I Feel the Earth Move: Earthquake! and the Disaster of Marjoe Gortner
First: Thanks to James for the link. He explains in today's Bleat a bit more about why he doesn't like Towering Inferno, but that's an issue I'll address later. Also, I have to revise my list of disaster movies - I am no longer going to include animal/insects run amok as being in the disaster genre. In fact, they will get their own series when I'm done with the disaster theme.
Today is Earthquake day, and Part II in the Disaster! series.
So much makes sense about this movie when you read the IMDB listing. Director Mark Robson's previous credits include Valley of the Dolls and Peyton Place. It was written by - and I didn't know this until now - Mario Puzo of Godfather fame. All this perhaps explains the melodrama that threatens to turn this disaster flick into a soap opera with the shakes.
But - before the drama, before the disturbing sexual undertones, before the Evil Kneivel rip off scenes, we must address the issue of Sensurround.
Earthquake was intended from the start to be more than just another disaster story. It was supposed to be revolutionary, bringing interaction to movie theaters so viewers can do more than watch the movie - they could feel it. In a pre-cursor to the days of being rained upon with toast and water during midnight screenings of Rocky Horror, the Earthquake audience was originally supposed to have Styrofoam blocks bounced off their heads during key scenes. I kid you not. Other ideas:
- Use live actors in full makeup running out from around the screen, emerging from the disaster
- Show slides of earthquake destruction on the theatre walls during the big quake
- Divert the projected image on screen to the ceiling and walls during the quake.
The only interactive idea that made it to the theaters was Sensurround.
According to Halliwell's Film Companion the process involved "the augmentation of violent action on screen by intense waves of high decibel sound, enough, in some documented cases, to crack ribs."
Basically, Sensurround was the equivalent (at the time) of turning Grand Funk Railroad's American Band up all the way, with the bass on high and the treble on low, until your mother started screaming from the living room that the couch was moving by itself.
Specifically developed by Universal Studios sound engineers W. O. Watson and Richard Stumpf for the theatrical release of "Earthquake," Sensurround essentially created subsonic, low-frequency vibrations between 5 and 40 cycles at sound pressures of 110-120 decibels, causing the audience to feel low vibrations during the main earthquake and dam collapse.
Exactly. There were two problems with this. One, the theater obviously had to be equipped with the right speaker system and accessories for the effects to work. Would the movie draw in enough of a crowd to make purchasing a Sensurround system worth it? Hey, it was the 70's. We were all about cheap and cheesy gimmicks. So most of the big theaters at the time bought into the fad and presented Earthquake in Sensurround.
In the days before multiplexes, the larger movie venues had two full sized theaters, side by side. At the time these theaters were playing Earthquake, with all of its shaking and rumbling, they were also showing Godfather II. Unfortunately, the Godfather II audience was treated to the shakes and rumbling of the Earthquake audience.
I know it was you Fredo. Rumble. You broke my heart. RUMBLE. You broke my heart! Seats shake. Sodas tumble. Pacino emotes as the movie goers wonder what the hell is going on.
So Sensurround had its problems. But that didn't stop the fans from coming out in droves to see an otherwise unspectacular movie, nor did it stop them from using Sensurround again.
Now, if all this sounds exciting to you, let me assure you that you didn't miss much. I actually saw Earthquake in Sensurround and all it did was make me anxious. What if there is a real earthquake outside while this is going on in here? We'd never know. We'd think it was part of the movie and we'd just die right here in the theater with sticky floors and dirty seats and a mouthful of popcorn and we'd never, ever know that it was all real. My reminded me that we were in New York, where there really isn't an earthquake problem and then promptly told me to shut up and enjoy the movie.
Ah, the movie. Yes, there was a plot to go with the gimmick. It had all the markings of a disaster flick. Airport survivor George Kennedy. Skyjacked and Soylent Green hero Charlton Heston. A beautiful woman. The beautiful, yet cheated on wife. The kid in peril. The stalwart authority figure. Add to this standard list of characters a motorcyle daredevil, Victoria Prinicipal with a 'fro and Ava Gardner (born 1922) playing Lorne Greene's (born 1915) daughter.
There were so many subplots in this movie, you almost forgot that you were waiting for an earthquake to happen. Everything is shot in wide angle, so you feel like you're viewing the movie from a vast distance, which takes away any modicum of suspense the film should have. And when the quake finally made its appearance - an hour into the film, after the soap opera plot lines are established - it wasn't the Sensurround that got you shaking, but the laughter that ensued when the special effects were found to be not so special. There was once scene in particular where a man was standing in front of a crumbling office building and was hit in the head with a huge boulder. Which bounced right off of him. There were really bad attempts at blood and gore as well as misplaced cows. People were dying, choas was ensuing, fires were erupting and we, the audience, were giggling. Not a good sign.
Between all the death and destruction, you had some guy with a case of sever angst over his motorcyle jumping career, Victoria Princicpal being sexually assaulted by the creeptastic Marjoe Gortner, Heston having to choose between saving his lover or his wife, a cameo in which Walter Matthau is dressed like a pimp, and dialogue like Give me your panty hose, damnit!
Let's talk a bit more about Mr. Gortner. You see, I've had nightmares about him. Although Marjoe didn't have much of a career after Earthquake (he was in another favorite cheese film of mine, Food of the Gods), his role in this movie left an indelible impression on me. I think I could walk the halls of a thousand prisons and never come across anyone that more terrifying than Gortner. And it's not just the character he plays in Earthquake (who goes by the rather non-threatening name of Jody) that makes me squirm, it's him. No, I don't know anything about him. I don't know what he's like in real life. But the creepiness that exudes from that face transcends the silver screen. Yes, I'll always remember the terrifying moment in Earthquake when the little boy almost got electrocuted, and I'll never forget Heston's torn between two lovers moment, nor the upside down cows in the truck or the elevator scene where the dead man takes a breath or Richard Roundtree's lightning bolt jumpsuit or Victoria Principal's tight t-shirt. But it will always be Gortner's Jody that will define this movie for me. Perhaps he was a metaphor for the earthquake itself - a predator, a destroyer of lives. Yes, that's it! The movie was not as bad as you all think because it worked on so many different levels!
Ok, not really. This movie really is bad. It's a disaster movie in all ways. Yet, every time it's on tv (usually during some AMC disasterthon) I watch it from beginning to end. Oh, I have to avert my eyes when Gornter eats up the screen, lest I have a repeat of those nightmares in which Jody corners me in a grocery store and threatens me with a cucumber, but I still manage to get through all of it, flying chunks of Styrofoam concrete and all. And that, movie fans, is what makes a film rise one level above suck.
If you haven't seen Earthquake, rent it. Don't buy it. Unless, like me, you're a sucker for Richard Roundtree in a jumpsuit.
[all images from earthquakemovie.com]