Rollercoaster (1977)

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By Scott Ross

I first saw Rollercoaster at 16, in an especially rotten little duplex cinema in Raleigh; it had earlier been a single-screen theatre until some genius decided to split it in half, around 1975 (I remember seeing Jaws there) and the place was like two small coffins with what seemed like plywood between them. By ’77, I don’t recall what was playing next door, except that I remember seeing whatever that was the week before — the theatre held 99-cent showings every Tuesday evening. Whatever the other movie may have been (the atrocious Fire Sale, possibly) I do recall that, while watching it, the sound and feel of Rollercoaster’s utterly gratuitous Sensurround process bled through the walls and up from the floor.

It was that very, expendable addition that had kept me from Rollercoaster initially. One of Universal’s periodic attempts at manufacturing a fad, Sensurround debuted, appropriately, with Earthquake in ’74, sticking up its noisy, bombastic head at periodic (and wholly doomed) intervals until mercifully giving up the ghost for good in 1978. But I had a high school friend who was pretty much game for anything at the cost of only a buck, so we went.

My friend wasn’t particularly impressed with Rollercoaster, but I was, in spite of its being, essentially, a made-for-television movie decorated with widescreen, a few profanities and that ubiquitous sound-and-shake process. Its pedigree was, in fact, very television for the time: The canny screenplay was by William Link and his late partner Richard Levinson.

Richard Levinson (left) and William Link.

The team responsible for Columbo, they had also written and produced the now hopelessly dated but, in 1972, exceptionally brave tevee movie That Certain Summer starring Hal Holbrook as a divorced father, a young Martin Sheen as his lover, and Scott Jacoby as Holbrook’s alienated son. (In later years I would especially admire Levinson and Link’s neat cat-and-mouse thriller Murder by Natural Causes, their evocation of 1957 Little Rock Crisis at Central High, and their marvelously convoluted three-hander Guilty Conscience with Anthony Hopkins, Swoosie Kurtz and the divine Blythe Danner.)

Rollercoaster was another exercise in L & L’s patented games-playing: A chilly young man (Timothy Bottoms) sets off a series of bombs at large amusement parks, the escalations gradually revealing themselves as blackmail — so perfect a terrorism plot I’m surprised no one in these post-PATRIOT Act times has re-made the movie.

Matching wits with this unknown (and largely unseen) antagonist is the always engaging George Segal as Harry Calder, a California ride inspector. Naturally, once Harry deduces what the boyish sociopath is up to, no one in charge of the investigation takes him seriously until — also naturally — The Young Man (as Bottoms is billed) strikes again. From there on, Rollercoaster focuses on Harry, as Bottoms puts him through a series of seemingly pointless maneuvers though the King’s Dominion (and, later, the Six Flags Magic Mountain) park as the Fibbies pursue them both.

It is finally Harry, the Young Man’s cats-paw, alone and feeling increasingly extraneous (and foolish) who is able to suss out Bottoms’ modus operandi once the psychopath’s original plans are frustrated and he resorts to an improvised act of vengeance.

Put that baldly, you may well wonder what the attraction was for me, and why I went back to Rollercoaster a second time, Sensurround and all. On the other hand, gimmicks aside, the movie has a fascination even after you’ve seen how it comes out. It certainly wasn’t due to any great job of filmmaking: The director, James Goldstone, came from television and, after it, pretty much stayed there.

Goldstone directing Widmark on the set.

Much of Rollercoasters effect on me was due to L & L’s smart, wry screenplay (Tommy Cook and Sanford Sheldon are credited with, respectively, “story” and “screen story”… one smells a Writer’s Guild arbitration threat.) A part of it was undoubtedly my nascent sexuality; Timothy Bottoms was a dreamboat… which made my later discovery of some egregious, homophobic statements by the actor especially disheartening.

Some of the effect the movie had on me surely sprang from David M. Walsh’s expansive, and occasionally effectively vertiginous, widescreen cinematography. (The otherwise fine widescreen DVD can’t come close to approximating the sensations you got in the theatre as Walsh’s camera took you through the rides themselves; in one especially hair-raising moment, later appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for The Shining, seemingly off the tracks and away.) And a large portion of my admiration was the result of Lalo Schifrin’s superb score; I played the soundtrack LP a lot that year. It’s still a favorite.

While Richard Widmark makes the most of his role as a bellicose special agent, much of the very fine supporting cast is wasted: Henry Fonda as Segal’s sour boss, Harry Guardino as a local police inspector, and the underutilized Susan Strasberg as Segal’s inamorata. But you do get to see a teenage Helen Hunt, Jodie Foster’s main competition in the pubescent sweeps, as the divorced Harry’s daughter, if that’s any compensation. (Although you may wonder, from a dramaturgical point of view, exactly why Strasberg and Hunt show up, against Harry’s wishes, at the park in the final reel; they’re not put in peril, which is what you expect and while the willingness of the screenwriters to thwart that cliche is admirable, it makes the pair’s unexpected appearance feel entirely unnecessary.)

Wait… is that Jodie Foster?

However, if you are, as I am, a life-long fan of George Segal, nearly any excuse to watch him at work is sufficient.

I suspect it was a blend of elements, not the least of which was my unexpected surprise at being treated like someone with a mind during the unfolding of what was, essentially, a slick summer programmer.

Or maybe you just had to be there.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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