Damnation Alley (Blu-ray Review)11 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark
$19.93 DVD, $26.97 Blu-ray
Stars Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Paul Winfield, Dominique Sanda.
Viewing, and for the first time ever, what is less a DVD pick-to-click than kitsch-to-click, I flashed on a pair of tangentially related movie memories. The first, a recent one, is from Universal’s still new Blu-ray of American Graffiti — the car-passenger scene where a member of Bo Hopkins’ gang “The Pharoahs” (inimitably pronounced “Phay-rows” by the inimitable Bo) asks, “Who cut the cheese?” Though, just to be clear, it’s asked in a more physiological context than anything to be found in Damnation Alley, the 20th Century-Fox sci-fi adventure from 1977 that wasn’t written and directed by George Lucas.
The other memory has to do with the fact that Alley’s cast somehow includes Dominique Sanda from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist — the porcelain-blonde whose visage took my ‘70s mind of cinema grad school classroom work when it was supposed to be on Michael Snow’s challenging experimental deity Wavelength and other equally libido-shrinking screen achievements. Watching Sandra trapped in Alley by mutated creatures (and apparently her agent), I was reminded of a favored Sandra Bernhard appearance on a mid-‘80s David Letterman show. It’s the one where Bernhard told her host how anxious she was to see The Delta Force because Chuck Norris and Hanna Schygulla never worked that much together.
For a movie where most of Earth’s population has (again) been annihilated, Sanda’s silky hair looks about as Lustre-Cremed as her co-star Jan-Michael Vincent’s own blow-dried sculpting — which is not insignificant when the movie’s more credibly groomed post-apocalyptic baddies look as if they’ve been guinea pigs for the incoming freshman class at the Deliverance-villain College of Cosmetology. But this is getting ahead of the story, which deals with the ramifications of the planet having been tilted on its axis and the resulting precipitous population dip. The few remaining survivors include three U.S. Air Force cronies who managed to be in a Mojave bomb shelter: Vincent (who in certain shots suggests “Ozzie & Harriet” older son David Nelson), George Peppard (with a Southern accent) and Paul Winfield. Plus marauding crawlers who aren’t even fun when they’re small (scorpions, cockroaches and the like). At this point, Sanda hasn’t even been discovered yet.
When she is, it’s in what is left of Las Vegas, which turns out also to be the venue of choice for the jumbo roaches, described by someone as being “armor-plated.” This sets up some Vincent-Sanda motorcycle thrills (in a post-apocalyptic world, no one need wear helmets) dodging these buggers — scenes that are the most fun in the movie except for those involving a wild and crazy Landmaster vehicle whose wobbly midsection looks as if it’s made out Jell-O. Its real-life designer (stunt coordinator Dean Jeffries) shouldn’t be so modest about his abilities in one of the featurettes included in the DVD bonus section. The rest of the movie should have such visual wit.
I don’t recall exactly when these things changed in Hollywood, but we were still in the period where, if one of the featured players had to be devoured by mutant creatures in a movie, it was slam-dunk to be the actor of color if there was one in the cast. As a result, Winfield isn’t around for too long here — but picking up the slack is Jackie Earle Haley as a right-handed heaver of rocks whose precision and radar-gun pitching speed come in handy against Alley’s aforementioned skuzzy villains, who would like to have their way with Sanda. At this point, Haley had entered that uncomfortable mid-adolescent period that didn’t help his career longevity — though eventually he came back with an Oscar nomination for 2006’s extraordinary Little Children, the worst marketed great movie of the last 20 years. At this point in ’77, Haley already made an impression as the Albert Belle equivalent (great on-field talent, reprehensible off-field personality) in The Bad News Bears and as that little curly-haired snot who precipitates Donald Sutherland getting stomped to death at the end of John Schlesinger’s underrated movie of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust.
If the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” crew had been allowed access to major studio releases, Alley (adapted from a Roger Zelazny novel) would have been a natural. But even without snarky commentary, the movie and Jack Smight’s direction are so outlandishly ham-handed that Peppard and this D-team will always have an honored place on my DVD shelf. I cannot believe that the planets have aligned enough for this movie and Skidoo to be coming out the same month (though let’s be clear: Otto Preminger’s LSD opus is the far holier Holy Grail). Given his chance to make a case in another of the bonus featurettes, co-producer Jerome Zeitman basically says, a) I was in over my head; b) the technology wasn’t there for what we wanted; and c) we did the best we could. (What a cheerleader: he could be flacking for the Gingrich campaign.) For the record, both Alley screenwriters (Alan Sharp, Lukas Heller) had previously done good work for director Robert Aldrich, and Sharp (who gets his own featurette here) was just coming off Arthur Penn’s justly admired Night Moves.
Still, I keep flashing back to Sanda. She’d worked with Robert Bresson as the title character in Un femme douce — check. She’d been the centerpiece of Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning The Garden of the Finzi-Continis — check. She’d even worked a second time with Bertolucci in 1900 — including some haystack action with Robert De Niro that was later, in a re-issue, rated ‘NC-17.’ But nothing, nothing could have prepped her for the real pinnacle of her career: starring opposite jumbo armored-plated roaches, to say nothing of Jan-Michael Vincent’s immobile John Davidson hair.