On Feb 8, 1978, more than 800 residents lined the street in front of the Strater Hotel, hoping to be in an avalanche. Not a real one but a cinematic one – the film “Avalanche,” directed by Corey Allen. That day, the film crew was looking for local stand-ins for actors including the film’s star, Rock Hudson.
Filmed between Feb. 22 and March 26, 1978, at the Tamarron Ski and Golf Resort, the film follows an array of characters who converge at the resort for its grand opening. Hudson plays David Shelby, the resort’s wealthy owner, and Mia Farrow stars as his ex-wife, Caroline Brace. Robert Forster co-stars as Nick Thorne, an environmental photographer who tries to warn the resort-goers that the mountain is unsafe. As per usual in a disaster film, the warnings are ignored as everyone focuses on their own personal dramas. One thing leads to another, and the titular avalanche finally destroys the resort, setting off a series of further disasters.
“Avalanche” was released in August 1978 but failed to gain much attention. The few figures available indicate that the film probably broke even on a $6.5 million budget. It was then largely forgotten for almost 40 years until April 2017, when it was featured for comedic riffing on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on Netflix.
Choosing DurangoIn an interview with The Durango Herald, Roger Corman, executive producer of “Avalanche,” said the script came from an idea he had. While scouting locations, Corman chose Tamarron because of its unique features.
“I liked the ski resort and also the relationship of it to the mountains around it because it had to be in a position where an avalanche would actually hit the resort headquarters, the hotel and so forth,” he said. “In a lot of places, the hotel is a little distance from the actual ski area. We needed proximity, so the avalanche would hit the hotel – which we did just slightly with artificial snow machines, and then we did the key shots with special effects.”
Key members of the crew arrived from Hollywood, but the film staffed much of the crew with residents, Corman said. Durango carpenters and electricians were put to work as grips and gaffers, and locals were cast in small roles.
Local cooperation extended beyond just cast and crew, though. For a scene filmed March 8 in downtown Durango, the production not only borrowed vehicles but also bought a police car, fire truck and a van from the city.
For Sandy King, who worked on “Avalanche” as a script supervisor, the film symbolized the last project many members of the crew would share.
“Corman was a non-union film company and a bunch of us had come up together,” she said. “Mike Finnell, the unit manager on ‘Avalanche’ ... had come up with us as a prop man. A bunch of us had just gotten in the union, and we all got waivers to come back and work for him on his first production job. ... It was kind of our swan song for doing Corman films.
“We all joked because usually they were very rough – they were low budget, so you were usually off in the Mojave Desert somewhere blowing things up. And we were saying, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to die out in the snow instead.’”
The filming of “Avalanche” was not without problems. The cast and crew’s greatest adversary came from the environment itself.
“It snowed like hell,” Forster said.
“Shooting in snow is very, very difficult,” Corman said. “For instance ... normally you shoot a scene and the director says ‘All right, let’s go for take two,’ and you just go for take two. If you’re shooting in snow, you go for take two and it means you have to stop and you send a couple guys out to erase the tracks of the people moving through the snow from take one. And so you have to do that every take, which slows you down and makes it complicated to shoot.”
The snow further complicated the production as winter came to an end.
“One day, there was snow all over the mountains,” King said. “And then one day, spring hit and we’re having to watch where we had our shots lined up because suddenly there were brown patches in the hill and flowers coming up through the snow.”
The cast and crew worked hard to get the film shot on schedule – more or less. King said she remembers one day in which a food fight erupted in the hotel’s ballroom where the crew ate.
“I remember flying chocolate cake, which was a really rude circumstance,” she said.
There were also alcohol-fueled antics. “I remember ... very vividly when the crew figured out you could breathe fire and light Everclear on fire,” she said.
But by and large, King said, the cast and crew worked hard to finish the film on schedule.
“A lot of people think that making movies is all cocaine and limousines – it’s not,” she said. “It’s freezing your ass off in the snow and not being able to come in and get warm.”
In the rush to finish the film, some problems were overlooked.
“I thought the special effects company did not do as good a job as they might have,” Corman said. “But we had a date for it to appear ... and we had to meet that date. I would have liked to have an extra couple of weeks in post-production to work on the special effects.”
Contemporary opinions about “Avalanche” varied wildly. The Washington Post wrote, “This fizzled brainstorm ... looks like a cinch for the first supplement to The 50 Worst Films of All Time.” Others were more forgiving. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Although ‘Avalanche’ is a formula disaster picture, its well-drawn, credible people and swift pacing combine to make it a satisfying diversion.”
The film’s popularity faded quickly, and it remained forgotten until the crew of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” dug it up to lampoon for a new generation.
Joel Hodgson, one of the creators of “MST3K,” said that – through its process of riffing on the on-screen action as the movie plays – the series typically sends up “forgotten movies, orphaned movies or cheesy movies.”
“Avalanche” stuck out not only as a member of that category but also as a well-made film.
“I try to find movies that are kind of nice-looking,” he said. “There can be bad movies that were really not cared for, so the prints are bad, the sound is bad. And there’s also bad movies that were shot capably and edited well and the sound still is intact.
“We were able to get a good print of ‘Avalanche,’ and that has a lot to do with it for me – that it’s not hard on the eyes ... a pleasant environment to be in.”
“Avalanche” was a great film to lampoon, Hodgson said, “because it had Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow and it was a disaster movie, so all those elements are always really interesting and fantastic.”