Directed by James Goldstone. Starring George Segal, Timothy Bottoms, Richard Widmark, Susan Strasberg, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino, William Prince. USA 1977 118 mins Certificate: PG
Released on 2 Disc Blu Ray by 101 Films on July 23rd 2018
Although seldom acknowledged as such, the opening 14 minutes of ROLLERCOASTER rank among the most breathlessly suspenseful and sweat-inducing sequences of 1970’s Hollywood cinema. Set in an alternative universe where all-day-ride theme park tickets cost $4, it follows handsome, clean-cut Timothy Bottoms, in the guise of a workman, as he places an explosive device on a rollercoaster at Ocean View Amusement Park and then calmly wanders around the park sampling the attractions and munching on candy floss. Meanwhile, cutaways capture people of all ages, colours and creeds boarding “The Rocket” and we experience the agonising wait for Bottoms to detonate the device. It’s brilliantly edited and capped by a suitably horrifying pay off accomplished entirely with stunts, dummies and on-set mechanical effects. More than two decades later, the opening stretch of FINAL DESTINATION 3 reworked the protracted fairground fear with gory money shots and blue screen spectacle.
Nominally a belated addition to Hollywood’s 1970’s disaster movie cycle, ROLLERCOASTER never attempts to match or one-up this prologue carnage, but neither does it need to. Although it features an all-star cast and central gimmick (Sensurround!) typical of the sub-genre, the film – as conceived by original writer Tommy Cook – serves more as a tense cat-and-mouse thriller, as George Segal’s Everyman safety inspector is sent by boss Henry Fonda (appearing in two short scenes around the same time he wandered into TENTACLES and THE SWARM) to determine if negligence was involved in the disaster at the park. Segal soon becomes a key figure in tracking and trying to stop the culprit, who demands $1 million from the corporates overseeing the prominent theme parks, or else further carnage will ensue.
Underplaying both the humour and vulnerability of his likeable protagonist, Segal excels as a self-described “unambitious civil servant”, a divorcee apparently going through the male menopause (cue light teasing about his hairstyle and weight), and whose scenes with his ex-wife (Susan Strasberg) and daughter (a young Helen Hunt) are also credible and understated. Mostly stripped of the extraneous soapy subplots and hokey guest stars of the disaster cycle, the film benefits from harder-edged supporting actors (notably Richard Widmark and Harry Guardino), and pivots around the fascinating dynamic between Segal and the foe for which he has undeniable admiration.
We learn so little about Bottoms’ villain that even the credits refer to him as simply “Young Man”. An earlier draft of the screenplay pegged him as a young service man whose return from the war was marred by an inability to find work and the compulsion to use his combat to teach the ungrateful civilised world a lesson. Although the finished film keeps Bottoms’ motivations and background entirely ambiguous, the actor’s inoffensive, intelligent presence offers something even more frightening : the blandly attractive face of real terror in Ted Bundy-era America. Bottoms followed a line of disturbingly credible young men in American cinema, capable of remorseless acts of cruelty and violence – including Tim O’Kelly’s Vietnam veteran in TARGETS and Warren Miller’s anonymous sniper in TWO-MINUTE WARNING. His character, the kind of psychopath who can easily hide in a crowd, feels even more alarming in our paranoid 21st century world.
Accompanied by a typically diverse and inventive Lalo Schifrin score (a marvellous combination of carnival, funk, melancholic jazz and punchy 70’s thriller music), ROLLERCOASTER builds to further suspenseful set pieces. Humorous incidental details punctuate the carefully sustained tension, including Segal donning a silly green hat as he is forced to experience a series of rides while hunting for one of Bottoms’ hidden devices. The extended climax hinges on a post-JAWS sense of imminent July 4th panic, as Bottoms plans to bomb a brand-new ride at Magic Mountain, Widmark assumes the Murray Hamilton sceptic role about Segal’s “hunches” and a very 70’s rock band named Sparks provide an amusing fake-shock with their explosive stage act. Genre fans will appreciate the brief appearances from one-time Count Yorga Robert Quarry as the Mayor and a young Craig Wasson – a few years away from the career high of Brian De Palma’s staggering BODY DOUBLE.
Following their earlier release of the equally overlooked TWO-MINUTE WARNING, 101 Films have afforded ROLLERCOASTER a handsome HD resurrection. Two versions of the film are included across the two blu-rays, with the “uncut” German release offering brief images of carnage slightly more gruesome than the most widely seen version, though still very much at the PG level. Writer Tommy Cook talks about the changes made to his original conception en route to the screen, while film historian Simon Fitzjohn offers an engaging, enlightening 20-minute discussion of the film’s place in the “psychopath disaster” movie mini-cycle, and the film’s probable influence on later films like SPEED and IN THE LINE OF FIRE. The commentary brings together old chums Allan Bryce and David Flint, who bring a great deal of humour, nostalgia and knowledge to their warm appreciation of the film and the rather different cinematic age in which it emerged. You’ll wish you were there to join their affectionate chinwag.
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