“This used to be helluva town.” Earthquake (1974)
Preamble: California sits on the San Andreas Fault, an unfortunate geological fact that saw a few thousand people wiped out in a 1906 quake. Given the growing popularity of disaster flicks, it made perfect sense to depict a monster quake striking the state’s biggest city.
Is a doomsayer ignored? At the California Seismological Institute, a whippersnapper has already accurately predicted a sizable tremor, prompting him to send the big boss a memo containing some worrying stats. “I know you’ll laugh,” he tells a colleague, “But I think we’re gonna have a really big quake. Probably today, tomorrow at the latest.” The big boss, meanwhile, understandably hasn’t read the memo as he’s busy out in the field getting buried alive.
Most ridiculous character/relationship: Ex-footballer and ‘top man’ Charlton Heston is locked in a sour marriage with Ava Gardner. She often tries to get his attention with fake suicide attempts and weird lines like “Don’t you lower your voice to me!” Chuck copes with the stress of this disintegrating relationship by fucking a honey twenty years younger.
Meanwhile, Walther Matthau plays a garishly dressed drunk in a series of painfully unfunny scenes. Even when the quake is in full flow, his only concern is trying to get a shot of whiskey down his throat. “What do you have to do to get a drink round here?” he complains as the pub disintegrates and a barman gets crushed by falling masonry. Oh, my sides!
How do the special effects hold up? Although the earthquake takes more than fifty minutes to put in a proper appearance, it’s quite well done. Things convincingly shake, fall over, drop on screaming people and blow up. There’s nothing wrong with the scenes of mass panic. The bridge and building collapses are groovy. The stunts are well-handled. Buying a house on stilts in California is clearly not a wise investment while cleaning the external windows of a skyscraper during a quake should also be avoided. However, the ball is dropped when it comes to a packed elevator hurtling to the ground and we get cartoon blood splashed across the screen.
Is Kennedy, Borgnine or Heston in it? Kennedy is an angry, no-nonsense cop on the verge of quitting the force. Pre-quake, his disillusionment expresses itself by punching out a meddling fellow cop, assaulting a bloke in a pub, and being indifferent to a damaged hedge owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor. However, there are two times his otherwise relentless crustiness is interrupted. One involves rescuing a puppy, the other is when he gets mesmerized by Victoria Principal’s chest.
Heston is his usual square-jawed self while playing a construction engineer whose job involves quake-proofing buildings. “We never should’ve put up those 40-storey monstrosities,” he says at one point. “Not here.” Disaster flicks often like to position themselves as cautionary tales. Just compare Heston’s pithy observation to fire chief Steve McQueen telling architect Paul Newman in Towering Inferno: “You know, we were lucky tonight. The body count’s less than 200. One of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us” how to build them.”
Funniest deaths: A man manages to drown in an elevator. Somehow it continues to work after being flooded. Aren’t elevators electrical? Then a bunch of office workers flee down a shattered stairwell before running out of steps and jumping from a twenty-fifth story window to their doom in a brilliant impression of lemmings.
Who shits their pants or goes mad? Marjoe Gortner is a curly-haired grocery store manager who hates Hare Krishnas (fair enough) and also puts in shifts for the National Guard. He’s got a thing for Principal (fair enough) and her monstrous afro. His three knuckle-head housemates tease him about being a ‘soldier boy’ and a ‘fag’ as he has pictures of male bodybuilders adorning his bedroom wall. He doesn’t help matters by then slipping on his uniform and a short-haired blonde wig. “Is it true that blondes have more fun?” a so-called mate continues to goad. Well, I guess it depends on your idea of fun coz it’s not long before all three mates have turned into looters and been rounded up by the military authorities. “Scum like you think you can get away with anything!” Gortner barks before blowing them all away with a semi-automatic rifle in front of a handful of witnesses. Christ, he’s gone nuts! Wait a sec, his instantaneous spell of hardcore insanity isn’t over yet. He’s now trying to rape Principal, who’s attempting to avoid such an indignity by claiming her brother is in the Mafia.
Does a child die? The main threat to pre-pubescent life takes the form of a kiddie getting trapped in a dam’s concrete spillway while surrounded by dancing, spitting electrical cables. Result? Near-immediate rescue, mild shock and concussion, reunion with ever so grateful mum. Very poor.
Worst lines: A tremor causes a pool player to fluff a shot. His opponent won’t let him retake it. “Hey, nothing in the rule book about earthquakes,” he says. I think you’ll find this statement is correct. They then proceed to have a ‘comedic’ bar room brawl.
Elsewhere, Kennedy is consoling the hysterical Principal after shooting her National Guard would-be rapist. “Earthquakes bring out the worst in some guards, that’s all,” he blithely tells her.
The inevitable self-sacrifice: After spending a fair chunk of the runtime being pissed off at his loopy missus, Heston then decides to die by her side instead of letting her check out alone. Love, eh?
What does the token black do? As played by Shaft’s Richard Roundtree, he’s a motorcycle daredevil dressed in yellow and black leathers. His character is mildly obsessed with dissing that show-off Evel Knievel, although he stops short of insisting, he’s got a bigger cock. Roundtree is planning a fancy new show complete with loop-the-loops and fiery rings, but the quake puts an end to his planned bout of showing off. Afterwards he sulks for a couple of minutes and then rescues a half-conscious child and panicking mum. Post-earthquake, he doesn’t do any motorcycle stunts whatsoever which, of course, begs the question: Why give him such an unusual job in the first place? He could’ve been a plumber or baker with the same result.
Conclusion: The ten-minute quake is cool, the other 110 minutes not so much. Oh, and I think I’ll be respectful to the next grocery store manager I meet, no matter what hairdo he’s sporting.