In this week’s Masters Of Disaster, Dawn Dabell takes a look at Rollercoaster (1977) starring George Segal, Timothy Bottoms and Richard Widmark.
In this instalment of ‘Masters Of Disaster’ we take a look at Rollercoaster, a well-regarded offering in the 70s disaster cycle. Although for the purpose of this article I’m categorising it as a disaster movie, it can be argued the film fits just as much into other genres: it is as much suspense thriller as anything else. The film’s director James Goldstone himself questioned which genre it fell into, remarking: “this is a suspense film not a disaster film. It is in the classic Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed tradition, in which the criminal challenges the police, and a surrogate, an innocent man, is drawn into the maelstrom”. In essence, one of the best and most generally well-loved disaster movies of the 70s is not quite a full disaster movie at all.
An unnamed mad bomber (Timothy Bottoms) sabotages a ride at the Ocean View Amusement park in Virginia. A number of people are killed in the accident, and ride inspector Harry Calder (George Segal) is brought in to investigate the tragedy. It gradually becomes apparent to him that these are not accidents but the acts of a dangerous madman.
Eventually, Calder discovers that the bomber is continuing his campaign around other parks in the country and has demanded a million dollar pay-off to end his reign of terror. FBI agent Hoyt (Richard Widmark) informs Calder that he will be the one delivering the extortion money, despite the ride inspector’s misgivings about being placed in such extreme danger. The bomber seems to have predicted their every move, and soon Calder and the authorities realise they are playing the deadliest game of cat and mouse imaginable…
Rollercoaster boasts a strong cast with the likes of George Segal, Richard Widmark, Timothy Bottoms, Henry Fonda, Susan Strasberg and even a very young Helen Hunt. Segal proves why he is leading man material with a strong performance as Calder, a man wanting to prove he isn’t at fault for passing an unsafe ride as safe, who is drawn further and further into the action against his will. Alongside well-regarded actors like Widmark and Fonda, Segal doesn’t fade into the background… he more than matches these legends of cinema.
Bottoms plays his role remarkably well and is perfectly believable as the cold-hearted, chilling psychopath. His character is never given a name, which is quite a clever move from the makers – he is simply credited as ‘Young Man’. This device ensures that the audience never gets to learn anything about him; he simply remains a man who is willing to kill in his quest to blackmail money out of the theme park owners. The viewer is never treated to a back-story explaining why he is so merciless and why the idea of murdering innocent people doesn’t daunt him in the slightest. This makes him an enigma… and the less we understand or know about something/someone, the more we fear it. The film is full of strong supporting cast members, who all do well in their parts.
Although Strasberg and Hunt are both perfectly fine in their respective roles, they are a little wasted and not really given enough screen-time or enough to do. For example, there was a wonderful opportunity to place both women in grave danger when they turn up at the theme park at the film’s climax. Instead of placing them on the rollercoaster and having the audience praying Calder reaches them in time, instead they leave the theme park before the rollercoaster sets off on its final ride of the film. This could have become serious nail-biting stuff, but the opportunity is missed. Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of tension and excitement.
In order to keep its rating, certain scenes had to be toned down as they were too violent and bloody to pass the censors without upping the certificate to an R-rating. One scene trimmed is the opening theme-park disaster, in which rollercoaster carts fly off the rails before plummeting to the ground far, far below. What we witness is still quite shocking and has audience members wincing as they watch the victims being crushed to death or flung from the moving carts, but it’s relatively tame compared with the graphic mayhem originally intended. The ending also went through a number of changes to lessen its explicitness.
A new trend in the 70s, developed by Universal Studios and Cerwin-Vega, was to present films in the Sensurround process. It was a way of enhancing the movie-goers cinematic experience – they not only viewed the film, they could also ‘feel’ the impact in certain scenes through the use of a state-of-the-art speaker system. Rollercoaster was the third Universal film to feature Sensurround, the first being Earthquake (1974) and the second Midway (1977). The final film to feature this innovative if short-lived effect came just a year later with Battlestar Galactica.
Whether watching Rollercoaster at cinemas in Sensurround, or in the comfort of your own home, it’s undeniably a very well-made movie within the disaster cycle. The effects are spot-on for the era and hold up respectably to this day. There’s sufficient tension and suspense to keep viewers glued to their seats. Although the film’s running time clocks in at almost 2 hours, the time flies by and not a single minute is wasted. A well-made and exciting film!
MOM Rating: 8/10