In my review of Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release of the 1979 disaster film "Meteor", I observed that the disaster movie genre had peaked with the release of Irwin Allen's "The Towering Inferno" in 1974. Yet, that didn't stop studios from beating a dead horse in an attempt to squeeze some more juice out of the tried-and-true formula of gathering an all-star cast, then figuring out ways to drown, bury or incinerate the characters portrayed on screen. One of the more obscure attempts to keep the disaster film cycle relevant was "Avalanche", a movie produced by Roger Corman and directed and scripted by one of his proteges, Corey Allen, who would go on to establish a respectable career as a director of major television shows. When you approach a Corman production, you tend to give some special dispensation for certain cinematic sins that you wouldn't accord more mainstream productions. Corman, who happily embraces his legendary status as a man who made major profits from films with minor budgets, knew how to stretch the soup in the cinematic sense. Rarely armed with ample production funds, Corman cut corners whenever possible but still managed to retain a certain elegance to his productions. In 1978, he jumped on the fading disaster movie bandwagon with "Avalanche". He hired Rock Hudson as the leading man because Hudson, at this point in his career, realized that he was no longer a hot commodity as a boxoffice draw in feature films (although he did successfully transition to a popular presence on television.) Corman also cast Mia Farrow and respected supporting actor Robert Forster for additional name recognition. He secured permission to film at a major ski resort in Durango, Colorado and out-sourced the special effects work to a company called Excelsior!
The film follows the general formula of the disaster film genre in that the victims-to-be are gathered for a major social occasion, unaware that nature is working overtime to thwart their fun. Rock Hudson plays David Shelby, an arrogant developer who has invested his life savings to build a vacation paradise in the Rocky Mountains. He has disdain for local environmentalists who have warned him that his destruction of an an abundance of trees on his massive property has removed a natural barrier to the inevitable avalanches that will occur. Shelby is preoccupied with his grand opening festivities and is simultaneously trying to woo back his ex-wife Caroline (Mia Farrow), who is attending as his guest. He's also busy trying to entertain his sassy, wise-cracking mother, Florence (Jeanette Nolan), who is being shepherded around the resort by David's major domo Henry McDade (Steve Franken in a rare dramatic role.) Meanwhile, local environmental activist and nature photographer Nick Thorne (Robert Forster) becomes increasingly concerned about the massive buildup of snow on the mountain peaks that are directly in line with the resort. He attempts to alleviate some of the danger by strategically using a snow cannon to set off controlled mini avalanches. Intermingled with all of this are the expected subplots involving minor characters who are set up to be inevitable victims. Barry Primus is a TV sports announcer who is broadcasting from the grand opening and who must contend with the fact that his estranged wife Tina (Cathey Paine) is on premises and rubbing his nose in it by blatantly carrying on an affair with egotistical super star skier Bruce Scott (Rick Moses). Scott, in turn, is rubbing Tina's nose in it by blatantly sleeping with another woman, thus causing Tina to go ballistic and consider suicide. Meanwhile, David Shelby finds time to unwind by spending some quality time in a hot tub with with his naked secretary (thus allowing Roger Corman to slip in a bit of T&A). Although the story seems set up to have the disastrous avalanche occur during the opening night festivities, screenwriter Allen throws the audience a curve ball by avoiding that cliche and saving the action for the following afternoon when, amid a particularly vicious snow mobile race, a small plane piloted by one of Shelby's employees encounters bad weather and slams into a nearby mountain, thus triggering the avalanche. This is where the movie progresses beyond cliches and becomes unexpectedly enjoyable. All of the standard disaster movie shtick is present, as both lovable and loathsome characters meet predictable fates, but the film's limited production resources somehow work in its favor. We're well aware that we're watching a Corman production but somehow the inventiveness that is required to carry it all off is quite admirable. Certain plot points are introduced and inexplicably abandoned including an insinuation that Shelby has bribed local political officials to overlook his clear violation of environmental protection rules in order to build his resort. This was one of Rock Hudson's final films as an "above the title" leading man. He's grayer and a bit paunchier than we'd seen him during his heyday, but he still had star power to spare and made for a dashing leading man, whether its skinny dipping in the hot tub or personally leading rescue parties in acts of derring doo to extricate victims of the tragedy. The film's showpiece sequence is a climactic scene in which Shelby must rescue Caroline, who is dangling from wrecked bridge above a ravine. It's well-directed and genuinely suspenseful.
It' easy to pick apart a film like "Avalanche", as it squarely fits into the "guilty pleasure" category. However, the film does a lot with very little as opposed to other misfires in this genre that did very little with a lot (aka "The Swarm"). The Kino Lorber Blu-ray edition features the original trailer and a "making of" featurette in which Roger Corman extols the virtues of the film. He admits the effects were rather shoddy and recalls his outrage when he discovered the SFX company had added "red snow". Corman hit the roof and it was changed to a bluish substance that he admits still looks pretty phony. Robert Forster recalls that the "snow" was actually little pieces of plastic that were strewn by the hundreds of thousands over the scenic landscape. He remembers his dismay at the realization that none of these bits were biodegradable and many must still be contaminating the landscape of the Durango ski resort where the movie was filmed. Corman makes the claim that the film was actually a major financial success. He says his budget was only $1.7 million and that a TV sale for $2 million netted him an immediate $300,000 profit. The tale sounds a bit fanciful because it seems hard to believe that even in 1978 you could make a movie like this with three relatively big names for only $1.7 million. (Other sources give unsubstantiated estimates of the budget at around $6 million, which seems more plausible.) "Avalanche" is not near the top of the heap of disaster movies but it certainly doesn't rank at the bottom of the pack, either. The Kino Lorber release has an impressive transfer and the inclusion of those bonus extras make this title highly recommended for fans of this genre.