Saturday, June 21, 2014

Roger Zelazny Movie Review: Damnation Alley, part I: "Tanner this is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches..."

For whatever reason, there have been few successful adaptions of Roger Zelazny's work. Every so often I would hear some chatter about a Nine Princes in Amber miniseries that the Sc-Fi channel was going to air at some point in the 90s, but that never came to fruition, and I now suspect it was more fans speculating about what they'd like to see more than anything else.

What did we get? George Martin adapted the Last Defender of Camelot for the new Twilight Zone.
The occasional Amber comic, the Amber RPG and computer game, the Lovecraft eZine puts out a Lonesome October tribute issue every year. Sandow's Shadow was adapted into the Chronomaster computer game, and Jane Lindskold adapted the hint book that came along with it into a novel. (I try not to rag on her because I know she's gotten some grief from Zelazny fans at conventions, but that book was just so bad.)

And of course, Damnation Alley. I wasn't a fan of the book, I don't think Zelazny's poetic style of writing was suited to the tale of the blunt and straightforward Hell Tanner.

How is it that this is the only major motion picture adaptation of Zelazny's work? In a just world, there would have been a Roadmarks movie, with Kurt Russell in the lead.

But, Damnation Alley? For starters, how loyal is it to the source marterial? My friend Frederick saw the terrible 1995 adaptation of the Scarlet Letter, the one starrring Demi Moore. When asked what he thought of it, he grimaced and said, "Well, they got most of the names right." Getting the names right puts Scarlet Letter one up on Damnation Alley. Isn't that right, "Jake"?

We open on a scene of  somebody's dad taking the station wagon to work. When my father was in the service in the Vietnam era, he worked in a missile silo. He never talked much about that portion of his life, but I do assume that security was something more than one dude manning a single checkpoint with no fence.

I don't care that you've got Hannibal Smith and Stringfellow Hawke manning the silos! Take some pride in your work, gentlemen!

The bit with the open perimeter aside, I like this opening sequence. "Jake" Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Sam Denton (George Peppard) sign in, and are issued their weapons. I couldn't help by notice that Tanner was pointing his at the small of Denton's back while loading it. Boo! I knew the characters didn't like each other, but that's some pretty poor gun handling right there.

The two men chat briefly. Denton tells Tanner that he's requested a roster change. They settle in and begin their shift. I like this part. It looks exactly like what I'd imagine an Air Force Base to look like in the 1970s. Peppard's dark mustache was distracting paired with his white hair.

As they progress through their shift, they learn of a massive Soviet first strike. They launch their own missiles, and there are some nice scenes of the brass, just standing there in silence, as they've done everything they can, they know it wasn't enough and they're waiting to see exactly how bad this is going to be.

We skip ahead two years. Up until this point, I thought this was a pretty decent flick. Not brilliant, but competently assembled.

And then we get this.

Mixed metaphors, tortured syntax AND you're telling us instead of showing us. There is nothing about this that isn't awful.The only possible way to have made it worse was to have used Comic Sans for the lettering.

Keegan (the guy who issued Denton and Tanner their guns) is painting when Tanner returns from  Barstow with a young woman on his motorcycle. To get back to the base, he has to run  a gauntlet of GIANT MUTANT SCORPIONS!!!

Fortunately, the scorpions are no match for Tanner's shaggy John Denver haircut, Evel Knievel stuntsmanship and day glo orange vest, so he quickly evades them and returns to the base.

Ha ha ha, guys! Bet you're wishing you'd invested in that fence for your hideout, now!

"Sunnnnnnnshine, onnnnnn my shoulders!"

He drops the woman to the scorpions as a distraction when cornered (Dick move, Tanner!) and continues riding to safety. Keegan is ready to kill him for dropping her, but when he takes a look through the scope, he sees that she's just a mannequin, which explains why she was shot with her face obscured for every previous shot.

Some thoughts on this scene.

  • The scorpion effects weren't as bad as I'd been fearing. They weren't good, but I've seen worse effects in older movies.
  • That said, the scene goes on entirely too long, and the constant keening of the scorpions was unpleasant.
  • Also, giant scorpions always seem to be the first animal to be mutated into a giant-sized version in the post apocalyptic wasteland. My guess is because they're common enough in the southwest, an area closely associated with the Cold War, they're recognizable as scorpions, but as arthropods, they look strange and alien under normal circumstances.
  • Wikipedia says that Jan-Michael Vincent did most of his own bike riding, and he's very good for an amateur.
  • Why exactly was Tanner carrying around that dummy? That seems like a needlessly complicated plot with minimal return, and any value provided by the momentary distraction is surely outweighed by the hassle of lugging it all the way back from Barstow.

Also, Keegan is Paul Winfield?! Man, this movie had some actual actors in it! What happened here? We cut to JAWS era Richard Dreyfuss being berated by the only guy still in the Air Force who still knows where to get his dry cleaning done, and then to Denton, who's working in the shop. Denton gives us some exposition, and then we cut to Dreyfuss passing out and igniting some girlie magazines featuring an extremely sullen looking model. He blows up the base, and only Denton and the guy he was talking to (Tom Perry) survive.

(Also, I know that guy wasn't really Richard Dreyfuss. No emails, please.)

I kind of like Denton in the movie. In the book, he was more an obstacle than a character. He gets his one killer monologue, gives Tanner his pardon, and that's that.  Now, he's got some motivation. Any kind of direct comparisons are mostly meaningless, as the characters and the stories share little more than a name, but it seemed that he had a reason for everything he did. Be they good reasons, or not, they were reasons.

The complex blows up over the course of about 45 minutes. This was a trifle longish, but it was a very well directed scene. I can believe that Jack Smight had a background in the Disaster movies typical of the era after seeing this scene.

Keegan, Tanner, Denton and Perry are the only survivors. Denton drives out in one of the Landmasters (only one Landmaster was built, but the movie pretended there were two, some I'm going to as well.)

He's smoking a cigar, while talking to Tanner, which gave me flashbacks to the A-Team.

"I love it when a plan comes together."

I think that's a good place to stop this part of the review. We've got the Landmasters now, which are the real stars of the movie, no matter what the publicists say. The link to part two is here.


  1. I have a copy of the shooting script, and out of idle interest just now, I turned to it to see how the transition was made between the opening scenes of destruction and the main story that picks up afterward. There's a description of the destruction going on. Then:


    Tanner smokes his cigarette, watching bleakly.

    MAIN TITLES come up and after they are over, the screen fades out to black and the legend appears: 2 YEARS LATER.


    And then the giant scorpion scene starts.

    And so it seems like someone else added the nonsense about the Earth tilting on its axis. Maybe test audiences wanted that explanatory note. I don't see how an axis tilt could happen from a nuclear holocaust on the Earth's surface. It would lead to a lot more destruction and it wouldn't exactly reverse itself. Unless the writer thought that the Earth is like a Weeble. You know, how Weebles wobble but they don't fall down.

    In 1976 they probably couldn't technically realize or afford the necessary special effects to create that destruction on screen, and so it was planned to be left to the viewer's imagination. Which can be very effective. Such as when you contrast the opening scenes of Psycho to the outright blood-and-gore-nothing-is-left-to-imagination horror flicks of today.

  2. I think you've helped me isolate my biggest problem with the movie.

    Had I not known the provenance of the movie, I would probably have thought, "This movie did some things well, and some things poorly. Both its flaws and its virtues seem representative of its time. It's rated at 5.2 at the IMDB, which is probably about what it deserves."

    However, when I looked at your script, I saw: "Tanner smokes his cigarette, watching bleakly."

    I'd have to check, but the one time I remember Tanner smoking is when his duty was discharged after launching the missiles and he came into the war room to smoke in front of the No Smoking Sign.

    Denton, however, smoked constantly. Denton smoking constantly while Tanner does not seems like such a catastrophic fail.

    As a movie, I think it's mediocre. That 5.2 seems about right. As an adaption of Zelazny's work, it gets a 0.0 out of 10.0.