAKE has haters. Many internet haters. EARTHQUAKE may be a very formulistic 70’s disaster movie with “cheesy” effects and even cheesier plot-filler, but it has a disturbing charm, and it grips you. You might spot the cheese-factor here – but the film hits like a nightmarish race through an obstacle course to the emergency room.

In the early 1970’s, Irwin Allen’s POSIDEON ADVENTURE and TOWERING INFERNO showed that on-screen disaster meant millions for their studios. Universal decided to pitch in with a disaster film of its own.

EARTHQUAKE’s Producer was Jennings Lang, a former VP at MCA-TV Ltd who helped shape the careers of Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg. An odd claim for fame for Mr. Lang is that he was shot in the groin by Walter Wanger when Wanger discovered that he was having a heated affair with his then wife Joan Bennett.

The screenplay for EARTHQUAKE was written by Mario Puzo, fresh off THE GODFATHER’s mega-success. The story line or lines for EARTHQUAKE is a runaway soap opera – but what soap opera fun it is! Big time architect Stuart Graff (Charlton Heston) tries to maintain sanity living with his foul-tempered neurotic wife Remy (Ava Gardner). Graff is having an affair with the younger and saner Denise (Genevieve Bujold). As Los Angeles feels occasional minor early-morning tremors, we meet a rogues gallery of explosive characters – Miles, an ambitious stunt motorcyclist (Richard Roundtree), a hot-tempered policeman named Slade (George Kennedy), Graff’s boss and father-in-law Sam Royce (Lorne Greene), Jody, a sex and guns obsessed National Guardsman (Marjoe Gortner) – as well as a few others.

About an hour the big earthquake hits. Sexy model Rosa, (Victoria Principal) is at the movies, watching Clint Eastwood in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (which Jennings Lang produced), when the theatre rumbles and collapses around her. Stock footage of fleeing theatre patrons was borrowed from Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN. All around Los Angeles, highways collapse, skyscrapers fall apart like wet bread, and explosions erupt as the biggest American earthquake pulverizes Los Angeles. A piece cut from the final release print has seismologists stating this quake was 9.9 on the Richter Scale. The current Roland Emmerich “disaster-porn” films today overwhelm us with CGI buildings slicing apart in clean chunks. The almost 40-year-old EARTHQUAKE is much more messy – and realistic. In this quake’s aftermath, the emphasis is not on spectacle. but on rescuing, healing, rage, and making sense of the carnage. We see more people in close-up receive serious, often fatal injuries than we see buildings collapse. I always find the second aftershock that hits the make-shift basement hospital very upsetting. Marjoe Gortner’s sex-fueled rampage towards Victoria Principal adds more jolts than any computer effect can muster.

The special effects here are mostly mechanical – miniature buildings, chunks of Styrofoam doubling for raining debris. Albert Whitlock (THE BIRDS, THE WAR LORD) was the master behind many of the startling matte paintings here. The majority of these effects work, but some don’t, reminding modern, younger viewers that CGI effects have taken the place of these “primitive” effects. Another reason for the internet venom on EARTHQUAKE may be that the lead cast members are all middle aged, some elderly. The biggest demographic in movies today (age 14 to 25) don’t go to movies to see their parents.

A very odd comic relief bit here concerns Walter Matthau as a badly-dressed drunk who downs shots and dances his way through the carnage. Matthau jokingly claimed his real name was “Walter Matuschanskayasky” and requested to be credited on-screen as such. Many internet movie sites falsely state that this was his real name.

52-year-old Ava Gardner did her own stunts here. Cast members remember her high spirits during production. Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman and Rock Hudson were among the many celebrities considered for Stu Graff. When Charlton Heston was offered the role, he got about two-thirds through the script and remarked something like “…let me guess the rest. My neurotic wife dies and I live so I can rebuild the city with my mistress at my side.” The Producers nodded “yes.” Heston requested that his character die while trying to rescue his drowning wife. That’s the ending that was filmed.

During the quake scene, panicked office workers pile into an elevator, which breaks loose and plummets many floors below. The intended crash scene showed the office workers being pushed upwards to the elevator ceiling and crushed. Preview audiences found this too upsetting. To preserve the more marketable PG rating, the scene was cut short and laugh-inducing “cartoon blood” splatters were animated on the screen.

EARTHQUAKE is famous for introducing “Sensurround”, a sound effect that emitted high-bass, low-frequency audio that was more felt than heard. The resulting effect gave theatre audiences the sensation of living through a major earthquake. When EARTHQUAKE premiered at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in November, 1974, nets were placed between the audience and the ceiling to catch bits of paint and plaster shaken loose by Sensurround. (This may have just been a clever publicity gimmick) When EARTHQUAKE premiered on TV, AM radio stations broadcast the Sensurround rumble so viewers could play it along with the TV. Universal’s beautiful Blu-Ray release built in a terrific recreation of Sensurround. I only have the speakers that came with my TV – no extras – and it had a jarring effect.

A sequel, EARTHQUAKE II, was planned in the late seventies, where surviving cast members migrated to San Francisco. Science fiction adventures began surpassing disaster films at the box office, so the project was shelved.

Directed by Val Lewton and Orson Welles alumni Mark Robson, EARTHQUAKE delivers the goods. There’s no phony wow or cool factor here, but genuine terror and fear. Forget about CGI and be taken in by EARTHQUAKE!

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