Usually thrown-in with the 1970s cycle of disaster films (AIRPORT, EARTHQUAKE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, etc.), James Goldstone’s ROLLERCOASTER (1977) is actually much more in the style of the classic Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller, and in that regard it is one of the best films of its type to emerge from that decade. George Segal turns in a marvelous performance as Harry Calder, a safety inspector for a big insurance firm, who finds himself caught up in a game of cat and mouse with an intelligent, blackmailing young psychopath (Timothy Bottoms) who is crisscrossing across the US planting bombs in some of the country’s biggest and most populated amusement parks.
A spectacular opening sequence, in which Bottoms’ unnamed character derails the old wooden Rocket rollercoaster ride at Ocean View Amusement Park in Virginia, is later followed by a tense and extended scene in which Calder, acting as bag man for the ransom money, is sent all over the Kings Dominion theme park by the psychopath, in an attempt to wear him and the cops down, disorienting them until he has the chance to snatch the suitcase filled with a cool million (well, it bought a lot more in 1977 than it does today). Adding suspense to this scene is the revelation that Calder is carrying a bomb, planted in the walkie-talkie which the bomber has delivered to him to enable communication. There are some terrific moments here, none more so than when Calder is ordered to ride the Rebel Yell rollercoaster, the first person camera doing a dizzying twirl off the ride’s highest turn, momentarily giving the impression that the coaster is soaring off its track.
Segal’s performance in ROLLERCOASTER has nice moments of humor and a great sense of mid-70's polyester swagger (a running subplot has him trying electric shock therapy to help him quit smoking), and he and Bottoms play off each other wonderfully. A nice supporting cast includes Richard Widmark as a gung-ho federal agent, Harry Guardino as a police chief, Henry Fonda as Calder’s boss, Susan Strasberg as his girlfriend and a teenaged Helen Hunt as his daughter.
Originally released in Universal Studios’ short-lived Sensurround process (initially developed for EARTHQUAKE in 1974), ROLLERCOASTER also benefits from a nice score by Lalo Schifrin, who mixes the usual amusement park calliope sounds with cues that are very reminiscent of past classic Hitchcock soundtracks (Bernard Hermann’s PSYCHO score in particular). Using expensive speakers that had to be specially installed in cinemas who wanted to take on the format, Sensurround bumped up the bass in the low frequency range, causing the seats and floors of the cinema to rumble in correlation to the onscreen action. Other than EARTHQUAKE and ROLLERCOASTER, Sensurround was only used for two other feature films, the war adventure MIDWAY (1977) and the theatrical version of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA pilot from 1978. While I saw ROLLERBALL upon its initial release in Australia, it was at the drive-in (taken along by my older sister and her future husband) so I unfortunately did not get to experience the movie in Sensurround, though I at least did get to see BATTLESTAR GALACTICA in that process.
Mixing-up the soundtrack a bit are a couple of numbers by cult American New Wave rock band Sparks, who perform two of their numbers - Fill ‘er Up and Big Boy - during the climactic third act, which takes place during the July 4th grand opening of the 360 degrees Revolution rollercoaster at Magic Mountain in California. According to varying sources, the producers originally hoped to have either KISS or the Bay City Rollers perform in the film, but had to settle for Sparks after the other choices fell through (KISS would eventually invade Magic Mountain for their own film, KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK, the following year). As cool as it might have been to see KISS performing here, it is great to see Sparks get some decent screen time in a Hollywood production (though Sparks themselves often cite their appearance in the film as one of their biggest career mistakes, and the songs which they perform in the film are absent from the soundtrack LP released by MCA).
Long overdue for a home video upgrade, ROLLERCOASTER comes to hi-def in a limited (3000 copies) Blu-ray release from UK outfit 101 Films, who finally give the film the attention it deserves. Spread out over two discs, the release features both the US theatrical cut and the slightly longer German cut (in English language), which contains a couple of seconds of extra blood (in the opening roller coaster crash and during the climax). The transfer looks wonderful, preserving some nice light film grain yet adding so much depth and definition to the movie, and the amusement park sequences have never looked more vibrant or pulsating with colour (especially the neon-lit night scenes filmed at the Ocean View Amusement Park).
Extra features on the ROLLERCOASTER Blu-ray include an audio commentary by UK film journalists Allan (The Dark Side, Infinity) Bryce and David (Sheer Filth) Flint, a short featurette on the film and the 70s disaster film cycle (enjoyable if not overly-revealing), and an interview with Tommy Cook (who cooked up the original story for the film and served as an associate producer). The original theatrical trailer is also listed amongst the special features on the back cover of the sleeve and in the promotional specs, but I was unable to locate it on either of the discs. The Blu-ray is packaged in a cardboard slipcase and includes a very nice 28-page colour booklet printed on thick stock, which contains an essay on the film by Scott Harrison and a piece on the Sensurround process by Allan Bryce. The commentary by Bryce and Flint is pretty casual and free-flowing, not a lot of production information revealed but an enjoyable chat between two people who appreciate the film and have some entertaining observations about it, my favourite moments being those where the pair discuss the Lalo Schifrin score and the participation of Sparks (and rumoured KISS and Bay City Rollers involvement).
Though I would have loved a documentary featurette on the Sensurround process and a bit more variety in the packaging (the slick and cardboard slipcase both feature the same photo and design, ignoring the film’s great range of international poster art), this is still a much-welcomed and essential purchase, and will hopefully help this still somewhat underrated movie find the much larger audience that it deserves.
You can order the ROLLERCOASTER Blu-ray from 101 Films HERE.
Review Copyright John Harrison 2018