Tuesday, April 12, 2011
CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Damnation Alley (1977)
In the year 1977, executives at 20th Century Fox believed very firmly that that they were sitting on the science fiction gold mine of the year.
And it wasn't George Lucas's Star Wars they were so revved up about, but rather Jack Smight's Damnation Alley, a loose adaptation of Roger Zelazny's 1969 post-apocalyptic novel.
One can comprehend their confidence. In terms of subject matter, Damnation Alley was far more in keeping with the post-apocalyptic feel of the disco decade and then-popular genre films such as Logan's Run (1976). Even more than that, Damnation Alley boasted a relatively large budget at seventeen million dollars, compared to Star Wars' ten million.
Of course, history pulled a twist ending on these men at 20th Century Fox.
Upon release, Star Wars promptly re-defined the genre film (and the blockbuster...) and Damnation Alley simply crashed and burned. Today, the Smight film isn't even commercially available on DVD, which is a shame.
Nor is Damnation Alley highly regarded by most critics or fans. The New York Times wrote on the film's release in October of 1977 that "the only real value of "Damnation Alley" is educational: This is the movie to see if you don't understand what was so wonderful about the special effects in, say, "Star Wars." Here, the sky features streaks of red and blue light that make it look like a giant Rya rug, and it actually moves in relation to the equally phony-looking landscape." The same review noted that the Smight film appeared to have been shot "through a used coffee filter."
Still, this much is certain: if you were a kid growing up in the 1970s, you still can't help but love the film, at least a little bit. Or more accurately, love a very particular aspect of Damnation Alley.
That aspect is called "the Landmaster," and it is the silver, dozen-wheeled, rocket-launcher-armed conveyance that is at the center of gravity in an otherwise-middling post-apocalyptic film. You might laugh or sneer at Damnation Alley's lousy special effects, the goofy science or the occasionally ridiculous dialogue, but the Landmaster -- a "great rig" -- is undeniably one of the science fiction cinema's most memorable and impressive rides (and, after a fashion, a precursor to Dead Reckoning in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead ). There are fans out there who have devoted their adult lives to the study of this vehicle, and I can't blame them.
Otherwise, Damnation Alley -- starring George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent -- is one of those films that fans absolutely want to love, and still remember fondly in terms of nostalgia but which, sadly, doesn't truly hold up as an artistic endeavor, or even, really, as high entertainment.
"The whole town is infested with killer cockroaches..."
Damnation Alley tells a frightening tale of technological apocalypse. One day in the 20th century, at an air-force base in the desert, two officers, Major Eugene Denton (Peppard) and Tanner (Michael Vincent) receive news that a foreign power has launched a significant nuclear strike on America. The two men are responsible for launching the American counter-strike, which they do, dutifully. But American missiles only knock out approximately 40% of the approaching nukes.
Smight soon takes us inside a control room, where we see digital representations of the missiles on final approach, a visual that looks a lot like Atari's later video game, Missile Command. A voice on the radio announces as American city after American city is hit in the atomic deluge. Boston, Philadelphia, Trenton, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Portland, Denver, St. Louis, Washington D.C...
These early moments give one a sense of confidence about the film. The unthinkable occurs, right out of the blue, and Smight keeps the tone all business. The characters boast a kind of terse, bloodless response to their grim assignment, and the tone, is chilling, unsettling, and probably more or less accurate. Military men such as these guys are supposed to keep focused in an emergency such as this, carrying out their directives. They can't break down and weep, or act hysterically. There's a sort of straight-faced bluntness about Damnation Alley's opening exchange that is compelling, or at least successfully holds the interest. Though there's no political context or motivation provided for the nuclear war, the attack is chillingly believable. Men working in a silo wouldn't necessarily know the whys or hows of an enemy attack, simply their responsibility in such an eventuality.
After the nuclear war, the Earth's axis shifts, and the sky overhead changes to weird, alien hues. Storms, "radioactive dust," and "a climate gone insane" become part of the norm. The film cuts to a long view of the damaged Earth and "angry skies," and again, the artistry involved in forging the moment is pretty impressive. Jerry Goldsmith's effective score pulses mysteriously, the images in the sky seem alien and unsettling, and a welcome sense of anticipation hangs over the movie.
Unfortunately, the rest of Damnation Alley can't live up to the promising opening.
Tanner, Denton, and two other men, Keegan (Paul Winfield) and Perry (Kip Niven) are among the survivors of the nuclear war. After two years, and a deadly explosion at the missile silo, they venture out into the wilderness in two souped-up, armored vehicles called Landmasters. They plan to make a survival run for Albany, the "only place" Denton ever received a signal from after the war.
But to reach distant Albany, the Landmasters must take the path of least resistance, which Denton terms "Damnation Alley," because it is prone to storms and other environmental dangers. Fortunately, the Landmaster can handle a sixty degree incline, and even operate in water (and under water too...).
On the journey, one landmaster is lost, and Perry is killed during a violent storm. The Landmaster crew makes for Las Vegas -- half-buried in the sand -- and finds another survivor: a showgirl/singer named Janice (Dominique Sanda).
Their discovery of this woman makes for the film's best sequence, perhaps. Tanner, Keegan and Denton run into a casino (where all the lights are still mysteriously working...) to play the machines and score a jackpot. At first, they play cautiously. And then they do so with an increasing sense of freedom and "escape." On the soundtrack, we begin to hear the hollers of a casino crowd growing louder; as if the survivors are somehow bringing the dead culture back to life The short scene, splendidly cut, nicely suggests the loneliness and emptiness of the survivor's lives, at least for an instant. Then, Janice is spotted, and the sound returns to "normal." It's back to reality...but one that's looking up.
Later, another danger emerges on the post apocalyptic landscape: carnivorous cockroaches! Keegan is eaten alive by the swarming insects, and Tanner, Denton and Janice continue towards Albany.
Further towards Detroit, the survivors come across a lonely boy, Billy (Jackie Earle Haley), who has become adept at using rocks as a weapon. His skills come in handy when the group encounters a group of irradiated, mutant hillbillies who want to take liberties with Janice.
Finally, after stopping at a junkyard to fix the Landmaster, the survivors brace for another terrible storm; one so fierce it sets the Earth back on the correct axis.
After this final storm, blue skies return over America, and the survivors aboard the Landmaster at long last reach Albany, a pastoral community populated by friendly, healthy survivors...
"Everybody out for Disneyland"
Today, the biggest problem with Damnation Alley is that it seems cobbled together; poorly edited.
The film leaps --often without appropriate transition -- from scene-to-scene, an approach which gives the audience no time to put each moment in perspective, or ponder the previous scene's importance.
Instead, the movie seems a poorly-stitched together tapestry of vaguely connected interludes; the next no more meaningful, thrilling, or interesting than the last. The film also seems strangely repetitive. Every sequence seems an excuse to get Jan Michael Vincent back on his motorcycle. In fact, you could probably start a drinking game based on the number of times the plot's forward momentum stops and Vincent speeds around on his bike.
The sense of a weak narrative careening out-of-control is further augmented by the film's generally poor visual effects. Early in the film, for instance, Tanner navigates a desert populated with giant scorpions. Not only are the perspectives in these scenes way off (with the motorcycle actually seeming to ride over the scorpions in some instances...) but the foreground and background elements do not match up in terms of film grain and contrast. The scorpion -- real creatures filmed at close-up range -- are abundantly clear and crisp in presentation; while Jan Michael Vincent and the background components seem to be lurking in a sand-storm, appearing grainier and more diffuse than the giant rampaging threats. Hence the "used coffee filter" look.
Near the end of the film, a storm at the Detroit junkyard is presented in what can only be termed incoherent fashion. One moment, it's night, and we're gazing at an angry sky through the Landmaster windshield. The next moment, it seems to be day, and flood waters are coursing through a canyon, or desert terrain, one seemingly unconnected and unrelated to the Detroit junkyard. Then, before you can guess what's happened, the Landmaster is entirely submerged in a body of water the size of an ocean, but all the surrounding cars of the junkyard have miraculously vanished.
Even the killer cockroaches fail to visually convince. Again, the editing is so slipshod that there are times you can make out that the bugs are just non-moving "dummies" being dragged on a long, narrow, wooden board.
Such effects flaws might be overlooked more readily if there was some overwhelming sense of danger, importance or even inter-connection in most of the film's dramatic scenes. But there isn't: the movie just pops from set-piece to set-piece without really mining any of them for emotional or dramatic content.
One can see, just a little, what the filmmakers seemed to be going for. After a terrible world war wipes out most of the world, the film wants to focus on the essentials -- the building blocks --of re-constructing the human civilization.
We start with men, then add a woman, and finally a child. Before long there's an ad-hoc family built from the wreckage of the civilization. Following the construction of this "new" family, a safe home or harbor is introduced in pastoral Albany. The pieces are coming together, in other words, for a re-birth. It's not an entirely uninteresting dynamic, yet the film takes no chances either (unlike, say, The World, The Flesh and the Devil ) At one point, there are three adult men and one woman living together inside the Landmaster, and yet nobody makes overtures, inappropriate or otherwise, towards Janice. This isn't very realistic or likely.
But again, Damnation Alley seems to be striving for the re-building of the nuclear family rather than focusing on human sexual drives or other conflicts. At one point, Denton actually goes over shower schedules, and states, "Everybody out for Disneyland," deliberately likening the survival run to Albany to some sort of (admittedly-nightmarish) family vacation in a kitted-up RV.
The film's science can't exactly be happily praised, either. In two years time following a nuclear holocaust, the world spits up gigantic scorpions in the desert? Fine, I'm willing to buy that (if I have to), but then why not giant cockroaches in the next sequence, instead of regular-sized ones? Again, it seems a hodgepodge of ideas. Either radioactive insects and monsters are gargantuan, or they are not.
More to the point, very little of America seems actually destroyed by the nuclear holocaust. Vegetation still grows abundantly (at least near Albany) and nobody worries for even a moment about radiation exposure, or fresh water, despite the fact that the murderous mutant hillbillies seem to be suffering from some kind of sickness. They have bloody sores on their faces; and that fact alone would send me scurrying back inside the Landmaster.
Damnation Alley could have followed Zelazny's (excellent) novel. The moviemakers had a template and compelling narrative to follow in the source material, but they ignore it in favor of a loosely-held together storyline that doesn't present compelling characters, very intriguing situations, or even much believability.
The primary reason that some folks like me remember and enjoy Damnation Alley, beyond the wonderful Landmaster, is that the idea of the post-apocalyptic road trip is purely and simply intriguing. It's kind of a reverse-frontier story, with brave men heading...back east, after the frontier has been obliterated. This kind of idea -- of a journey through a post-apocalyptic terrain is enormously intriguing, and clearly fascinated many writers in the 1970s. Damnation Alley featured the concept and so did the Saturday morning series, Ark II. Even Logan's Run: The Series, was about navigating a "destroyed" world in a traveling home, a souped-up hover craft. But in one way or another, all of these productions also owed something to Star Trek, because they involved "civilizations of the week" sprouting up out of the ruins. It wasn't until films such as The Road Warrior (1981), generally, that a much-needed sense of savagery was added to the post-apocalyptic "road" scenario. Damnation Alley, to its detriment, does feel like a harmless ride through Disneyland.
It's hard to not to boast affection for a film that features the Landmaster, Jan Michael Vincent, James Earle Haley, George Peppard, Paul Winfield and killer cockroaches. I do, in fact, boast a lot of nostalgia for this film and its central vehicle. I just wish, in this case, the nostalgia could be coupled with a sense of admiration for the film's quality.
Damnation Alley is pretty damned silly. But the Landmaster, designed by Dean Jefferies, remains thoroughly impressive. I leave this review, therefore, with a few more images of this classic sci-fi ride. Even today, she's a post-apocalyptic beauty.