With seven million dollars ready to spend, Earthquake took what worked in Airport and worked hard to get to theaters before its competition, The Towering Inferno. Not only would it throw a huge cast of stars at a disaster, it would bring Sensurround to theaters. This William Castle style gimmick was basically gigantic speakers that could play sub-audible infra bass 120 decibel sound waves that made it feel like audiences were really quaking. How well did it work? It cracked plaster Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the head of Chicago’s building and safety department made a rule that the system be turned down to stop structural damage to buildings. That same system would also be used for Midway, Rollercoaster and Battlestar Galactica.
This has big names even before we get to the cast. An early script by Mario Puzo! A score by John Williams! Direction by the man who made Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls — and edited Cat People — Mark Robson! Also, if you’ve never seen his movie The Seventh Victim rush out and stop reading this.
The movie begins with former football star Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) fighting with his wife Remy (Ava Gardner) and then visiting an actress named Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold), who is the widow of one of his old friends. He’s dropped off an autographed football for her son Corry (Tiger Williams), but come on. We all know what he wants.
California Seismological Institute’s Walter Russell (Kip Niven) learns that Los Angeles will suffer a major earthquake soon but everyone decides to keep it a secret to stop panic. This is the first of many bad ideas in this movie. I kind of love how these movies jump around to reveal their characters, like poor good girl Rosa Amici (Victoria Principle), male bodybuilder fan and National Guardsman Jody Joad (Marjoe Gortner) and Stewart’s father-in-law Sam Royce (Lorne Greene), who offers him a big job if he leaves Denise, who he’s just made sweet love to, the kind of premarital congress that shakes the ground so to speak.
Boom! The entire town of Los Angeles goes to hell as a 9.9 earthquake ruins everything and places the following stars in harm’s way: Richard Roundtree! Barry Sullivan! George Kennedy (as Lou Slade, a totally great name, and also an Airport vet of every one of those films)! Lloyd Bolan! Walter Matthay as a drunk! Even Hard Boiled Haggerty!
There’s a total old Hollywood moment where Heston has to choose between Ava Gardner and Geneviève Bujold and he just dives into the sewer to — shock! — die. What! Oh man, 1974 Hollywood was full of brutal endings.
This movie also has George Kennedy using a jackhammer to rescue people and blowing Marjoe Gortner’s brains out. That’s the kind of cinema I love.