FLOOD!: A Disaster Of The Aesthetic Kind

In 1976, Irwin Allen took the disaster flick formula he invented in The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and attempted to scale it down to television size by producing a few made-for-t.v. movies in this vein.  The first of these was Flood!, a cut-rate blend of adventure and drama that pitted a small Oregon town against an unreliable dam.  Unfortunately, the main thing that gets destroyed in this surprisingly dreary effort is entertainment value.

If you’ve ever seen a disaster movie then you know exactly what is going to happen in this flick.  Within the first few minutes of Flood!, the dam that overlooks a little Oregon town is sprouting small but noticeable leaks due to recent heavy rainfall.  Copter pilot Steve (Robert Culp) spots one of these leaks and dutifully informs his business partner, Paul (Martin Milner), who asks the Mayor Cutler (Richard Basehart) to drain the reservoir.  However, this will drain the fish out of the lake and reduce fishing lodge business so he refuses.  However, things quickly get worse and pretty soon it’s tidal wave city for the townies.

Despite the serviceable (if cookie-cutter) premise, Flood! fails to deliver the disastrous goods.  The main reason is that scaled-to-television nature of the movie works against it in a big way.  Allen forgot that the fun of his cinematic spectacles was their epic sprawl – the huge sets, the massive name-star casts, the inflated running times and the multiple scenes of destruction.  Without that kind of megabucks excess to prop it up, Flood! looks exactly like the trifle that it is.

In fairness, Allen did spring for a decent t.v.-level cast – in addition to the names mentioned above, Flood! also features Barbara Hershey, Cameron Mitchell, Carol Lynley and Roddy McDowell – but the film’s limited size ensures they have little to do.  Hershey in particular is wasted in a role as the mayor’s daughter/fiance of Paul.  She tries really hard to breathe some humanity into the role so it’s a shame the character is so minor in the scheme of things.  However, the real “throwaway role” award goes to McDowell, who appears in exactly one scene as a lodge visitor at the beginning and is never seen again.

Also, the money spent securing the cast seems to have resulted in corner-cutting at every other level.  After some decent miniature effects showing the destruction of the dam, the rest of the flood-induced disaster is suggested via grimy-looking stock footage.  The script restricts itself in a way that suggests foreseen budget restrictions, relying on a whole lot of soap-opera banter to fill the lengthy spaces between disaster-oriented setpieces.  It also sets up a bunch of subplots that it mostly cops out on finishing (for instance, characters get bumped off but we never get to see their significant others react to the news).  Director and t.v. vet Earl Bellamy keeps it all from going off the rails but can’t really overcome the chintzy nature of the proceedings.

The actors do their best but they don’t have much to work with.  Robert Culp comes off the best, using his “cool cynic” persona to fill in the blanks left by the script, and it’s always fun to watch Mitchell hamming it up.  Milner is the real lead of the film and he tries hard but he’s got a kind of t.v. blandness that works against him: he’s perfect for a featured role in a hour-long drama but not charismatic enough to carry a whole film.  The most amusing performance may come from Lynley, who plays a seriously pregnant woman trapped in a flooding house.  Her scenes of labor pains and dealing with the rising waters play like their own self-parodies  and she lays on the histrionics in a suitably smile-inducing manner.

Ultimately, Flood! is a curiously numbing experience.  It goes through the motions in a competent but uninspired manner that is not good enough to be compelling and not bad enough to rate as a camp-classic howler.  Only completists and masochists need apply.

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