Category Archives: Disaster Flicks

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Virus on a train.

A terrorist (Lou Castel) who’s infected with the pneumonic plague sneaks onto a train in order to escape capture, but in the process infects the other passengers. U.S. Colonel MacKenzie (Burt Lancaster) devises a plan to have the train rerouted to a quarantine camp in Poland, but this will require the train to go over a bridge known as the Cassandra Crossing, which has not been used since 1948 and could be structurally unsound. When the passengers realize what the plan is they revolt and make an attempt to stop the train before it gets there, but will it be too late?

The way the bridge gets photographed is excellent and helps make it seem like a third character. An actual working bridge known as the Garabit Viaduct was used and is still in operation today, so the filmmaker’s ability to effectively make it look old and weakened is impressive. The climactic sequence showing the train going over the bridge is very exciting and well shot even if certain angles look conspicuously like a toy train instead of a real one it’s still a showstopper and well worth sitting through just to get to that point.

The film though fails on many other levels. For one thing the characters are not likable, or even all that interesting, so the viewer has little empathy as to whether they are able to make it through their quandary or not. The train is too ordinary looking with little pizazz or visual appeal and more attempts should’ve been made to have a luxury one used instead. The fact that the patients begin to miraculously recover from the disease during the second half makes sitting through the first part almost pointless.

The cast is filled with a lot of familiar faces. Ava Gardner is great in a role that allows her to show some key comic touches, but Sophia Loren, who was cast because her husband at the time was the producer, is completely wasted and forgettable. Lancaster is equally stymied in a role that has him virtually locked inside a control room with not much to do except look perpetually worried. Having his character decide to not panic the passengers by telling them about the virus, but instead he chooses to lie and inform them that the train is being rerouted to avoid bombs planted onto the railway line by terrorists ends up inadvertently getting the passengers just as upset to the point that it’s unintentionally funny.

Richard Harris who plays a doctor trying to treat the infected people while also working to prevent the train from driving into an impending disaster is the only cast member who gives the film any life. Like in the similarly themed Juggernaut his brash and irreverent approach that openly stands up to authority without hesitation helps to make his anti-hero persona seem genuine and refreshing, which in turn makes the film more gripping. His attractive real-life wife Ann Turkel, who plays a singer in a hippie band here, isn’t bad either, or at least not on the eyes.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1976

Runtime: 2Hours 8Minutes

Rated R

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Death Ship (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Ghost ship haunts ocean.

Members of a luxury ocean liner collide with a mysterious ship that comes out of nowhere. The liner sinks, but a few of the passengers manage to survive by boarding on a raft and going out to sea. After a few days of being afloat in the watery abyss they come into contact with the ship that they collided with. Having no other options they board the vessel only to find that no one else is on it. At first they are relived, but then creepy things begin to occur making them feel that it may be haunted. When the ship begins killing off members of the group one-by-one the remaining people look for a way off, but find nothing available.

The film starts out okay with a likable enough cast filled with veteran B-actors. The collision and subsequent sinking of the luxury liner as some definite tinges of The Poseidon Adventure to it and I’ll give props to the shot showing a grand piano crashing several stories down as well as the way the engine room quickly and realistically fills up with water. The ghost ship has a nice threatening quality and is shot in a way that gives it effective creepiness and makes it like a third character.

The performers do their best and giver earnest performances although it’s hard to believe that any of them could possibly have taken the material seriously and could only have been doing this for the money. I did not like the way George Kennedy’s character goes from being this surly prick of a sea captain to a man possessed by the evil spirits of the ship as I liked the way his character’s disagreeable personality meshed with the others and made the group dynamics a little more interesting.

The ultimate problem with the film though is the fact that there is no second or third act and the whole concept would’ve worked much better as a thirty minute episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ instead of trying to stretch it out to feature film length. There are just so many creepy shots of the ship, foreboding music and scared reactions of the cast one can take before it all becomes quite old and redundant.  

The ending is unsatisfying and doesn’t explain anything. Yes, we understand this is a ship once used by the Nazi’s to torture victims, but why is it haunting these waters and why did it decide to collide with the ocean liner and if it has collided with other ships then why hasn’t it been detected by world governments and possibly gone under attack by armies in an attempt to subdue it? Again, as a creepy short story or an episode of an anthology series it might’ve worked, but as a film it is boring, one-dimensional and lacking any type of unique spin.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: March 7, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alvin Rakoff

Studio: Astral Films

Available: DVD

Night of the Lepus (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Giant rabbits attack people.

Arizona rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) has his property overrun with rabbits and looks to zoologist Roy Bennett (Stuart Whitman) for help. Roy along with his wife Gerry (Janet Leigh) decides to inject these rabbits with hormones that he hopes will throw off their breeding cycle, but instead one of them escapes from the testing lab and creates a whole new race of giant sized rabbits that begin terrorizing and destroying everyone and everything around.

If your thought is ‘what were they thinking’ as you read that plot synopsis then you are not alone as that was the question I kept asking as I viewed the film. What’s even funnier is that the studio feared this concept would be met with ridicule from the beginning and therefore created movie posters that carefully avoided showing the rabbits or explaining what the threatening presence was. The original title for the film, which was ‘Rabbits’ was also changed to Lepus, which in Latin means hare as another way to avoid giving away the plotline, but it all proves futile because once people view the film the secret would be out and the laughter not the scares would begin.

The special effects are the biggest issue as the rabbits never seem giant-sized and are simply photographed in extreme close-up to give the clumsy impression that they are large or shown amongst a miniaturized set. However, even when shown next to a small building it doesn’t work as they appear no bigger than a horse, which may make it big for that species, but still not giant sized. The sound effects used to represent the noise that they make comes off more like ancient tribal music that becomes increasingly annoying and overplayed.

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The shots showing the victims after an attack looks more like people lying on the ground smeared with red paint and without any bite marks or chewed flesh that you would expect. The film also doesn’t explain why these rabbits that are normally a docile type of creature would suddenly become so aggressive simply because they became bigger.

It’s fun to see some familiar faces like DeForest Kelley in one of his last non-‘Star Trek’ roles, but I’m surprised that any of these actors took part in this as I’m sure from reading the script that they knew it was ludicrous, but to their credit they perform it earnestly. Melanie Fullerton as the young girl who sets the whole thing in motion by allowing one of the rabbits to escape is the only one that got on my nerves and may win the prize for most annoying child ever to be put on the big screen.

Based on the novel ‘The Year of the Angry Rabbit’ by Russell Braddon the film never gets off the ground and is straddled from the very beginning by its absurd plot and cheesy effects. Even if it had been done as a parody I don’t see it doing any better, which brings us back to the first question ‘what were they thinking’ and my answer to that is that they clearly weren’t.

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My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: October 4, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG

Director: William F. Claxton

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review:  Fighting the desert elements.

A cargo plane flying to Benghazi and piloted by Frank Towns (James Stewart) is forced to make a crash landing in the middle of the Sahara desert when a freak sand storm shuts down the plane’s engines. Of the 14 men on board two are killed instantly when several oil drums break loose during the crash which also injures a third. The rest of the men find themselves stranded in the searing heat with only dates as their food and a 2 week supply of water. The radio communication was destroyed during the crash and they are too far off their main route for anyone to find them. One of the passengers, Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger) who works as a plane designer believes he has a way to take what’s left of the wreckage and build it into a new plane, which will then be able to fly the men out of there. Initially everyone else is skeptical, but eventually they begin working during the night to put it together while continuing to fight the elements and themselves in the process.

What makes this film stand out from the rest of the epic adventures is the fact that there is no good guy versus bad guy here. Every one of the individuals has their own unique character flaws and must learn to overcome them and their egos in order to work together as a team. The characterizations are realistic and multi-faceted making their conflicts believable from start to finish and helping to create a story that is gripping on both an adventure level and a psychological one.

Stewart is outstanding in the lead and I enjoyed seeing him play a part that is cynical and savvy and with less of the humble, country boy charm that he is known for. Kruger is solid in support and watching his confrontations with Stewart and then their eventual respect for each is the film’s main highlight. Richard Attenborough is also good as the sort-of moderator between the two and I also enjoyed Peter Finch as the brave and honorable Captain as well as Ronald Fraser as his sergeant who doesn’t quite share his same courage or sense of duty.

I was disappointed to some extent that it wasn’t filmed on-location in the Sahara and instead in Arizona and California although the desert locales look authentic enough even though eventually after two hours it becomes monotonous visually. Director Robert Aldrich keeps things believable including having the men visibly slow down physically as the days wear on as well as growing beards, which is something that sometimes gets overlooked in other stranded dramas although I was still confused why the Finch character formed a goatee instead of a full beard.

The climactic sequence is both nerve-wracking and exhilarating particularly the scene where Stewart tries to start the plane with only 7 cartridges remaining and with each one failing. Whether the logistics of this could actually occur is a big question, but it still remains grand entertainment.

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My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1965

Runtime: 2Hours 22Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Robert Aldrich

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD

Hellfighters (1968)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Put out the fire.

Chance Buckman (John Wayne) runs a company specializing in putting out oil well fires. His loyal assistant is the young and dashing Greg Parker (Jim Hutton) who on his off-hours is known to be quite the ladies’ man. When Chance is injured during a freak accident and sent to the hospital Greg call’s Chance’s estranged daughter Tish (Katherine Ross) to come visit him. When Tish arrives her and Greg fall in love and get married even though there is no initial chemistry and after only knowing each other for five days. The rest of the film deals with Chance and Greg quarreling over having his daughter, or any woman for that matter, on-site watching them put out fires as he feels it’s ‘not the proper place for a woman to be’.

If this were a documentary on the real Red Adair, which is who the Chance Buckman character is modeled after, this would have been an exciting and fascinating film. Unfortunately the drama in-between the fire scenes is lame and hooky. The characters and situations are generic and boring and the 2-hour runtime becomes almost interminable to have to sit through.

Politics aside I have always enjoyed Wayne as an actor. Yes he can basically only play one type of part, but he does it well. He knows how to have an onscreen presence, can usually own every scene he is in and can sometimes surprisingly show a good self-depreciating sense of humor as well. However, here he looks old, tired and washed-up. He goes through his scenes like he is sleepwalking and as bored with the threadbare material as the viewer. The silly barroom fight that he and his pals get into becomes ridiculous when you realize that it is old geezers in their 60’s and 70’s that are throwing the punches. The only good scene he has is during a humorous throwaway where he sits on a committee and much to his annoyed reluctance must decide what color to paint the company’s 1,400 nationwide bathrooms.

Despite the fact that she later told reporters that this film was “The biggest piece of crap I’ve ever done!” it is Ross who is the most engaging and quite beautiful in her bob haircut. I enjoyed the way her character stands up to Wayne and apparently behind the scenes the two did not get along and had quite a few arguments. Vera Miles as Wayne’s wife is badly miscast as she was 23-years younger than him and looks more like Ross’s older sister than her mother.

The opening 20 minutes where you see step-by-step how the men put an actual oil rig fire out is quite compelling and even educational, but it goes completely downhill from there and never recovers. By the end the whole thing becomes redundant and having the climatic finale takes place in South America where the men risk being shot at by guerrilla snipers adds little tension or interest making me conclude that the one thing that should’ve been set on fire was the script, but unfortunately it wasn’t.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: November 27, 1968

Runtime: 2 Hours 2 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Andrew V. McLaglen

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (Region B)

Lifeforce (1985)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Space vampires destroy London.

Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) is the head of the space shuttle Churchill who along with a team of astronauts investigate a strange form that is attached to Halley’s Comet. There they find some humanoids in caskets and bring them back to the shuttle where the humanoids then destroy the entire crew with only Carlsen surviving. When a rescue mission arrives they bring the humanoids back to earth only to discover that the beautiful Space Girl (Mathilda May) is a vampire bent on destroying the entire city of London by inhabiting other people’s bodies. Carlsen then joins forces with Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) to stop this dangerous breed of vampires before it is too late.

The saying ‘too much of a good thing’ has never been truer than with this film. The screenplay, which was co-written by Dan O’Bannon and based on the Colin Wilson novel, takes on too much. Had this been a miniseries or an ongoing television ssow like ‘Lost’ it might have worked, but the dizzying pace and myriad of twists here become mind numbing. The elaborate story does not equal the characters that are generic and dialogue that is dull. The scenes in-between the action are boring. The film lacks atmosphere or a linear production design. A little bit of a set-up would have helped as well.

The special effects are okay, but some of the backgrounds particularly the ones seen when the team investigates where the vampires reside look like drawings with the actors matted over it. The sight of the dead, shriveled bodies are not scary because they reminded me too much of the host of the old TV-series ‘Tales from the Crypt’.

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May certainly looks great naked and I admired her courage to do a nude scene while in a room full of clothed men. However, we don’t see enough of her. There are long segments where she is not seen as she inhabits other people’s bodies, which takes away from the film’s erotic potential. The side-story involving her romance with Carlsen is cheesy and dumb.

Railsback proves once again why he is good in a psycho role, but not as a protagonist. The dark circles under his eyes and his intense Texas drawl make him seem creepy even when he doesn’t want to be. I also thought it was a strange coincidence that the date this story begins is August 9th, which is the same date that Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by Charles Manon’s cult who Railsback famously played in the TV-Movie ‘Helter Skelter’.

Firth proves okay and I liked this jaded, hardened police detective played by someone with a very boyish face. It is also great to see Patrick Stewart in a small role as the head of a sanitarium.

The film gets more ludicrous as it goes on and is unwisely played with a straight-face where adding some humor would have made it more engaging and tolerable. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame should remake this and I’m convinced would do it a lot better.

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My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: June 21, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 56Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tobe Hooper

Studio: TriStar Pictures, The Cannon Group

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Cracking Up (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: It’s the big one.

It’s finally happened the earthquake that destroys California and leaves the entire state in total chaos. News reporters cover the destruction in a parody style and features young comic performers like Michael McKean, David L. Lander, Fred Willard, Harry Shearer and Edie McClurg at the start of their careers and doing their own material.

This film works a bit like Roger Corman’s Gas-Or-It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save it in that it has an animated opening and tries to somehow correlate mass destruction while only filming a small set piece inside a studio back-lot. Corman’s film at least had some edgy humor and a cinematic style, but this has neither. It is almost like a low budget comedy variety show with skits that have nothing to do with the main theme. The film has no pace or momentum and slogs along until it becomes utterly boring.

It takes till the final half-hour before any of the otherwise lame humor becomes even passably funny. Of the stuff that I found moderately amusing was the comedian at a roadside diner who beats up an audience member when he doesn’t laugh enough at his stupid jokes there is also a mailman who delivers a dead corpse to a couple who try to come up with different ways to make it useful. The segment where Fred Willard tries to sell a customer a mattress even though the customer thinks he is talking about his penis is okay and the commercial showing a trucker advertising the use of adult diapers and even getting out of his cab wearing one deserves some credit.

However, the majority of the stuff is so mind numbing unfunny that is becomes almost hard to believe. I started to think that the premise of the film was to make it a joke on the audience like with Andy Kaufman reading a long boring novel or the 60’s film from the Netherlands where a man gets in front of the camera and hurls insults and profanities for ninety minutes simply to see how much an audience can take before they would leave. If that was the case then this film almost succeeds and the best advice would be to skip it and not be the intended victim.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 4, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 15Minutes

Rated R

Director: Chuck Staley

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video

Rollercoaster (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Extortionist blows up rollercoasters.

A young man who is never given a name and is played by Timothy Bottoms is able to make home-made radio controlled bombs that he attaches to roller coaster rides at amusement parks. He threatens to blow up a major one during a big event unless he is given 1 million dollars. It is then up to Harry Calder (George Segal) the chief investigator to find the extortionist and the two end up playing an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse.

The film’s pacing is poor. It opens with the extortionist blowing up a roller coaster and Segal coming to investigate and then all of a sudden it cuts to an uninspired ten minute segment involving Segal’s family life before it finally gets back to the investigation. Outside of seeing a young Helen Hunt as his daughter, the family scenes offer nothing and should have been scraped completely.

Despite having ‘disaster epic’ written all over it the filmmaker’s unwisely decided to make this more of an ‘intellectual thriller’ with very little action or special effects. The only real action/special effects come at the beginning when Bottoms blows up a coaster and everyone on it comes crashing down. However, it looks too sanitized and fake as it is far too obvious that it is dummies inside of the coaster cars and not real people.

As the villain Bottoms has got to be one of the dullest you will ever see. Absolutely nothing about him is interesting and there is no back story given as to why he is doing this or how he manages to be so very clever. Henry Fonda is wasted in a ridiculously small and insignificant role and one wonders why he would have even taken it.

Segal plays his part with a good ‘everyman’ quality that makes him easily relatable and it is nice to see him living in an apartment that is reasonably sloppy. It is also fun to watch him ride a roller coaster while everyone else is screaming he just sits there looking bored. Richard Widmark is equally good and possibly at his most gruff and abrasive and the sparing relationship that he has with Segal is entertaining. The intricate cat-and-mouse game that Segal plays with Bottoms isn’t too bad either. There are a few impressive shots where the camera is mounted on the front roller coaster car and then is glided along the tracks at high speeds giving the viewer of a very realistic feeling of actually being on a roller coaster.

Ultimately the film just does not live up to expectations and needed more special effects, more action, more suspense, and just plain more disaster. The bad guy should’ve been more distinctive and a much more prominent role for Fonda as some feel he may be one of the great actors of all time so if you got him use him.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 17, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes

Rated PG

Director: James Goldstone

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD

Breakheart Pass (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chuck’s on a train.

John Deacon (Charles Bronson) is a prisoner on a train headed Fort Humboldt. The train is carrying medical supplies to help the people there who are suffering from a plague outbreak. Amongst the passengers on the train is a Governor (Richard Crenna) a U.S. Marshal (Ben Johnson), a priest (Bill McKinney) and a load of Calvary soldiers, but as the ride progresses strange things begin to happen. People disappear and then turn up dead. Everyone seems to have a secret to hide and what is inside the boxes labeled medical supplies isn’t medicine.

This is the first Bronson/Ireland production to be given a big budget and the wintry Rocky Mountain landscape is sumptuous. The plot itself is intriguing and full of interesting twists that grabs you right from the start and keeps you enthralled until the end. Based on the Alister Maclean novel who also wrote the script it is no surprise that it seems more like a spy/espionage thriller than a conventional western yet there is enough gritty elements to keep it passable at both ends. The mixture of the two genres is unique and exciting and for a bubblegum actioner this one hits the mark.

The stuntwork is impressive and one of the film’s highpoints. Some of the best moments are when a man is thrown from a train and you see him fall from a bridge all the way to the river below. What makes this stand out is that the conventional, lightweight mannequin was thankfuly not used. Instead it looks like a real human body that even thumps along the wooden posts of the bridge as it goes down making it vivid. Watching the trainload of soldiers spiral off the tracks and go crashing along the mountainside has the same realistic quality. The fight on top of one of the snowy train cars between Bronson and former boxer Archie Moore is well choreographed and the scene of a telegraph operator getting a bullet shot through his head is surprisingly graphic.

The supporting cast is good and for a while they outshine Bronson who seems in a way outclassed by their colorful personalities and different acting styles. However, as it evolves Bronson comes into his own and it becomes a lot of fun watching the way he singlehandedly outsmarts and outmuscles all of them.

Ireland is beautiful as always and manages to hold her own to the otherwise all male cast. The music becomes an excellent added element. The booming orchestral sound of the opening theme is reminiscent of ones used in classic westerns. The unique score played whenever the Indians appear on screen has an interesting beat and sound. This is an entertainment winner for not only Bronson fans, but for action lovers as well.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Tom Gries

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Juggernaut (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bomb on a ship.

The Britannic, a luxury liner traveling in the North Atlantic and carrying 1,200 passengers, is threatened at being blown up by a unknown man who calls himself ‘Juggernaut’ and states that he has planted a bomb somewhere on the ship. The British government decides not to give into his demands for a ransom and instead flies in bomb expert Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris) who along with his team is assigned with dismantling the 7 bombs and are given little time to do it before they are set to explode.

This film follows the typical disaster flick formula, but it does it so damn well that I was riveted and entertained from the first minute to the last. Director Richard Lester is known for his comedy and implements it into all of his films even when the genre is action. Sometimes this doesn’t work Superman III is a good example where the campiness became too much, but here it makes for a nice balance. The tension is quite strong. The scenes involving the bomb dismantling are not only gripping, but fascinating as you learn the minute intricacies to the bomb mechanics. The extreme close-ups are excellent and make you feel like you are right there. Watching the demolition experts being dropped from a helicopter and into the cold ocean where they are to swim to the liner are impressively vivid. The story moves well and consistently brings in new twists.

Harris is fantastic as the sort of anti-hero. He is gruff, brash and irreverent yet he is good at what he does and knows how to do it. I found myself captivated with him and pulling for him emotionally. Unlike the cookie-cutter pretty boy heroes of most Hollywood movies this guy is real and rugged. I wish more movies could have this type of character in the lead.

The bad guy isn’t quite up to the same level. I liked how the film keeps his identity a mystery until near the end, which helps elevate the intrigue. His weird Scottish/Irish sounding accent heard over the phone is strange and I actually thought it was actor Harris doing it and I still think it might have been. The elaborate ploys used by the police to track him down as well as the culprits abilities to outfox them at seemingly every turn is engaging. It’s just a shame that when they finally catch him it wouldn’t have been for such a stupid oversight on his part, which ruins the mystic that is created and feels like a letdown. However, the final conversation that he has with Anthony over the phone is a gem.

British character actor Roy Kinnear is funny in his role as the ship’s social director. His vintage moment comes when he insists on having the scheduled masquerade party continue despite the fact that everyone becomes aware that the ship may explode at any minute. Kinnear’s patented nervous grin is put to great use here and practically steals the picture.

The supporting characters are above average. Normally in this genre these types of people end up being cardboard and clichéd, but here they were surprisingly multi-dimensional. The dialogue as a nice existential quality and the scenes where they discuss their potential and impending doom is never contrived or forced. I got a kick out of the two kids who were amusingly much more grounded and aware of things than the hyper adults.

If you are into compact suspense films that are tightly paced and without the loopholes and clichés then this film, which is loosely based on actual events, promises to be an entertaining two hours.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 25, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 49Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Lester

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Netflix streaming