(1977) Directed by James Goldstone; Written by Richard Levinson and William Link; Story by Sanford Sheldon, Richard Levinson and William Link; Suggested by a story by Tommy Cook; Starring: George Segal, Richard Widmark, Timothy Bottoms, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino and Susan Strasberg; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
"The shot is this…The camera is in a helicopter, flying directly in front of a speeding roller coaster. The roller coaster goes up, down, around – so does the helicopter. Then, suddenly, the helicopter peels off to one side. For one sickening instant, the audience thinks the roller coaster has jumped the rails. Then we cut to another camera and we see that everybody is still OK." – James Goldstone (excerpted from 1976 interview with Roger Ebert)
“Just don’t underestimate him. He’s rigged two accidents in two parks 2,000 miles apart, in one week without leaving a trace. That means a working knowledge of structural engineering, demolition, and probably electronics. You’re not dealing with some nut with a bomb on a plane.” – Harry Calder (George Segal)
The word “rollercoaster” has a polarizing effect on people, evoking feelings of utter joy or abject disdain and terror. As a lifelong rollercoaster enthusiast, you can surmise which camp I fall into. There’s something about the rhythmic clickety-clack of the lift chain, the pungent smell of the wheel grease, and the screams of the riders that gets my serotonin flowing. The trip downhill is merely icing on the adrenaline-laced cake, as the perceived dangers give way to exhilaration. Produced by Jennings Lang (responsible for Earthquake, and three of the four Airport movies), Rollercoaster capitalized on the thrills of this enduring amusement park attraction, while exploiting the perils. Filming on a budget of $9 million, James Goldstone shot on location at three amusement parks (more on this in a moment),* capturing the sights and sounds** of the thrill ride experience.
* Fun Fact #1: According to original story writer Tommy Cook, the filmmakers made a list of potential amusement parks to film in, but several parks declined due to the negative implications. I suppose the management for the parks that participated figured no publicity was bad publicity.
** Fun Fact #2: This was the third film released in Sensurround after 1974’s Earthquake, and 1976’s Midway, utilizing a sound system developed by Universal and Cerwin-Vega. The process exploited low-frequency audio effects (likely rattling a few fillings in the process), using powerful subwoofers to enhance the action.
A fun-filled evening at Ocean Park ends in tragedy when a rollercoaster train careens off the track, leaving a pile of bodies in the wreckage. Enter safety inspector Harry Calder (George Segal), who suspects there’s something more than mechanical failure behind the accident. His suspicions are reinforced, days later, when fire breaks out in an attraction at Wonderworld in Pittsburgh. Soon, he becomes unwittingly linked to the incidents after he receives phone calls from the mystery bomber. Calder becomes a pawn, thrown between the assailant and the FBI. Meanwhile, the warped mastermind behind the bombings tracks their every move, staying one step ahead.
One of Rollercoaster’s charms is that it provides a snapshot of three amusement parks in all their mid-70s glory, starting with Ocean View Park* in Norfolk, Virginia, Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, and Magic Mountain,** located just outside Los Angeles County, in Valencia, California. I suspect that Wonderland, a fictitious fourth park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, stood in for the historical Kennywood (not featured in the movie). On a personal note, Magic Mountain’s Revolution was my introduction to the big leagues, with regard to rollercoasters. At the tender age of eight, instigated by my oldest brother (10½ years my senior), I graduated from kiddie coasters to the “white knuckle” rides, and never looked back. But the Magic Mountain connections don’t end there, folks. My aforementioned brother worked a summer at the park in the mid-‘70s, followed by me, 10 years later. But I digress…
* Fun Fact #3: Sadly, the 1929 vintage rollercoaster The Rocket, featured in the film’s opening, shut down in 1978, and was demolished in 1979. Thankfully, however, you can still enjoy rides on the Rebel Yell (Re-named “Racer 75”) and the Revolution (now known as the “New Revolution”).
** Fun Fact #4: Before Six Flags acquired Magic Mountain in 1979, installing the ubiquitous Looney Tunes characters, the once privately owned park employed their own mascots, including trolls and a wizard (both of which make brief cameos in the movie).
Unlike many disaster movies from the era, Rollercoaster doesn’t waste a lot of time with a boring soap opera subplot. Instead, the film focuses on its flawed but relatable protagonist. In his introductory scene, the recently divorced Harry tries and fails to kick his smoking habit. When he’s not working, he tries to make time for his amiable girlfriend Fran (Susan Strasberg) while not alienating his teenage daughter Tracy (played by a very young Helen Hunt). He’s more than competent at his job, but excels at irritating his boss, Simon Davenport (Henry Fonda),* and manages to be a thorn in the side of unflappable FBI agent Hoyt (Richard Widmark). The nonconformist square-peg-in-a-round hole trope is nothing new, but Segal makes the character his own, adding a much-needed splash of levity to an otherwise deadpan film.
* In one exchange, Davenport attempts to dress down Harry by telling him, “It’s your mouth. You never want to fit in.” Harry promptly retorts, “It depends where you want it fitted and what you want to put, Sy.”
The film received some criticism when it was released, because we never learn about the origins of Timothy Bottoms’ character (listed in the credits as “Young Man). In one scene, he hits all the targets at a midway shooting gallery, leading the carnie running the game to peg him as ex-military. As originally written in Tommy Cook’s treatment, the bomber was a demolitions expert who had trouble finding employment after he left the army. In this instance, a little ambiguity about the character’s motivation goes a long way, leaving things open to speculation. As a grinning sociopath with a boy-next-door appearance, we see everything we need to know about him. Any additional details would be window dressing.
The weakest spot of the film threatens to derail (pardon the pun) the authenticity established by filming in the three real-life parks. The second incident takes place (mostly offscreen) at the fictitious Wonderworld park in Pittsburgh, leaving me to speculate that the filmmakers couldn’t secure the rights to shoot at Kennywood. Instead, we’re left with what appear to be a few hastily prepared signs and some emergency vehicles. As much as I enjoyed the trip through memory lane,* the third act, at Magic Mountain, could have benefited from some editing to ratchet up the tension. While Rollercoaster isn’t perfect, it remains my favorite 1970s disaster movie. Despite the main thrust of the premise, the takeaway isn’t that amusement parks are inherently dangerous places to visit (as my mom always warned me), but they’re a lot of fun. Rollercoaster successfully captures the excitement of being there, along with the bewildering sensory overload, sensations of the rides, and overindulgence in junk food. Now, you can enjoy it from the comfort and safety of your living room, without the overpriced ticket prices, crowds or pandemic concerns. So, fasten your seatbelts, roll down your lap bar, and remember to keep all limbs inside the vehicle until it comes to a complete stop.
* Fun Fact #5: Fans of the influential rock band Sparks will undoubtedly enjoy their appearance in the latter part of the film. While Sparks were not exactly a household name in their native U.S., they went on to wider acclaim overseas. Yours truly saw them perform at (you guessed it) Magic Mountain in the early ‘80s, and much like the venerable Revolution, they’re still chugging along after all these decades.
Sources for this article: “Interview with James Goldstone and Jennings Lang,” by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times; Interview with Writer Tommy Cook (DVD extra)