Friday, August 11, 2006

Damnation Alley: I love it when an apocalypse comes together

In the Dark Ages before home video (that'd be the seventies and early eighties, pilgrims) the most potent schlock cinema infusion around came from my local movie theaters. As a kid I learned quickly that the neighborhood screens formed a decided pecking order--sort of a hierarchy of crap. This gave you a gauge as to just how crappy a movie would be before you saw it.

The chain theaters (which included the embryonic beginnings of the multiplexes) pumped out the obligatory ration of mainstream product, with occasional flashes of sci-fi, horror or exploitation weirdness surfacing if a chain programmer saw some serious profit potential from a particular film (Halloween and Porky's, for example, both made the leap straight into nice theaters throughout the greater Northwest despite their bargain-basement pedigrees). Then Tacoma's Starlite Drive-In and the much-celebrated (in this Blog, at least) Parkland Theater peddled more consistently exploitive and crappy wares, usually securing B flicks for limited one-week runs.

But if you were an army brat like me, and you wanted a hit of real crap--movies so obscure and/or so bad that even the Parkland and the Starlite avoided booking them-- you hit the military theaters.

The movie houses located at Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base were all single-screeners at the time, and the near-captive audience of GI's stuck on-base wouldn't sit still for the same damned movie showing for weeks on end. This meant that the base theaters were forced to rotate their schedules almost daily, and second-run mainstream movies could only carry so much of the load.

If you followed the printed McChord and Fort Lewis movie schedules, you could see a half-dozen different varieties of schlock in just a few days of on-site theater hopping in the mid-to-late seventies. And if you were as much of a mole as I was, you knew that most of these fetid little cinema morsels were so obscure that you'd likely never get a second chance to see them.

Damnation Alley, a 1977 post-apocalyptic science fiction epic, was one such discovery. Loosely based on a celebrated novel by sci-fi veteran Roger Zelazny, bankrolled by a big studio (Twentieth-Century Fox), and featuring a pretty high-profile-at-the-time cast, the movie was unleashed in 1977 with some pretty high expectations, but within two weeks it was inhabiting the lower rungs of drive-in double features and--you guessed it--doing a one-night stand at one of the military theaters in Fort Lewis.

This pre-Star Wars science-fiction artifact surfaced once on network TV in the seventies, received the briefest of VHS releases in the early eighties, then all but faded into oblivion. It has yet to pop up on DVD, so you coulda knocked me over with a feather when it turned up on Encore's Retroplex channel this last weekend. And yes, you can bet the farm and all livestock that I watched it again, for the first time since I was nine years old.

World War III drops square in the world's lap, and most of the good old US of A looks like a french fry caught in the bottom of a McDonald's oil vat for too long. A small handful of air force servicemen hole up in their secluded Arizona underground military base for awhile until one of their number falls asleep with a lit cigarette, a canister of explosive gas, and an old issue of Playboy and accidentally blows up this state-of-the-art facility (you don't have to believe me if you don't want to).

Led by Major Denton (George Peppard), four of the surviving personnel flee the Air Force Base in the safety of two armored and virtually impregnible Landmaster vehicles, searching for the source of a possible survivor's radio signal out of Albany, New York. The remainder of Damnation Alley then moves episodically through various points of cataclysmic interest, with highlights including: Giant mutant scorpions, hordes of flesh-eating cockroaches, scabby-faced horny radioactive hillbillies, colorful skyline opticals straight outta Logan's Run, and a big ol' flood (in which a nifty-but-unconvincing miniature of one Landmaster bobs around alongside some HO-scale Tyco Railroad flora).

In addition to the aforementioned laundry list of woe, Damnation Alley sports plenty of distinctively, dubiously Seventies pleasures that appreciate considerably with the benefit of hindsight. Director Jack Smight's clearly attempting to engineer the ultimate seventies crowd-pleaser here: you've got your natural disasters, your penis-envy monster vehicle (which still inspires its own cult), motorcycle chases, Deliverance-style city-slicker/radioactive hick sparring, and just enough cautionary ecological finger-wagging to frost the cake.

Heading up the cast, Peppard's fearless leader character serves as an amusingly southern-fried dry run to The A-Team's Hannibal Smith. And I've always had a soft spot for Jan-Michael Vincent, who pissed away his once-pistol-hot career on a gradual succession of lousy movies and excess. Imagine a more schleppily endearing Brad Pitt with fewer pockmarks, worse luck, lousier agents, and a more foolishly addictive personality and you're about there.

Paul Winfield pops up as testimony to Seventies Schlock Commandment Number Four: Namely, (SPOILER ALERT!) The Brother's Gotta Die Early, Even If He's an Oscar Nominee. Everyman-handsome character guy Kip Niven (most famous as the young seismologist who predicts--then gets unceremoniously squashed by--the titular natural phenomenon in Earthquake) pops up as testimony to Seventies Schlock Commandment Number Eight: Namely, Kip Niven's Gotta Die Early, Even If He's Driving. Jackie Earle Haley holds up the Spunky Ugly Seventies Kid flag ably. And Mork and Mindy fans, take note! Exeter himself, Robert Donner, menaces our heroes as one of the aforementioned scabby-faced horny radioactive hillbillies.

The oddest duck in this flock of very odd thespian fowl, French siren Dominique Sanda, plays Vincent's love interest. Only in the seventies could a rising star on the international film scene go from netting a Cannes Festival prize to dodging carnivorous cockroaches on a dirtbike with Jan-Michael Vincent in the space of a single year.

All this tangential ratchet-jawing, and I haven't even really given anything resembling an actual review here, which probably speaks volumes. I had the good fortune of re-watching the movie alongside my very movie-savvy wife and a whole roomful of funny (and very movie-savvy) friends, which boosted its appeal immensely, but for the uninitiated, it'd be a tougher call. As a nostalgia trip, and as an archtypical specimen of its era, Damnation Alley delivers. But it occupies a strange aesthetic niche by being neither as lousy as, nor as entertaining as, its cheapest and cheesiest brethren. The mind boggles contemplating what hackmeister par excellance Irwin Allen coulda done with it.

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