Italian Prog Meets the Pacific Northwest in Small Scale 1981 Epic "St. Helens"
June 7, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr.
When one thinks of Goblin, the progressive rock band that sprung up in 1970s Italy, the mind quickly drifts to the handful of genre-redefining horror films that were scored by this shaggy-haired quintet. Classics like Suspiria and Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be the same without Goblin’s warping cathedral of ominous impressions. The supernatural is Goblin’s forte, but occasionally they’d make do with simply the natural. Hence the group’s work on the 1981 ripped-from-the-headlines disaster film St. Helens.
Academy Award winning director Ernest Pintoff helmed this made-for-HBO movie (one of the prestige cable channel’s earliest original productions) about the prior year’s volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. The official death toll is disputed but hovers between 50 and 64; vast portions of the surrounding area were obliterated in the 26 megaton blast, turning picturesque forests and lakes into a thankless grey void. Government officials later estimated the eruption caused $1 billion in damage. Pintoff’s St. Helens was never in any danger of spending that kind of money, but the people behind it squeezed out a serviceable property.
St. Helens takes a page from Jaws and sets up its dynamic between skeptical Sheriff Dwayne Temple (Tim Thomerson), steely eyed scientist David Jackson (David Huffman), and nutty old coot Harry R. Truman (Art Carney). In the background are, of course, area business owners concerned an unwarranted volcano panic will drive away customers. In the townies’ defense, there are several scenes where a character asks Jackson if Mount St. Helens will explode and our resident expert can’t give a straight answer. Naturally Jackson’s whole line is “better safe than sorry.” The Sheriff seems to agree but also wears a bit of fatigue, almost as if he wishes the liquid magma would show up and claim him already.
Then there’s Truman, a grizzled senior who swears at everyone he meets and refuses to leave his log cabin home even though it’s in the direct path of projected destruction. Harry R. Truman is the real name of the real guy who ran the Mount St. Helens Lodge on Spirit Lake and became a folk hero for staying put as the eruption drew closer. This is probably why filmmakers decided not to change his name as they did with volcanologist David A. Johnston — people had already written a litany of songs and poems about Harry Truman’s “heroism.”
Truman’s life story would make for an entertaining spin-off film. He claimed he didn’t know his date of birth or his middle name, was a bootlegger during Prohibition, was married thrice, was constantly trying to scam the National Park Service and Washington State government, loved whiskey and Coke and pushing people into lakes, hated Republicans but also hippies, and at the time of his death owned 16 cats. St. Helens omits most if not all of these details, as well as an instance wherein Truman visited a nearby school to thank a class of children who’d sent him letters of support for not leaving the eruption danger zone. Maybe not the best example for kids who need to learn about standing up for yourself, but also maybe not the worst.
Art Carney acts circles around his St. Helens cast mates; the only person who comes close to his cantankerous charm is Super Fly himself Ron O’Neal as disgraced helicopter pilot Otis Kaylor. Kaylor gets revenge on his mean-spirited tormentors in the film’s best and only physical fight sequence (looking like it was torn out of any given episode of “Starsky & Hutch”).
Goblin’s work in this small-scale disaster epic is generally relegated to stock footage of the volcano fuming, or brief moments where animals sense impending danger. These selections are commiserate with previous Goblin but none of it is outstanding. The group takes a shot at the “Love Theme” from St. Helens as well, a syrupy nugget played straight, which underscores the awkward, intense romance between Jackson and area resident Linda Steele (Cassie Yates). Realizing an Italian prog band might not fit into the Pacific Northwest milieu, producers hired country western act Corky Corson & Buckboard to perform for St. Helens’ bar scenes. Again, nothing tremendous falls from the lips or fingers of Corson and Buckboard, but it’s just fine to hear them gently rhapsodizing “Here’s to You, Harry Truman” over the end credits.
The soundtrack from St. Helens has never seen official release but Goblin have included the “Love Theme” on at least one of their best-of compilations (Goblin Hell: The Very Best of Goblin, Vol. 2). The film itself hit DVD via the Timeless Media Group in 2010, in a “30th Anniversary of the Eruption of Mt. St. Helens” edition. Bonus features include an exclusive interview with associate producer and location manager Peter H. Roscoe.
Time to get the ball rolling on a St. Helens Blu-ray petition. The 40th anniversary of this natural disaster is just around the corner and the Helens heads are thirsty for a remastered look at Tim Thomerson’s handlebar mustache, as it says everything he can’t to this audacious volcano.
"Love Theme," retitled "St. Helen" for Goblin's best-of compilation