Blogger Stacie Ponder's horror columns appear every Wednesday.
Last month I went to see Disaster Movie and it was, in a word, dreadful. What bothered me most wasn't the endless parade of pop culture references or even the jokes that made me want to set my fists on fire and punch myself in the face; no, the biggest affront was that this so-called "disaster" "movie" isn't a spoof on disaster movies. It's got an earthquake and an asteroid, sure, but it lacks the disaster film structure and therefore it just ain't right, satirically or otherwise. It's got a couple of parts, but it lacks the whole -- I mean, I may have some sneakers and a copy of Spice World, but this doesn't make me Sporty Spice, you know?
Shut up, I love Spice World.
A Formula for Disaster
While the catastrophes found in disaster flicks vary wildly, the basic formula rarely does. The first half hour or so introduces us to all the dramatis personae we'll be following through the disaster and out the other side -- and usually it's an all-star cast bursting with mega-watt star power. It takes a big budget bloater like, say, The Concorde: Airport '79 to bring together actors ranging from Mercedes McCambridge to Jimmie Walker to Cicely Tyson...to make you slap your forehead and exclaim "Why aren't Charo and Martha Raye in every single movie I watch? Thank you, Airport '79!"
Some characters to look out for include the couple going through strife, but who manage to resolve their difference when the tornado/hurricane/swarm of bees makes them realize just much they have got to lose/come close to losing it. Similarly, there are the crazy kids who meet and (immediately) fall in love
amidst all the chaos. And keep your eyes peeled for my absolute favorite character: The eccentric science-ologist who warns the authorities of the impending tidal wave/earthquake/solar flare, but who's never taken seriously until it's too late. When the mayor or the governor finally asks for help, the science-ologist must then do something risky to save the day, a task which sometimes involves wearing goggles, operating large machinery, or creating a tornado to counterbalance an impending hurricane.
Once the characters have all been established, it's time to add the disaster, be it natural or man-made. There are countless permutations, so when you hit the video store for a doomsday film, you simply need to ask yourself: "Do I want to see people flee from Mother Nature, or from man's own hubris?" These are some of my favorites across all types of disaster film; most of them from the genre's heyday, the 1970s.
Earthquake - This movie truly has it all: Disaster movie mainstay, tough guy George Kennedy; Charlton Heston as our noble engineer hero; Ava Gardner as his shrewy, boozed up, cross-eyed wife; and Victoria Principal sporting an afro and black leather. There's a huge amount of carnage in this one, the highlight of which is undoubtedly the obligatory "elevator collapse" scene, which features cartoon blood splashing on the camera.
Twister - Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton take on double duty as both science-ologists and estranged spouses in this mid-'90s film that reinvigorated the disaster genre and introduced the world to CGI tornadoes.
- Man, who wasn't afraid of Ebola 15 years ago? It was the Bird Flu of
the '90s, the virus that was being hailed as the one that would wipe
out mankind but good! I didn't breathe at all during the summer of '95
for fear of contracting it. Outbreak didn't help allay any
fears, as it showed the fictional Motaba virus spreading like wildfire
after some jerk coughs in a movie theater.
The Towering Inferno - Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) gets ticked off when construction on the Glass Tower doesn't adhere to his design specifications. Will the greedy developer rue the day he cut corners on safety to satiate his... uh, greedy nature? The title totally gives it away!
The Swarm - Disaster movie director/producer extraordinaire brought the world what is truly the best bad movie about killer bees with this overwrought, bombastic spectacle. Michael Caine shouts his way through 156 minutes accompanied by the like of Slim Pickens, Patty Duke, and Olivia de Havilland. The only true disaster-cum-animals-run-amok flick, The Swarm hurts oh so good.
The Day After - Man, who wasn't afraid of nuclear holocaust 25 years ago? Russia and the United States blast each other to oblivion...almost. People actually survive the attack, and we follow along as various families fight to survive and suffer radiation sickness. Somehow this is far more depressing than cartoon blood splash on the camera.
The Poseidon Adventure - Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and other all-star survivors try to escape certain doom when they're trapped inside a capsized ocean liner. In addition to that killer premise, The Poseidon Adventure boasts a sweet tagline: "Hell, Upside Down!"
Airport - Ah, the one that started it all! Airport was a massive box office success in 1970 and would go on to spawn three sequels. It's impossible to pick a favorite out of the four films: Airport features Helen Hayes as a stowaway, but Airport '77 features the Bermuda Triangle. Airport 1975 has stewardess Karen Black flying the plane, but Concorde: Airport '79 has Charo being Charo. At least they all feature George Kennedy. I really can't choose- please don't make me. I love all my babies equally.
There's just something about the overwrought, overblown spectacle of a disaster movie that gives me the warm fuzzies. Is that weird? Is it wrong that I love seeing an afro-ed Victoria Principal dodging falling debris as Los Angeles buckles under The Big One, or Gene Hackman railing against God while Shelley Winters swims her heart out in "Hell, Upside Down"? Eh. It can't be any more bizarre than liking Spice World.
A fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she'd have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules. She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor's edge of danger and intrigue.