This week’s B-Movie Enema entry is celebrating its 40th anniversary this very weekend. It’s Universal Pictures’ Rollercoaster.
Rollercoaster was simply another in the decade-long string of “disaster films” that started at the very dawn of the 1970s with Airport. It became such a genre in itself that you can almost think of that as being the same thing back then as we see now with superhero movies. While the 70s were the “golden age” of the disaster flick, the genre still exists to this day. Movies featuring high drama in the face of incredible tragedy still come out in fairly high numbers. Anything that stars a relatively large cast that ends with a lot of them dead and a lot of others barely making it through whatever the disaster wrought could basically be labeled as one of these disaster films.
Let’s face it. This is also a perfect choice for the blog during a summer month. What says summer more than an amusement park and roller coasters?
This one in particular stars George Segal, Richard Widmark, Timothy Bottoms, Susan Strasberg, and Henry Fonda. Yeah, Academy Award winner Henry Fonda is in a movie I’m featuring on my dumb blog. I’m really taking this up a notch in class. The basic plot of this movie is that a “determined terrorist” (Bottoms) is targeting a popular roller coaster and the riders for senseless destruction. It’s up to the park’s safety inspector (Segal) to stop him. That’s really all there is to it, but I should warn you, this movie clocks in at a full 119 minutes. That’s nearly two full hours of a guy chasing a terrorist trying to blow up roller coasters. It might be a pretty long night for me.
So let’s not waste a second more. Let’s see some wanton destruction and disaster!
The movie starts with our terrorist setting himself up on a dock as if he’s going to be fishing there all day and watching the park and studying the roller coaster from where he sits. The day starts like any other at the park with people opening up the box office and the snack bars and getting the place ready for a day of family fun. Now disguised as a safety inspector, the terrorist has placed a remote controlled bomb on the roller coaster’s tracks. That night, he mingles with the park visitors and plots his moment to blow up the roller coaster. He even shows off his crazy person talents of amazing aim with a rifle by winning a toy after shooting every duck in that one midway booth they don’t have anymore to prevent kids from shooting everyone with the little air rifle. When the carny guy at the booth asks him about where he served (assuming he was some sort of military sharpshooter), he doesn’t answer. He then buys cotton candy while we watch a bunch of new riders of the roller coaster get on and get strapped in.
Jesus, you can tell this was filmed in the 70s. We’re ten minutes in and no consequential dialog has been spoken yet. Timothy Bottoms has said nothing yet. We’ve done nothing but enjoy the amusement park and watch a crazy man just walking around it. We at least get a POV shot of what it’s like to ride “The Rocket” and what it looks like for the riders enjoying it.
Finally, after 13 minutes of watching people at an amusement park, he detonates his bomb which only causes a little bit of damage by bending the metal part of the track up. But that’s enough to derail the coaster and cause the riders to be flung off it!
I do have to say it’s a pretty gruesome moment. The dummies aren’t just hilariously stuck in the cars, but they get smushed into the ground! It’s fairly grizzly.
Cut to George Segal in a smokey ass room with loads of packs of cigarettes around him and getting electro-shock therapy from a scientist. Either this is an unfunny precursor to that Bill Murray scene from Ghostbusters or it’s some sort of 70s version of Chantix. He gets called away by Henry Fonda who tells him of the roller coaster collapse at Ocean View Park (which was a real park in Virginia even though it’s indicated is movie version of the park was on the west coast – it would have been amazing to go there and ride that roller coaster after seeing this movie) and orders him to go out and check out what happened.
While Calder (Segal) checks out what happened to The Rocket, the terrorist arrives in Pittsburgh where he creates another disaster at an amusement park. Back west, Calder drives to his ex-wife’s place with his new girlfriend, Fran (Susan Strasberg). They pick up his daughter, Tracy – played by fuckin’ Helen Hunt in one of her earlier movie roles. So, Calder and Fran take Tracy to buy a hamster at a pet store. And if you think that has nothing to do with roller coasters, you’d be goddamn right, but Calder sees a newspaper at the bottom of the hamster cages tell him of a fire on a Pittsburgh ride.
You know this is the 1970s because no one is reading the shit out of this on the internet with a comment section full of yokels blaming radical Muslims or Obama.
The head of the park in Pittsburgh isn’t being helpful with any information despite Calder telling him about the accident he’s investigating. On top of that? Ocean View Park is no longer being helpful either. He’s told that this is likely to keep publicity down to prevent people not wanting to go to the parks. Ah the 70s… Put a lid on the dangerous shit as to not hurt your wallet.
After learning that the owners of Wonderworld in Pittsburgh and Ocean View Park on the west coast are meeting in Chicago with three other park owners. This brings Calder to their location. One of the guys received a tape that had to be played within a 24-hour period. The terrorist guy poses as a bellhop delivering room service. He bugs the room. Calder gets into the room and lets them know he doesn’t think the incidents at their parks were random chance. They all listen to the tape one of the guys received and learn they are being extorted by the terrorist for a million dollars. They argue over what they should do, but Calder warns them not to underestimate the terrorist.
At this point, a big chunk of the movie becomes a bit more cat-and-mouse in nature. Special Agent Hoyt (Widmark) from the FBI comes in to assist with the extortion against the five wealthy park owners. The terrorist just hangs back in scenes where other stars are but goes completely unnoticed. He seems to be a little concerned about Calder because he’s pretty sharp about everything that’s going on. Calder is brought in even further by Hoyt who says the terrorist wants Calder to bring the million dollar ransom money for the hand off to Kings Dominion in Virginia.
I think it is safe to say at this point that we have our main thrust of the rest of the movie. Our hero, Calder, is now going to be placed in direct interaction with our villain, Mr. Terrorist Guy. This is drug out in pretty decent length so it gives me a chance to be a bit more editorial now. This is a fairly decent movie. While I say this is a pretty “cheap” movie, by intent not necessarily end product, it’s effective. It’s cheap in the sense that it uses the disaster genre but doesn’t give us a great deal of actual disaster drama to work with. Instead, it is rather suspenseful. Bottoms and Segal are pretty well matched against one another. There are nice little character quirks thrown in as well. Bottoms is quiet, collected, and outwardly a little more “perfect” with how he dresses and carries himself. Segal is flawed with a divorce and a failed attempt to stop smoking as well as being much more fiery in demeanor.
I thought it odd that the back of the DVD box compared the suspense to a Hitchcock style. I get it now. Bottoms is hiding in plain sight, he’s eerie with how little he emotes and he simply doesn’t care who gets hurt as long as he gets the million dollars. It uses the chaos of amusement parks to add to the tension.
At Kings Dominion, the entire sequence of how the terrorist wants Calder to drop the cash is intricate and almost frustrating in a good way. The terrorist keeps having Calder do various things and almost sends him on a goose chase. Calder even asks if it could be simplified but the terrorist claims he just wants Calder to have a good time – that’s awfully sweet of our antagonist to think of the protagonist’s entertainment. It starts to even get pretty funny to watch Calder riding a bunch of rides and doing all these activities with a suitcase stuffed full of money and having the FBI chase him around as well in an effort to wear down the agents hoping to catch the terrorist.
The end of the wild goose chase is pretty well done. The terrorist knows that Calder has a specific signal to give the agents watching him to signify that the exchange had been made. However, it is a ruse to lure the police away so the actual exchange can be made without any agents a chance to converge on the terrorist. Unfortunately, the exchange still goes awry. Against the instructions from the terrorist, Hoyt has the bills marked. This understandably pisses the terrorist off.
Calder then figures out that the next attack will happen at a brand new roller coaster at Magic Mountain. He calls to tell Fran to do him a favor and take Tracy home (remember them – Susan Strasberg and Helen Hunt? yeah, they are still in this thing) and that he has to go to Magic Mountain for work. Here’s a classic flaw of movies that drives me nuts. All he had to do is tell Fran that he is trying to help stop something bad happening at Magic Mountain since that is what he does as his regular job. Instead, he says nothing and causes Fran to sigh over him getting to go do something that she thinks would be fun. Because she doesn’t know this which means when Tracy asks if they can go to Magic Mountain, she has very little reason not to bring her there making them both fucking targets. Goddammit movie. You were pretty close to being devoid of any major flaws.
Alright, so here we go. The terrorist is waiting to get onto the brand new roller coaster when it opens at 4pm. The FBI are frantically searching the roller coaster to make sure he hadn’t already placed the bomb on it. Calder is present to help, and, as if I couldn’t see this coming in the previous scene, Fran and Tracy are now present at the park and potential targets.
Oh! And the mayor is on the way too!
I should mention that the FBI are at Magic Mountain initially off a hunch Calder had. They later were able to find sufficient evidence to lead them to have as much attention there as they do, but they don’t have a hundred percent belief he’s there until one of the agents finds what appears to be a bomb on the structure itself. The bomb squad dismantles the device and disarms it. The terrorist, though, sees that the agents are on the structure and his radio trigger has been disconnected when he tries to blow them up. This forces him to now go with a backup plan to actually place a bomb onto the ride itself.
The terrorist is able to slip by the agents when they suspect another person of having the radio control. He ends up paying one of the special inaugural riders to get his seat which gives him the chance to stick the bomb under the seat of the last car. Calder runs into Tracy and Fran and easily convinces them to go home. Like without practically any resistance from the girls. I guess if there is one thing you can say about Fran is that she persisted… until Calder told her to stop and go home.
With that problem quickly solved, another is introduced. The terrorist was able to place his bomb under his seat on that last car. When a reporter interviews the terrorist, Calder overhears and recognizes his voice from all that time he spoke with him on the phone and through the radio at Kings Dominion. Calder rushes to try to find the terrorist, but the FBI agents see him running around and converge. When the FBI is too late to stop the ride, they are forced to try to arrest the terrorist before he sets off the bomb. He threatens to set off the bomb and it takes Calder to confirm the terrorist doesn’t bluff for them to lower their weapons. The terrorist demands a gun and a clear path. From the command center the FBI set up in the stuffed animal warehouse, the FBI jams the radio signal for the bomb causing it to not explode when the terrorist presses the detonation button. In a brief scuffle, Calder accidentally shoots the terrorist but he’s able to still run toward the roller coaster. He tries climbing over the track but freezes when he sees Calder giving the car enough time to hit and kill him.
But… No one is bothered by this?
Hell, the people waiting to get on this new roller coaster weren’t even bothered by the fact that a man, a known terrorist who just attempted to blow up the same roller coaster, was nailed and killed like five minutes ago. They just load up the next round and just let it slide.
I liked this movie. George Segal is compelling. As is Timothy Bottoms. I also have no problem saying the end of this movie is a bit of a mess. No one other than the movie’s actual actors react to anything in this movie. No one was especially bothered by the police surrounding a guy or that guy being shot or even when he was later run over by a roller coaster. It’s almost as if they see this shit every day at Magic Mountain.
Maybe it’s not a great idea to go there. Just a thought.
Well, that brings this week’s B-Movie Enema to a close. Next week is a real bad one. It’s mostly depressing to think it is now 20 years old, but holy hotshits fuckfarts, Batman… It’s terrible and needs to be covered.