St. Helens (1981)
Directed by: Ernest Pintoff
Starring: Art Carney, David Huffman, Cassie Yates, Ron O’Neal, Tim Thomerson, Albert Salmi, Henry Darrow
My expectations for St. Helens weren’t too high, since what little I had heard about this film before watching it wasn’t very positive. While it’s hard to label it “good”, I was nevertheless pleasantly surprised to find myself quite entertained by this admittedly stereotypical but charmingly corny disaster movie. Released in 1981, St. Helens offers a somewhat embellished retelling of the days preceding the famous Mount St. Helens eruption, spiced up with generous amounts of checkered shirts, country music and facial hair.
We are introduced to the small Washington town of Cougar through handsomely mustachioed sheriff Wayne Temple (Thomerson). The area is shaken by several earthquakes that topple trees and causes animals to act weird. The sheriff witnesses a flock of quail striking a helicopter involved in a logging operation, causing Otis the pilot (Ron O’Neal, of Superfly fame) to drop a log, almost crushing the worker’s below.
Enter the actual hero of the story, geologist David Jackson (Huffman), who is sent out to investigate if the nearby dormant volcano, Mount St. Helens, might be waking up. Jackson has barely arrived in town before he a) gets romantically involved with single mom Linda (Yates), and b) is confronted by local bigwig Clyde Whittaker (Salmi), who doesn’t want to hear no talk about imminent disasters, on account of them being bad for business.
Since this is a volcano movie, we need a grumpy old fart who refuses to come down off the mountain. This duty is performed by Art Carney in the role of Harry Randall Truman, caretaker of the Mount St. Helens Lodge. Harry is an abrasive character — until you get to know him, of course — who drives around on the mountain roads in a pink Cadillac, sips bourbon from Coke glasses all day, and knows the mountain better than anyone.
After a short burst of action, as a bunch of redneck loggers go after Otis the impossibly cool helicopter pilot, who turns out to be a superfly streetfighter and efficiently dispatches the goons, the mountain continues to rumble. Jackson’s USGS colleagues arrive, led by the slimy Lloyd Wagner (Henry Darrow in a ludicrous fur hat). As they put up roadblocks and initiate an evacuation, the conflict with local business interests escalate. Jackson gives an impassioned speech, warning the locals that they will “melt” if the volcano erupts.
In an effort to find out if the mountain actually is going to explode (as Jackson believes) or not (as everyone else believes), David enlists Otis and his helicopter to fly down into the actual crater to gather samples. The tests indicate that lava is rising. Jackson sends Linda and her son off to security, and on the morning of May 18, 1980, he hikes up the mountainside to check on his measuring equipment…
St. Helens adheres to the basic disaster movie conventions, and feels pretty much like a blueprint for, say, Dante’s Peak, though with lesser stars and worse special effects. While the plot, however reality-based it may be, is stereotypical and rather uneventful, the film derives its entertainment value from decent performances by Carney, Huffman et al., along with corny characters and silly details. Apart from Ron O’Neal’s fighting scene, which feels like it belongs in another movie altogether, the prize moment is perhaps the crazy hick preacher who shows up out of nowhere, wanting to appease the volcano gods by sacrificing a 15 year old virgin — and he has actually brough a girl with him!
That said, St. Helens doesn’t really deliver as a disaster movie. The volcanic activity is depicted through a combination of file footage and rather weak special effects, and with the exception of a farm catching fire, we don’t get very much disaster at all.
Most problematic of all is the fact that the eruption itself is a major letdown. The filmmakers use the classic still images of the explosion (it was never caught on video) intercut with some model effects and some badly composited ash clouds (that look more like fog or steam than anything else). It’s a quite anticlimactic finish to an otherwise cheap-but-charming movie — particularly as we know from the outset how the story will end and thus look forward to some hot steaming volcano porn. Instead, we get the explosion stills and a speeding car being flipped over by a steam cloud. Not quite the spectacle I’d hoped for.
The rating might be on the generous side, but despite the film’s shortcomings, I did enjoy it.