Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When Irwin Allen Ran Out...

Where did it all go wrong??? First, Irwin Allen made some award-winning documentaries (The Sea Around Us, probably being the most notable), then a series of colorful and memorable adventure films and TV series (including Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.) When he produced The Poseidon Adventure, he started a wave of huge, blockbuster disaster epics that briefly dominated the 1970's box office including the brilliant The Towering Inferno.

Then, like ducks in a row, his next three big screen disaster flicks tanked...... deservedly. That's not to say that The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and this film, When Time Ran Out, are not entertaining. They are wildly, hilariously watchable in an MST3K sort of way. But the quality in the scripts and direction was gone (even though he kept many of the same crew around him.) This is very near the bottom of the barrel.

One thing Allen always did in his movies was to make them top-heavy with stars and this film is no exception. Paul Newman, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons were all contractually obligated to work on a second film for him as part of their initial deals in The Towering Inferno (in the case of the first two) and The Poseidon Adventure (the last two gentlemen.) Also here for the same reason is Veronica Hamel who had worked in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and whose screen career was effectively decimated by the pair of clunkers. Who knows what forces coerced Jacqueline Bisset to take part in this! (None of the stars, by the way, did any publicity for the film, knowing practically from the start that it would stink.)

Not one to shrink from publicity, himself, Allen had the nerve to send out a still photo that featured his own visage looming largely while the stars of the piece are featured in smallish circular bubbles on either side of his head! At least at this rate, the actors could try to allow him to take the fall for the finished product (which, in a way, he did. He never produced another feature film, working on TV movies for the rest of his career.)

The setting is a spanking new resort, which has been built on a volcanic island. Sadly, for everyone, the “dormant” volcano is anything but and the doors to the hotel are barely open before trouble begins! Developer Holden is visiting the new project with his girlfriend Bisset (!) who used to be involved with local oil digger Newman. Meanwhile, James Franciscus is married to Holden’s niece Hamel, but his eyes (and other things) have wandered to island native Barbara Carrera who is already promised to fellow native Edward Albert. Confused yet?

Stir in various hotel guests such as conman Buttons, pursued by investigator Borgnine, and former high-wire aerialists Burgess Meredith and his dramatic and fluttery wife Valentina Cortese. Then there is Newman’s pal Alex Karras who frequents a local watering hole run by pidgin-English speaking Pat Morita and his chubby wife Sheila Allen. Sheila Allen is a story unto herself. Once Irwin Allen’s girlfriend, Sheila Matthews, who had scored various roles on his TV series, she later played the nurse in Poseidon, then graduated to the role of the Mayor’s wife in Inferno and here, showing off her new name, she bags (hogs?) mucho screen time, possibly more than Holden and is excruciating to watch and listen to. Her garish character, basically a madam, screams out to be pushed into the lava.

Star-laden as the movie is, one problem is that, for the climactic escape sequences, characters played by utter nobodies are inserted so that if and when they bite the dust (or, rather, bite the lava, no one gives a care!) These include a sweaty, hulking native man with two wide-eyed, unappealing children along with two trashy-looking girls (prostitutes?), one brunette and one blonde, and that is just about as much as we ever learn about them! (These chicks are played by women chiefly known for their contributions in the area of stunt work, thus it’s pretty much understood that Meryl Streep-level, or even Heather Locklear-level, acting is not to be expected.)

Likewise, a preposterous segment involving escape by helicopter has a plethora of non-integral “characters” (really just various stuntpeople) clinging to the craft before dropping to their (presumed) death in the ocean as the helicopter swerves and pitches in ways that seem designed to eliminate the people from its rails. The helicopter had previously been shown with at least as many people clinging to it, so we’re likely supposed to attribute all the calamity to bad “driving?”

Most of the better-looking and more fascinating characters (such as there are to be found in this mess) are left at the hotel to be done away with in one fell swoop.

Hardly a cliché is left undemonstrated in this lame, cheap-feeling, waste of film. Nearly all of the stars had been in previous, better disaster films and in this one, they recreate situations that were done to far greater effect in the earlier movies. It’s amazing the way scene after scene smells of warmed over predictability. The structure of the film in comparison to both Poseidon and Inferno should have been embarrassing to Allen, but it wasn’t. Anyway, by now there was a strict formula to be followed with these pictures, which is part of the reason why the cycle burnt out as the 80s dawned.

The camp factor kicks in early when Newman and Franciscus step into a volcanic diving bell, the controls for which have a huge display light amongst them reading "MALFUNCTION". Ummm...most people shouldn't be getting into a contraption in which the largest item on the control panel is a light marked malfunction!!! (That should have been stamped on the front of the script as well!) It’s no surprise then when the light pops on and the men are almost fried to a crisp.
One unintentional scream occurs, too, when this ludicrous laboratory built right at the rim of a volcano, finally gives way and flops into the mouth of the rumbler like a deflated phallus.

Perhaps looking thinner that he’d ever appeared in a movie, too thin if we’re being honest, Newman has one scene in which he and his men strike oil on the island and he’s covered in sludge. This serves to accentuate his famous blue eyes, but boy are the men a mess afterwards! While the other drillers want to celebrate the occasion, he’s concerned about why the oil came out with such extreme pressure.

He and Bisset have a beachside picnic scene that is highly annoying. It’s assumed that they went ahead and drank real champagne during filming, for why else should they be in such exasperatingly good moods? They laugh and carry on at something that the audience isn't allowed in on... Maybe they saw the dailies of the volcano effects.

The "effects" are mostly very tacky and unconvincing. The destruction of the hotel is easily the worst. Just a yellow animated blot cast over footage of the resort. However, even they can't overtake the humiliation suffered by several of the film's stars.

Franciscus is immortalized on film in a polyester suit with WHITE patent leather shoes. Karras chases a rooster around while a wall of water is forming over him (caused by a tidal wave, created by the eruptions.) Cortese (!) heads off on her strenuous mountain climbing trek draped in chiffon and wearing wedgie shoes. Haggard-looking Holden gets to ride in a blazer with Morita, Allen and the two unknown "actresses" who look like they were recruited at a local Pony Keg while buying cigarettes and a bottle of Riunite. Buttons is inexplicably coiffed in a grey curly wig and complimentary mustache and Borgnine spends half the movie with his face mostly covered (He was probably grateful for that after seeing the finished product!) Their Mutt 'n Jeff relationship is an insult to their earlier collaboration. Blue-eyed Albert has his hair dyed dark in order to portray his native blood.

Meredith being a former tightrope walker, it’s only natural that, at some point, he’ll have to put this unusual skill to work again. He takes part in an excruciatingly extended set piece in which he has to navigate a collapsing wooden bridge with a child clasping his neck as lava streams underneath them threateningly. (The immense heat and steam that this would seem to give off doesn’t appear to be much of a factor, however!)

The one saving grace is the ever-gorgeous Hamel who turns in a brief, effective performance (even if her character is more than a little foolish.) She was also one of the best things about Beyond…Poseidon, but had to retreat to TV where, thankfully, Hill St. Blues awaited. The lovely Carerra also comes out fairly unscathed (and certainly suits her role well, what with her dark coloring), but is never given enough to do.

Bisset and Cortese previously appeared together in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (!) and probably wished that that had remained their only collaboration once the reviews for this turkey hit the streets. Try a drinking game that involves a shot every time Bisset turns away from something in horror. If only she'd turned away from her agent as quickly when he presented this project! She, for reasons known only to her, effects a weird sort of speech impairment in her early scenes, which later gives way to a case of the giggles and finally a sense of nonentity, period. An undeniably beautiful woman, she was in the middle of a very bad stage with regards to her hair and it looks horrible most of the time here. Some posters (including the one at the top of this post) tried to capitalize on her sizeable breasts that had caused such a stir in The Deep a few years earlier, but no one need bother to sit through this just to see her cleavage.

Somehow this film received an Oscar nomination for best costumes, even though most of the items in the film are not only vomitously ugly, but often inappropriate! Also, I cannot recall any other Hollywood film that features such ridiculous looking and acting extras. Most of the people look like they were given a 40% discount on their 50 and Over Bus Tour if they would stand around and sort of look concerned about dying any second.

The 2009 DVD at least presents a crisp, widescreen print which enhances things ever so slightly, but is lacking a good half hour of scenes, most of which had helped at least a little bit to flesh out the paper-thin characters and provide key information regarding their subplots! The film premiered at 121 minutes, but was expanded for TV (and VHS video) to 144 minutes. The DVD runs 109! This may make it more palatable for some viewers, but is a crime against people like myself who like our cinematic cheese in the largest possible chunks!

In the longer versions, it’s true that a lot of the footage is made up of crowd reactions to things and driving (driving, driving!) in caravan formation, but there are also significant revelations between the characters, including two people discovering that they are related to one another, and even a death scene that is only alluded to in the truncated cut. The two blessings of the 109 version is that Alex Karras’ cock-fighting scenes are greatly diminished while a scene between Franciscus and Hamel is actually a touch longer and includes them stepping into a shower together.

Costing close to $22 million to produce (with precious little of that showing on the screen. Star salaries ate up a healthy chunk of that amount.), the film made just over 1/20th of that at the box office, playing to almost vacant theaters before being yanked swiftly and clamping the lid on Allen's big screen days.

Newman regretted making this “volcano movie” as he termed it, but the salary he made for appearing in it went, in all or part, towards the setting up of his wonderful Newman’s Own company, which has down countless things for various educational and charitable groups over the years since its inception. That may be the only true good to ever have come from this apart from the mirth it has granted various snarky audience members.


Anonymous said...

Bisset looks like she's preparing to star in The Adrienne Barbeau Story!

Ask the Cool Cookie said...

Irwin Allen lived on Stradella Road in Bel Air for many, many years. My aunt and uncle lived next at 1040 Stradella (their lovely home, with the 50s island feel has been ruined by a "spanish" remodelling) and I remember being shown when I was about five where Mr. Allen lived. When the firse would strike the hills, Allen would bring over his major awards and ask for them to stored in my uncle's fire proof vault that was built into the house. The last time I was in LA when my uncle was still alive was 1995 and at that time Allen's son or grandson was living in the house. Two doors up the up Stradella was Harvey Korman's house - he too was a lovely human and generous.