Shitty Movie Sundays: Disaster on the Coastliner

I miss movies like 1979’s Disaster on the Coastliner. Once upon a time, before they started getting killed by cable, American TV networks used to fill empty spots in their schedules with homegrown shitty movies. Turn on one of the networks on a Sunday night and there was likely to be some quickie disaster flick or an epic miniseries adaptation of a Gore Vidal or James Clavell novel. This stuff was absolute garbage but also absolutely unmissable. Shogun, North and South, The Thorn Birds, The Big One, The Day After...on and on. The networks developed a short-form storytelling pedigree that they seem to have abandoned overnight.

The networks weren’t trying to produce shitty movies. They were trying to produce cheap movies that made money. I suppose the two are one and the same in many instances.

Disaster on the Coastliner was written David Ambrose and directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Don’t worry, dear reader, you are not losing your memory. I had no idea who these two were until I looked the movie up on IMDb. Ambrose is a novelist and screenwriter, whose credits include The Final Countdown, a film I reviewed here on Missile Test a couple years back. Shame on me for not having an encyclopedic knowledge of my own work. Sarafian, now deceased, was a veteran director by the time he got the call for Disaster, having helmed many television episodes and a handful of forgettable feature films. All in all, the two creative talents most responsible for this movie had successful careers in Hollywood, but did little that elevated the craft. And that is what viewers could expect out of television before showrunners gained recognition in the 21st century. TV was a place of lesser talents. It shows.

The plot of Disaster is about as ridiculous as they come. The Vice President’s wife has boarded a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles (Why not the President’s wife? Why not the President himself? Why not someone a little less anonymous than the wife of an anonymous politician? Seriously, does anyone even know who was Vice President in 1979? I do, but that’s only because I spent a very long decade as a political junkie.). Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a northbound train has been hijacked by a disgruntled railroad worker (Paul L. Smith), who has also sabotaged the railroad’s ability to issue instructions to the southbound train carrying the VIP. Smith sets the two trains on a collision course, and it’s up to William Shatner to save the day.

I have to be honest. When I saw this movie sitting on the front page of Netflix, it was only Shatner’s name that drew me to it. Old TV movies are so putrid that there is no way I could watch for anything other than schadenfreude. I wanted this movie, and Shatner, to suck. I was not disappointed.

Shatner plays a lovable rogue who is on the run from both the mob and the police. We know this because the bulk of Shatner’s performance is spent putting the moves on another passenger aboard his train (Yvette Mimieux). She, rightfully so, is suspicious of his motivations and manages to get his story out of him. His smile is just sickening. So is his toupee and the way he smokes a cigarette. He’s creepy and slimy but he doesn’t take home the crown. Oh, no. That goes to Robert Fuller as Mimieux’s adulterous husband. I don’t know what it was about the seventies, but apparently despicable low-lifes with money and a wry smile made women melt. I don’t know Robert Fuller. I’ve never heard a thing about his personal life or how he conducts himself. He could be the most standup fellow southern California has ever seen, a shining light in a shallow sea, but the man plays slime better than any other actor I can think of. Every time he was on screen I wanted to reach through the glass and punch his face, and that had nothing to do with the way he treated his wife. He just had a look that made me see red.

Shatner may have been the star in this one, but by my count, he got fifth billing in the opening credits. That’s because, like many other TV movies, this one was peppered throughout with aging veterans and silver screen stars. There’s E.G. Marshall as the head of the train dispatcher’s office. Pat Hingle as the deluded engineer of the southbound train. Raymond Burr as the head of the railroad (A performance weighted with so much gravitas one could be forgiven for assuming the world was about to end. I don’t want to go off on too much of a rant inside these parentheses, but his portrayal of a corporate CEO was just incredible, and not because he was good. As the head of the railroad, he takes his job VERY SERIOUSLY. When allegations arise that some inappropriate shit had been going on at the railroad, he promises an immediate and full investigation, just like any real-world CEO would do. But the thing is, he means it! He takes it personally that the company of which he is head, that is responsible for the safety of its passengers and employees, could have been involved in improprieties. What an era this movie came from, where the head of a freaking Dow industrial is written as a paragon of honesty and virtue. Were these simpler times? Or did Burbank just assume TV viewers were so stupid that they would swallow bullshit like that? I don’t know. But Burr’s character is the most alien thing about this movie, and that is saying a lot.).

Finally, there’s Lloyd Bridges as a Secret Service agent tasked with inspecting the dispatcher’s office. He was the pièce de résistance of the movie. Disaster was made before Airplane!, and I cannot doubt for a second that Bridges’ turn in this movie was one of the reasons he was cast in a disaster spoof. He lords it over the dispatcher’s office. His body language and the way he delivers lines is just precious. He can’t seem to get comfortable. He paces, leans, crosses his legs, folds his arms, squints and blinks. It’s very weird, like he spent the entire film trying to hold in a fart. He was hired to be the important old guy who stands in a corner looking serious, and he nailed it. His character is pointless and could have been cut completely (as could more than a few characters, in truth). But, the movie’s wonderful shittiness would have suffered for it. I may have come to this movie for the Shatner, but I stayed for the Bridges.

As for the plot...eh. Early on, I stopped caring whether or not the two trains would collide. I just wanted to keep watching the actors. It’s the collection of personalities in this dog that made it worth my time. I would have loved it had Shatner, Bridges, and Burr been involved in another project after this, some long-running television show where they solve mysteries or battle Soviet spies in the San Fernando Valley. Anything to keep them together. It could have been the first drama in history to win an Emmy for comedy.

Disaster on the Coastliner is an incredible shitty movie. I enjoyed it much more than Alien: Resurrection.