The Force on Thunder Mountain (1978)

Pumpkin, peaches, pumpkin pie, stick a needle in my eye . . . this friggin’ movie. Well, at least it gives us a lead actor — Christopher Cain, in his only film role — crooning his original tune, “Thunder Mountain.” But it ain’t no Jay Ferguson singin’ “Thunder Island” or Michael Martin Murphy lamenting about Indian girls from coming down Yellow Mountain in “Wild Fire.”

No, dear reader, be not copywriter duped: for wisdom nor terror is to be found in the abyss that is The Force on Thunder Mountain, Benjy and ghost skulls, and Osmond family connections, be damned. Yes. Osmonds.

Paul Z. at VHS with the clean JPEG assist. What would B&S do without him?

We get a portrayal of “Alan Osmond” in the deal — that is, if you watched the TV movie Side by Side: The True Story of the Osmond Family (1982) — by Todd Dutson, here, in his second and final film role; he debut-stars alongside the once-and-gone, croonin’ Cain. But don’t come a-knockin’ for anymore roles from Borge West (who produced) and David Fogg (who did sound), as they’re done and gone as actors, padre. But producer George Gale, who got his start as an editor on Phantom from Space (1953), stuck and stayed in the business. His crazy, 80-plus credits producer resume led to his working with our beloved J.S Cardone on Outside Ozona (1998) to hooking up with Sly Stallone on Rambo (2008) and The Expendables 2 (2012), as well as Conan the Barbarian (2011).

Now, Utah-based actor James Lyle Strong is another story: Primarily a stage actor, he was in eight other films. Did you see Strong’s work in The Great Brain (1978), get this, starring Jimmy Osmond of the Osmond clan? (The other Osmond’s film was 1978’s Goin’ Coconuts!, if you care.) Now you see the connection on how Todd Duston got his Osmond bioflick gig — and proof that “networking” on the set, works. Oh, and Strong has a six-degrees of separation from Rollerball (1975), well, one degree: he co-stars in the abysmal remake of H.G Wells’s The Time Machine (1978; we’re working on that one) with John “Moonpie” Beck — a film so abysmal that it was meant for theaters but dumped on TV to be a ratings bomb.

It’s all brought to us by director Peter B. Good, here in his feature film directing debut. He’d go on to direct one more film: a shocking stylistic turn with an SOV-nasty take on the Jack the Ripper legend that is Fatal Exposure (1989). As a cinematographer and incognito producer, Good gave us the death-docs Faces of Death III and IV (1985/1990). This from a guy who was noted for his early ’70s wildlife documentarian work and made box office bank as the producer and cinematographer for the Stewart Raffill (High Risk) directed The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1975).

While Good’s second and final directing effort, the aforementioned-linked Fatal Exposure, showed a lot of potential for future growth, that potential is lost in wilds of this not-haunted forest romp. What’s really crazy: Good was also the cinematographer on one of my childhood favorites: the family nature movie Chandar, the Black Leopard of Ceylon (1972), which was part of The Wonderful World of Disney Sunday evening TV movie blocks.

No, Disney nostalgia will not blind this reviewer. Not this time. And no bogus “SF” sticker on the VHS will dupe me this time, either. Again, ghostly skulls, be damned. Or cute dogs. Or Osmonds.

Peter B. Good’s second feature film — as cinematographer and producer, after his work with Raffill — the 1975 thriller Johnny Firecloud.

Sure, there’s a sci-fi element stumbling about the Osmond Family Utah wood, but this is a straight up, light weight drama for the family set. Courtesy of United Home Video — one of the better distributors on the market — The Force on Thunder Mountain was everywhere, on every video store shelf out there, right alongside another hornswogglin’ family flick, Mystery Mansion (1984), which ended up in the horror section — but was anything but horror. We mention the latter since both family fests were paired as a Saturday afternoon UHF-TV two-fer programmer in the late ’80s. (Oy! Mystery Mansion; I never understood a “family” movie having bondage scenes with kidnappers making death threats by shotgun, but it exists.)

Anyway . . . what’s a single parent with a paranormal fetish to do when he’s stuck with his kid for the weekend and he needs to explore a haunted mountain forest: take the kid along for some fresh air and father-son bonding, demons — or whatever the hell is on Thunder Mountain — be damned.

So, is Ash up there poking around a skin-bound book and pissing off a Sumerian demon via a reel-to-reel?

Sorry, Cletus. Yahs gotta leaves yer Raimi hopes down at the general store at the small town at the foot of the mountain, as no Equinox (1970) — be it lunar or solar — shall converge on Thunder Mountain. But you’ll “taste the rainbow” as showers of Skittles will fall. Hopefully, you picked up a bag of Reese’s Pieces at the general store, Elliot . . . as we cue the UFO stock footage from the 1953 version of Invaders from Mars and a repurposed Jupiter-2 from Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space. Then we’ll call up a couple of 1800s Gabby Hayes-cum-Jack Elam prospectors to the set, as said UFOs will telekinetic some rocks, or is that electromagnetic-field some rocks, to scare them out of them there hills . . . because “something” is out there that can not be found. Mum’s the word.

Meanwhile, in the present day . . . father and son hike and talk. And ad-lib awful non-dialog. And hike. And talk. And dad assures his son that “. . . it’s just the wind” and not to worry about those never-seen-before footprints. And feign excitement at the animal stock footage of cougar cubs and coyote pups.

Then things go all phantasmal — sans any dimensional forks from red planet Tall Man — as dad and son walk from the woods . . . into a dry, desert lake bed. Is that the Overlook Hotel I see in the horizon? Is the kid going to channel Danny Torrence and redrum all of God’s creatures great and small? And we hope against hope that Steve Austin and Bigfoot from the two-part “The Secret of Bigfoot” story arc (1976) shows up. And we hope Christopher George will appear to bring along the bastard-pups-of-Jaws plot from Grizzly (1976). And we wished Dan Haggerty showed up . . . denied. Hags was committed to the NBC-TV series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, and chose to work with Linda Blair in The Chilling (1989), instead. And Elves (1989). And a couple of evil Keeblers in a Utah redwood would be welcomed. Even a errant, psychotic Leprechaun (1993) would help.

Yeah, if Lee Majors starred as the dad, Christopher George as a ranger, and Dan Haggerty as the mountain prospector. And we had a Bigfoot vs. Bear smack down to go with the UFO. And an Overlook Hotel. And some Coscarelli dimensional forks. And an actual Osmond showed up. But we digress.

Instead, we get James Lyle Strong — the most experienced, best actor of the bunch — as the scraggly-bearded not-Dan Haggerty dude named Om — a 1,000-year-old, crash-landed alien armed with a Translator, a techno-trinket that makes thoughts a reality, restores cut down trees, and scare off nasty bears. The Translator also needs to fend off Om, as the screenplay (unintentionally, we think) errs to the side of pedophile — with the “sleeping arrangements” to “teach” our young lad to inherit the Translator to protect the mountain. Or something. No wonder Jimmy Osmond traveled not to Thunder Mountain as a follow up to The Great Brain. Maybe if Angus Scrimm starred as Om, it’d be less creepy; he was also the Lady in Lavender, and the kids does need a mom, after all.

Just wow. The Force is not strong with this one.

If you thought Starship Invasions (1977), Ed Hunt’s Canadian E.T. knockoff courtesy of Hal Roach Studios, was bonkers. And that Sunn Classic Pictures’ picnic basket was a ham sandwich short with the UFO paranoia that is Hangar 18 (1980). Oh, dear reader, how ye assumed the alien nuns overlorded by Christopher Lee’s priest in the extraterrestrial Catholicism that is End of the World (1977) was a VHS force to be reckoned. Oh, no. Not when you have a 1,000-year-old pedophilic alien camped at the foot of Thunder Mountain dangling the “candy” that is the Translator. Calling Planet NAMBLA, there’s a faux-Elliot with dysfunctional family issues ripe for a home phoner. Ick.

So, who’s the production company behind this extraterrestrial nature film boondoggle, a company Mr. Lucas didn’t sue for wrangling his film for their title?

Hey! It’s drive-in and TV supplier American National Enterprises: a company steeped in nature documentaries since the mid-’60s. As with Sunn Classic Pictures, ANE occasionally broke away from the stock footagementaries to produce Z-grade dramas for the drive-ins and television. There are, however, a few highlights of the B&S About Movies variety, such as the Dennis Christopher curio Didn’t You Hear (1970), the Rod Serling-fronted anthology Encounter with the Unknown (1972), the Greek faux-giallo Medusa (1973), and the ancient astronaut oddity Mysteries from Beyond Earth (1975). ANE came to leave the producing to others and stuck to distributing films, such as She (1982), Ironmaster (1983), and, frack me, Joe D’Amoto’s Endgame (1983). The imprint closed shop after the Vincent Price-starring anthology TV movie Escapes (1986).

Since The Force on Thunder Mountain has never been digitized and officially reissued to DVD (here’s the trailer) — not even in a VHS-ripped DVR grey format — there’s no VOD or freebie-stream to share, not even a VHS rip. There are, however, steeply-prices used VHS copies available in the online marketplace.

Hopefully, Mill Creek — which released the other American National Enterprises’ films we’ve reviewed, linked above, via their box sets — will reissue this family oddity. As with most of these lost obscurities of the UHF-’70s, the Park Circus/Arts Alliance TV distribution library catalogs the film. Other lost, out-of-print films in their library that we’ve reviewed include Song of the Succubus and Goodbye, Franklin High. So, yes, it’s time for Park Circus to get into the DVD box set business or work out a deal with Mill Creek to preserve these lost films.

Yeah, it’s the awful films I remember the best. My brain is weird that way.

About the Author: You can learn about the work of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.