Updated: May 18, 2020
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
"Earthquake" was nominated for five Oscars and won for its Sensurround audio experience and the Visual Effects, which included Albert Whitlock's matte painting backgrounds included in this composite shot.
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“EARTHQUAKE – COLLECTOR’S EDITION”
Blu-ray; 1974; PG
Best extra: Three new bonus features
DISASTER FILMS were big in the 1970s. “The Towering Inferno,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Airport” and others became raging triumphs.
The formula provides soap opera mini-plots and big trouble hitting big names: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden and Faye Dunaway for “Inferno”; Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and Carol Lynley for “Poseidon.” “Airport” (1970) started the trend with Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset and George Kennedy, while the 1980 “Airplane!” transformed these films into farce with Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves. Co-stars were mostly big names, too. The idea was to create emotive story snippets for the characters, put them in a disaster, then see who survives. The method has never changed much.
“Earthquake,” starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Green, Geneviève Bujold and Richard Roundtree sticks to the plan. The plot seems lame today (Charlton Heston, Moses, an adulterer?) compared to hits like 2015’s “San Andreas” starring Dwayne Johnson, whose opening sets up thrills to come.
The “Earthquake – Collector’s Edition” arrives from Shout Select, with a brand new 2K scan of the theatrical (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and extended TV version (1.33:1), available on two Blu-ray discs enclosed in the package. Most of the early bonus features have the original extras, such as separate interviews with Heston, Green and Roundtree, and still galleries. Three new ones are found on the Television Cut disc. “Earthquake” won an Academy Award for Best Sound, and a Special Achievement Award for Frank Brendel, Glen Robinson and Albert Whitlock.
Matte Artist Albert Whitlock was Universal’s “secret weapon,” according to cinematographer Bill Taylor in the new feature, “Painting Disaster. “He could do realistic matte paintings that could fool even experts,” Taylor says. Viewed matte-by-matte, Whitlock is more Impressionist than Realist. Yet on film, every surface is alive with movement. Some scenes are definitely sets, but much of the action looks authentic once the quake begins.
Color and detail is good; we can see what a good restoration job this is by comparing it to the trailers, and “Additional TV Scenes” gathered in a separate extra. Each frame is awash with film grain. The ‘70s fashions, cars and interior designs are standouts.
What sold the film at the time – other than its star-filled cast and promise of chaos – was the Sensurround audio experience that vibrated theater walls and floors, winning “Earthquake” its golden statue. Sound Designer Ben Burtt was “a mere film student learning my craft,” he says in “The Sound of Disaster.”
Studios were always trying to create new ways to expand the theater audience, he explains. Sound was “pretty basic,” and few of the audio experiments worked. Then came Sensurround, the “godfather” of today’s low frequency tracks. The technique enhanced low frequencies to vibrate theater seats and walls, Burtt explains. It filled theaters with one big low frequency vibration sounding as if “it came from everywhere.” Special cabinets holding sub-woofer speakers were created, with new amplifiers installed to handle the wattage. The audio signal went through an electronic box, filtering out high frequencies and amplifying the bass. The “rumble” was not on the soundtrack; it was generated through a signal on the film that cued a mechanism to deliver the effect into the theater. A cheaper version of the “box” was supplied to theater managers. When Sensurround was in its heyday, we felt it in neighboring theater rooms. Today, low frequency effects are part of the soundtrack.
Audio options on Shout’s presentation include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, with the Sensurround track, and a 2.0 stereo track. Dialogue is clear, delivered front and center on both tracks, but the 5.1 track delivers the punch – and it fills the room!
“From the very start, musicians respected John Williams and his knowledge, his understanding of how musicians work because he was a working musician himself throughout the 1950s.” — Jon Burlingame, Film Music Historian
The surprise discovery in “Scoring Disaster” is learning John Williams – composer of “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park” films, and so many others – wrote the score. It’s the third time he worked with director Mark Robson. They discussed how the music would play in the film. Since Sensurround was handling the effects, music for the earthquake was unnecessary. A classic symphonic score was written to enhance emotional cues for the characters. Most film scores of the ‘70s leaned toward rock and pop as found in “There’s Got to Be a Morning After,” the main theme from “The Poseidon Adventure.” It was the “My Heart Will Go On” (“Titanic”) of its day.
“Earthquake” was made in nine months from the day filming began to its debut. Forty-five years later, it’s another terrific entry in Shout Select’s library of classics.
— Kay Reynolds
Nightfall hits Los Angeles