Cyclone (1978)

Directed by: René Cardona Jr.
Starring: Arthur Kennedy, Carrol Baker, Lionel Stander, Andrés Garcia, Hugo Stiglitz, Olga Karlatos

Cyclone (also released under the title Terror Storm) is a 1970’s disaster film that comes across as a mix of Mission of the Shark and Alive, with a touch of Jaws for good measure. Directed by Mexican B-movie director René Cardona Jr., Cyclone is certainly ridden with flaws, but having read Glenn Kay’s pan of the film I was surprised to find it somewhat effective – at least in parts. I guess it depends on your outlook and expectations.

The story takes place in some tropical paradise — presumably somewhere on the Caribbean coast of Mexico — where three separate groups of people end up fighting for survival together, lost at sea after being caught in the titular cyclone. First, we’re introduced to a group of tourists taking in the sights from a glass-bottomed boat captained by the hunky Andrés Garcia. Next, we take to the skies where we meet the passengers and crew of an airliner. And finally, we check in on a small fishing boat and its small crew. As the storm pounds the coast, the plane crashes in the ocean, the fishermen have to abandon ship and get into their dinghy, and the tourist boat drifts helplessly out to sea. Over the next hour, the three groups encounter each other, so everyone ends up on the sightseeing boat. This merry crowd is a predictable selection of clichés — the priest, the doctor, the socialite and her pampered dog, the greedy businessman, the pregnant woman, the rugged fishermen and the token black couple — and the concept of “character development” is nowhere in sight.

The storm itself is over and done with in the first 20 minutes. Most of the remaining running time deals with the hardships facing the survivors, primarily the lack of food and water which causes various conflicts and forces some tough moral decisions. This portion of the film is slow-moving and downbeat, but interrupted by scenes of higher tension. A childbirth, for instance, which leaves the mother radiant with happiness despite not having had more than a few sips of water for the past week. Most shocking is the sudden and brutal sequence where the socialite’s dog is tossed into the water and then rescued — only to be killed and eaten. (Yes, finally a disaster film where the pet doesn’t survive! That’s a redeeming point right there.) Such details add a flavor of exploitation cinema that sets Cyclone apart from its slicker Hollywood cousins. That vibe is reinforced as the situation gets ever more desperate and the survivors turn to cannibalism, which isn’t handled as discreetly as in, say, Alive. After one of the characters, a doctor, cuts up the body of a dead fisherman, we see the roof of the boat littered with pieces of flesh laid out to dry in the sun, which contributes a certain unpleasantness to the atmosphere.

Finally, as a fight onboard causes the boat to sink, help arrives in the form of two small airplanes. Unfortunately, so do the sharks. After more than an hour of slow going, the end of the film is a comparative blur of action as the sharks attack the survivors who desperately struggle to get out of the water. No CGI sharks here, but rather footage of real sharks attacking what I’d guess is clothing stuffed with animal guts. Who makes it and who doesn’t is a bit hazy thanks to the messy editing – and how all those people manage to squeeze into what looks like a two-seated plane we’ll never know…

It’s easy enough to pick this film apart, because as I said initially, it is a flawed piece of work. The special effects are hit-and-miss: some of the airplane shots look pretty good as does the underwater work, but the torrential rains and massive waves that drench the boats seem to be accomplished by pointing a firehose at the unfortunate actors (you can see perfectly calm water in the background). Cyclone also offers one of the most memorable continuity errors I’ve seen, when the crash in the ocean transforms the airliner from a propeller plane to a jet. Several actors are beyond wooden, delivering the clumsy dialogue like they were reading it directly from the script. Also, this cut of the film is almost two hours, which is far too long (there is also a shorter version available, however).

At the same time, the slow pace, grim atmosphere and and general feeling of hopelessness sets Cyclone apart from many other disaster films where there seems to be room for romance and gunfights even in the most desperate circumstances. I wouldn’t call it “realistic”, but I kind of like the almost claustrophobic focus of the plot, and I like how Cardona Jr. won’t let the characters off the hook even when salvation is within reach. Oh yeah, and the dog dies!

Good? Well, let’s settle for surprisingly watchable despite its shortcomings. This is the first Cardona Jr. film I’ve seen, so I can’t compare it to his other work, but I’ll certainly seek out the Andean plane crash film Survive, written by René Jr and directed by his father, Rene Sr.

Rating: 2/5

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