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 Hindenburg. Rollercoaster is usually lumped in with 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 film 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.
Goldstone 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.
Blu-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.