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Monday, March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024

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The best and worst Colorado ski films of all time


DENVER — The return of ski season isn’t just an athletic and leisure concern; it’s also a cultural reawakening. At least in Colorado, where our high-country identity has long been tethered to the beloved snowsport that drives both tourism and choking highway traffic.

Nonfiction ski and snowboarding movies, along with the Warren Miller extreme-sports docs cranked out on a regular basis, continue to sell the idea that anyone can embark on solo exploration in soft powder — but only the best of us can jump out of a helicopter on a custom snowboard. (It’s expensive to be a free-skiing genius, you know.)

Most fictional movies depict our slopes and backcountry as places for romance, disaster and comedy. Few of these productions have had solid budgets and, predictably, not all of them were filmed here.

As with our role as a favorite setting for apocalypse and horror stories, as well as copy-and-paste Hallmark one-offs and holiday tales, Colorado’s ski movies take liberties with landmarks and lore, if they’re mentioned at all. Here are a few summits of the genre (and even more yard sales) among the dozens that have slipped out over the decades.

‘Downhill Racer’ (1969)

This kinetic drama captures both the thrill and nitty-gritty of skiing with first-person camera work and technical expertise. While much of it takes place in Europe, Robert Redford’s role as tunnel-visioned Olympic racer David Chappellet is reportedly based on Steamboat Springs’ own Buddy Werner. A few scenes of Redford’s character in the offseason were filmed at Potts Field at the University of Colorado in Boulder, according to University of Colorado Athletics, although the interiors of Chappellet’s boyhood home in Idaho Springs were filmed at Paramount Studios.

Despite its troubled background and rough timing — it came out one month after Redford’s now-classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” — the sturdy “Downhill Racer” has come to represent the best of snowsports drama in narrative features. Plus: Gene Hackman!

‘Snowbeast’ (1977)

Forget the 2011 Canadian B-movie of the same name and seek out the 1977 TV movie “Snowbeast,” which was lovingly christened as a local classic by the now-defunct Mile High Sci-Fi riffing show (think “MST3K,” but live). It may be a low-budget Colorado horror outing, but it’s also a blind spot (in my experience) for people with good and serious cinematic tastes. So here’s a pitch: What if Bigfoot was a serial killer menacing Crested Butte (where this was actually filmed) and the people around him were all idiots?

Low-rent cinema hero Bo Svenson plays Olympic skier Gar Seberg, who soon must fight for his and others’ lives after returning to his hometown in the Rocky Mountains. Spoiler: Ski poles are great for impaling monsters before they fall off cliffs.

‘Avalanche’ (1978)

Modern audiences may have seen this B-movie thanks to Netflix’s excellent revival of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” where its entertaining deficiencies flower from roots of pure manure. Exploitation legend Roger Corman produced the star-studded (Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, Robert Forster) but deeply troubled disaster flick that was shot at Purgatory Resort north of Durango over eight weeks, according to The Guardian.

Indoor scenes of people trapped in the titular avalanche were shot at The Lodge at Tamarron, south of Purgatory, The Durango Herald reported. Durango’s Gaslight Movie Theater, where one of the real-life premier showings of the film was held, can also be seen in the background at one point, according to the American Film Institute. The plot’s animating ski competition does not, sadly, get a chance to finish.

‘Copper Mountain’ (1983)

A 21-year-old Jim Carrey stars in this loopy Canadian throwaway about skiing and picking up women at Summit County’s crowd-pleaser resort area, subtitled “A Club Med Experience.” Our pre-”In Living Color” Carrey is joined by soon-to-be TV dad Alan Thicke, of “Growing Pains,” for a typically ‘80s (which is to say, horny and misogynist) depiction of ski culture. At least it’s shot in Colorado, even if it’s fundamentally an advertisement for Club Med.

It’s also roughly a decade before Carrey would revisit the slopes of Aspen — i.e., Estes Park doubling as that ski town — in 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber.” This mish-mash of contrived slapstick and random musical performances makes that movie look like “The Shining.”

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‘Aspen Extreme’ (1993)

One could argue the only thing extreme about Aspen is how unaffordable it is, but in 1993 the town was still enjoying its shine as a rich-folks playground — at least on the surface. In this relatively nuanced drama, buddies T.J. Burke (Paul Gross) and Dexter Rutecki (Peter Berg) live out a story based loosely on writer/director Patrick Hasburgh’s own experiences as a ski bum.

There are gorgeous slope and backcountry shots, but also drugs and sex and ski lessons and class conflict. It often falls short of the gravitas it so desperately strives for, but at least much of it was filmed on location in Aspen, with more ski sequences shot in the Canadian Rockies’ Monashee range in British Columbia, according to Disney’s D23 site.

‘Dumb and Dumber’ (1994)

People tend to remember a lot of skiing in this cult comedy from directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly (the creators of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Kingpin”), but in reality, it’s only nominally a ski movie. And yet its slopeside sequences are as memorable as any in late-20th century film history, with endless relatability for beginners in the chunky, elaborate costumes and gear required to take part in respectable ski culture.

The way “Dumb and Dumber” rang a bell for Aspen and Colorado culture at large continues to reverberate, with pro skier Cody Townsend rating it as his favorite ski movie of all time in Outside Magazine. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels’ broad, gross-out performances (as the dim-witted Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, respectively) contrast with the crisp, coiffed slopes and interiors of Aspen — here with Estes Park and Breckenridge doubling for that frequently depicted town. If you didn’t laugh, you’re truly frozen inside.