Blog Post

The ’70s disaster-film era: Who remembers movies with Sensurround?

I was determined not to do any work on Mother’s Day weekend so I spent Saturday sitting on the sofa with Baby Girl, who was home from Auburn. We laid around in our cozy sweats with pillows and blankies and watched AMC’s “Don’t Mess with Mother Nature” weekend, which was a series of disaster flicks. (Mother’s Day … disaster … a logical pairing. Sure.)

We turned on The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and, oh, the memories! I was 7 years old when this film debuted and my brother and I loved the whole era of disaster movies. I don’t know what that says about us, but we watched them all: Airport (1970), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974), The Hindenburg (1975).

I can’t remember but given my young age, I believe we saw the early ones when they were shown later on TV. I know we saw The Towering Inferno and Earthquake in theaters. Earthquake was memorable because it was the first movie to use Sensurround. The posters and movie trailers made a big deal of the new technology that allowed viewers to “feel” the quake, declaring the movie “An Event.” The new technology was only used in four other films: Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977), Battlestar Galactica (1978), and Mission Galactica (1978).

According to the website in70mm.com, “Sensurround was a low-frequency noise generator that added simulated rumble and vibrations to the movie, so intense and powerful that not only could it be heard, but also felt during the film! It was a very convincing illusion when everything vibrated.”

Earthquake didn’t disappoint. It was a thrilling experience to feel the seats shaking as the ground crumbled onscreen. I remember the reports after the film debuted that the shaking caused some people to get sick and that some theaters were damaged by the rumbling.

I saw one more film in Sensurround, Rollercoaster, which was not a fun amusement park film, as the title suggests. It really wasn’t a disaster movie, either. It was an early domestic terrorism film: the premise was a man threatened to blow up rollercoasters across the country if he wasn’t given money.

Sensurround died out with the advent of multiplexes because there were too many theaters in a small area for the effect to work as intended. But I enjoyed telling Baby Girl about the “modern” technology of the good ol’ days while watching the people aboard the Poseidon make their way to safety. And the entire day, I didn’t put on makeup, brush my hair or get out of my cozies, looking very much like someone who’d survived the worst Mother Nature could throw at her. I’d call that a successful Saturday-before-Mother’s-Day.

 

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