Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, May 13, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Rollercoaster (1977)

Roller coaster crashes are exceptionally rare but they do occasionally happen. In 1930, the Big Dipper coaster at Krug Park in Nebraska derailed, killing four people. In 1972, at London's Battersea Park, another coaster coincidentally also named the Big Dipper saw a train car derail. Five people were killed and this is, thus far, the deadliest roller coast crash in history. Those very real numbers seem small compared to the very fake carnage reaped in many disaster movies. Nevertheless, Universal picked a theme park ride as the setting for their second disaster flick in 1977. “Rollercoaster” would be one of three themes that utilized the Sensurround technique, so audiences could experience the rumble of the rides in the theater.

At Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, Virginia, a man detonates a small bomb on the track of the Rocket roller coaster. This tosses the riders from the cars, leading to multiple fatalities. A few days later at a Pittsburgh park, a fun house dark ride is set on fire. Theme park safety inspector Harry Calder begins to suspect that the same man is responsible for both incidents. He's proven right when the terrorist leaves a message at a meeting of amusement park owners. He wants a million dollars or else he'll strike again. Soon, the madman becomes obsessed with Harry and forces the inspector into a game of cat and mouse, as the authorities attempt to determine where the bomber will strike next.

As far as star-studded cast go, “Rollercoaster” has a more modest one. Henry Fonda, appearing in one scene as Harry's boss, is the only huge name in the cast. Steve Guttenberg and Helen Hunt, who plays Harry's daughter, both appeared in the film before either were stars. Richard Widmark, Susan Strasberg, and Robert Quarry were more like character actors than big stars. The same could be said for George Segal and Timothy Bottoms. However, Segal and Bottoms give really fun performances. Segal plays Harry as a bit of a smart-ass, frequently cracking wise at people and seeming bothered by how demanding his job is. Bottoms, as the unnamed psychopath, is soft-spoken and single-minded. The two play off each other nicely. Their conflict makes “Rollercoaster” into a decent cop-vs-killer thriller.

One of the biggest joys of “Rollercoaster” was perhaps unintended by its filmmakers. The movie was shot largely inside real amusement parks. This not only lends the film a genuine summer vacation atmosphere, it also makes it a time capsule. The third amusement park visited in the film is Kings Dominion in Richmond, Virginia. I was a frequent visitor to this theme park during the much later Paramount's Kings Dominion era. Though the park looks very different – the animal safari tours and the singing mushrooms were long gone by my time – I do recognize several attractions. The Rebel Yell roller coaster, the Hanna-Barbera-themed children's park, and the log plumes ride are all familiar sights. Director James Goldstone straps his cameras to the active coasters, giving the audience a good idea of how these rides ran and felt.

“Rollercoaster” opens with a corker of a sequence. The roller coaster wreck is well directed, the film cutting between the speeding coaster and the exploding rail. When the carnage happens, it's quick, sudden, and violent. This is really the only big special effect scene in the movie. (Unless you count Sparks performing two of their songs at one of the park. I mean, that's both special and pretty effective!) The rest of “Rollercoaster” is primarily devoted to Harry and the bomber's chase. This leads to some solid suspense, such as the climax, where the villain has to replace a bomb he previously attached to a brand new coaster. Or the foot chase through the park that ensues once he's uncovered, in a clever and exciting way.

“Rollercoaster” was one type of blockbuster entertainment that came along just as a different type of special effects movie was being born. The film opened two weeks after “Star Wars,” the box office behemoth that swallowed up all challengers. Considering that, the movie's modest returns were pretty good. It's a fun, breezy film. The hero is entertaining to follow. The villain is threatening. The set pieces are well executed. Lalo Schifin's score is full of “Psycho”-style shrieks. There's humor and thrills. I went in with zero expectations and ended up having a good time. Maybe you should check it out too. [7/10]

[] Awards Bait Ballad
[] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

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