In the 1970’s, Universal Studios devel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with movies with large-scale dis­as­ter after Irwin Allen hit it big with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.  In fair­ness to Universal, they had already laid down a tem­plate for what Allen did with the first Airport film so it was no sur­prise when they cranked out three Airport sequels as films like Earthquake and The HindenburgRollercoaster is usu­al­ly lumped in RolCoas-bluwith that wave of Universal fare but it’s actu­al­ly a step away from the dis­as­ter movie norm, trad­ing large amounts of destruc­tion for old-fash­ioned sus­pense.  The results have an unex­pect­ed­ly low-key sense of flair that has aged well.

Rollercoaster has a unique hero: a mid­dle-aged safe­ty inspec­tor named Harry (George Segal).  When a roller­coast­er he inspect­ed goes off the rails, result­ing in sev­er­al fatal­i­ties, he’s deter­mined to get the bot­tom of what hap­pened.  He dis­cov­ers it was sab­o­tage by a crim­i­nal (Timothy Bottoms) who plans to hold sev­er­al amuse­ment park com­pa­nies for ran­som.  Harry soon finds him­self caught between the young man and deter­mined Fed Agent Hoyt (Richard Widmark) as the young man puts a ran­som plan into motion and forces the Feds to use Harry as his go-between.

Calling Rollercoaster a dis­as­ter movie is decep­tive because there’s just one dis­as­ter scene in it, the inci­dent that kick­starts the plot.  The sto­ry­line uses the hor­ror of that inci­dent as a threat that dri­ves the events that fol­low, giv­ing the back-and-forth between the sabo­teur and the author­i­ties that dom­i­nates the fRolCoas-01ilm a sense of height­ened dra­mat­ic stakes.  The script was penned by Columbo cre­ators Richard Levinson and William Link ben­e­fits from their usu­al atten­tive­ness to well-drawn char­ac­ters and smart dia­logue.  Better yet, they show a knack for Hitchcockian sus­pense, includ­ing an extend­ed scene in the mid­dle where the young man uses a walkie talkie to put Harry through his paces as the Feds try to find him.

Levinson and Link’s clean­ly-drawn sub­tle sce­nar­io works thanks to tidy crafts­man­ship in front of and behind the cam­era.  Director James Goldstone digs into the film’s sub­tle sus­pense nice­ly, mak­ing effec­tive use of excel­lent widescreen lens­ing by David M. Walsh and a shiv­ery, gen­tly-applied score by Lalo Schifrin to cre­ate a qui­et­ly tense atmos­phere.  That said, he can give the pro­ceed­ings an edge when he needs to: the roller­coast­er sab­o­tage that starts the film is chill­ing­ly staged and the film’s cli­mac­tic chase through a crowd­ed amuse­ment park caps the film in a suit­ably tense man­ner.

RolCoas-02Goldstone also ben­e­fits from an ace cast that responds to the intel­li­gent­ly craft­ed mate­ri­al.  Segal brings a sly wit to a suit­ably cyn­i­cal ‘70s hero role and Widmark makes an excel­lent foil as his reluc­tant law-and-order part­ner.  Bottoms is chill­ing as the vil­lain because he throws out the usu­al sweaty, twitchy psy­cho-killer arche­type to cre­ate a bland­ly hand­some, well-man­nered antag­o­nist who is scary because he is so con­sis­tent­ly cool and ratio­nal in how he express­es his socio­pathic ten­den­cies.  Susan Strasberg and Henry Fonda also pop up here along with a young Helen Hunt as Harry’s daugh­ter — and the quick-eyed will notice ear­ly walk-on roles for Craig Wasson and Steve Guttenberg.  Elsewhere, fans of quirky rock will be amused by an appear­ance by Sparks as a band play­ing at Magic Mountain.

In short, Rollercoaster isn’t a true dis­as­ter movie but it acts like an inter­est­ing respon­se to the gen­re, sub­vert­ing with its own taut, under­stat­ed style of sus­pense.

RolCoas-03Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory picked this title up for blu-ray release and the results will please fans.  The trans­fer brings out the vivid car­ni­val-esque col­or pat­tern of the film and accen­tu­ates the sharp nature of its ‘scope-for­mat lens­ing.  Both 2.0 stereo and 3.0 “Sensurround” tracks are includ­ed.  You’ll need some heavy-duty home the­ater speak­er equip­ment to get the most out of the lat­ter track (the­aters had to rent spe­cial speak­ers for their Sensurround engage­ments back in the day) but both sound good, with the 2.0 track get­ting the edge for the aver­age home the­ater setup.

A cou­ple of extras are also thrown in.  The biggest is an inter­view with Tommy Cook (12:51), a show­biz vet who dreamed up the film’s plot­line.  Though not direct­ly involved in the fin­ished film, he has some inter­est­ing com­ments about the back­ground he dreamt up for the vil­lain, his unused finale and some fun mate­ri­al about his life in show­biz (his friends includ­ed Dean Martin and Princess Grace).  Helmed by Daniel Griffith, it’s short, to the point and nice­ly done.  A the­atri­cal trail­er and a quar­tet of radio spots that play up the Sensurround gim­mick round things out.