You Don't Know Shat! : Disaster on the Coastliner (1979)

Hello folks and welcome to the first installment of the 3rd Annual Celebration of William Shatner’s birthday, You Don’t Know Shat! With all the Horrorhound talk going on around The Lair this month, some of you may have thought I would let Shatner’s birthday slip my mind, but how could I? To kick things off, I thought I’d look at a flick that I’d never even heard of before it cropped up on Netflix Instant Watch in the last few days. Disaster on the Coastliner might sound like it should involve some high seas hijinks, but this made for ABC television movie is all about run away trains… and of course the runaway locomotive of sexual magnetism that is William Shatner. I can’t seem to get away from trains these days, but where The Sleeping Car was full of supernatural terror, The Coastliner is caused by good old fashioned human arrogance and vindictiveness which is just the kind of thing The Shat was put on this world to stop.

Disaster on the Coastliner is cut from the same cloth that produced movies like The Towering Inferno, Airport, and The Poseidon Adventure in the theaters, and brought to the small screen disasters featuring one named menaces such as Flood! (1976) and Fire! (1977). Like so many disaster epics, it was also featured a cast full of notable actors hamming it up on the small screen. Apart from Shatner, the film also boast appearances from Lloyd Bridges, Pat Hingle, Raymond Burr, Robert Fuller, E.G. Marshall, Yvette Mimieux, and Paul L. Smith. Smith plays Jim Waterman, a man convinced that the Trans-Allied Railroad Corporation covered out the truth about the death of his wife and daughter in a tragic train derailment. So now to get the corporation to fess up to the truth, he’s taken over one train and remotely hijacked the other setting them on a course to collide head on unless company head Estes Hill (Burr) makes a public apology for the cover-up.

The plot is as simple as can be, but Disaster on the Coastliner doesn’t garner much of its entertainment value from the scintillating plot. Rather it picks up much of its steam from the tiny side plots that develop alongside the trains speeding toward each other. Shatner, for instance, is in disguise when we first meet him trying to avoid some cops. Using Yvette Mimieux’s character Paula as extra cover to get on the train, Shatner, the ultra slick Stuart Peters, starts up a train bound romance with her once on board. While she sees though his cat and mouse game with the police, she goes along with him because he’s just so damn charming. That’s the kind of thing that no one would ever get away with but Shatner. Then there’s the side plot about the safety of the Vice President’s wife who is on board one of the speeding trains. While neither she nor her Secret Service detail become characters in the film, Lloyd Bridges, playing the agent sent in to monitor her progress from the railway computer control, is quite the character. Anyone who has ever seen Airplane has seen Bridges play this same kind of character, but this time it was supposed to have been played straight. How E.G. Marshall, who shared all of his scenes with Bridges, kept a straight face while acting opposite the hammy star of SeaHunt is a credit to Marshall’s acting skill.

While doing a bit of looking around about this film, I came across a number of sites featuring posts from what I can only describe as “train nerds”. Much like any other nerd, they seem to live to poke hole and wag their finger at anything that diverges from what they know to be the very accurate and quite dorky truth. Disaster on the Coastliner apparently is full of these instances. The first of which, that the Trans-Allied Railroad Corporation was fictitious, seemed pretty obvious to me as all the exteriors are clearly marked AmTrack. Secondly the Trainees… Trainers….Train Enthusiasts point out that movie conveniently ignores the fact that there are emergency brakes in every rail car, that no train system would ever solely rely on computer control, and that a hastily thrown together split track barely welded together would ever be able to resist the force of a 100 MPH runaway train. To these nerds I say become proper nerds of something like Star Trek and you wont care about the technical minutia because you’ll be way too busy enjoying Mr. Shatner’s performance

Director Richard C. Sarafian, who started in television before transitioning over to feature films in the early ’70’s including such gems as Vanishing Point, definitely relied on his skill at shooting speed to give the TV flick its greatest point of suspense. Filming the speeding locomotives from similar low angles just as he had in Vanishing Point certainly helps to maintain suspense throughout the movie. Though I could just as well have watched a whole ninety minutes for Shatner having fun playing the caddish con artist, Sarafian strings together all the disparate parts of the film in an interesting way. He especially excelled at the film’s final moments which of course included the obligatory walking on top of the trains shot. This final sequence, played by Shatner and Paul L. Smith, put both the actors to the test as well as Shatner’s hairpiece which never looked better or like it was working quite so hard during all of Trek.

Disaster on the Coastliner is not the only disaster film with William Shatner in it, but it is easily one of the better TV movie roles that The Shat took on in the limbo time between the end of Star Trek and be beginning of T.J. Hooker. It allowed the actor to be a charmer, do some comedy, and act as a supporting character, but in the end be hailed as the big hero. That kind of rundown exemplifies an almost perfect situation for Shatner (obviously he should be the lead character). The movie itself is not of the highest quality, but, if you’ve got Netflix, as an Instant Watch selection, one could do way, way, way, way worse. I hope you all enjoyed this first installment of You Don’t Know Shat!, and I’ll be back each Friday this month with a new entry as well as on March 22 to celebrate the Eightieth birthday of everyone’s favorite ham, William Alan Shatner.

Bugg Rating

As this was TV fare, there's no trailer, but here's the opening scene.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome. Shatner in the hat and 'stache looks like he's trying out for a production of "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three".


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