‘Rollercoaster’ (1977): TV movie-style disaster film rumbles through…in Sensurround!

1977’s Rollercoaster is a first-rate TV suspenser, blasted onto the big screen via Sensurround.

By Paul Mavis

With this hateful, god-awfully hot summer finally winding down, the fear that I’d eventually have to lay out $500 bucks minimum on a family trip to our neighborhood amusement park is now happily a non-issue. “It’s too late—can’t go. A shame. You’re in school. Sorry we missed it, kids!” Once a de rigeur summer ritual for my family (owing to our close proximity to “America’s Roller Coast,” Cedar Point), the last ones in the chute are finally getting old enough now I can offer them fifty bucks cash and the promise of a new puppy (I’ll renege on that, too) so my wife and I don’t have to trudge back and forth for miles over that scalding pavement, the sun beating down on our heads as the humidity hits 90 percent, while our sweaty, miserable kids have “fun” waiting in line for hours to go on exactly three rides. See ya, Cedar Point—I’d rather watch a movie.

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A far cheaper and more entertaining alternative is to sit down with the fam and watch Rollercoaster, recently released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory. Premiering post-peak in the Hollywood 1970s disaster genre cycle, Universal’s Rollercoaster was produced by Jennings Lang, written by Richard Levinson and William Link (of Columbo fame), directed by James Goldstone, and starred George Segal, Richard Widmark, Timothy Bottoms, Harry Guardino, Susan Strasberg, Henry Fonda and Helen Hunt. Despite the obvious limitations of trying to recreate Sensurround in a home video environment (uh…you can’t), it’s lucky that Rollercoaster itself is a pretty entertaining little TV-like thriller, marked by some snarky humor and spot-on performances.

Old, shaky amusement park attendant Benny Nielson (Harry Davis) sees his friend Wayne Moore take his morning inspection walk on “The Rocket,” the wooden rollercoaster at Southern California’s Ocean View Amusement Park. Only…that’s not Wayne; Wayne did his assessment earlier. It’s actually an anonymous young man (Timothy Bottoms), planting a small, radio-controlled bomb at a strategic point on the tracks. That night, the young man detonates the device, killing many people as the coaster’s cars go flying out into the amusement park.

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California Standards and Safety field inspector Harry Calder (George Segal) inspected “The Rocket” just three months before, and now his decidedly unpleasant boss, Simon Davenport (Henry Fonda), lays the investigation—and any subsequent blame—on Harry. The next stop for the young “mad bomber?” Pittsburgh’s Wonderworld Amusement Park, which he sets on fire, a reported news event that by chance catches Harry’s eye on the west coast. Doing a little digging, Harry discovers that heads of the five biggest leisure corporations are gathering in Chicago, and when he forces his way into the meeting, his hunch proves correct: they’re being blackmailed by the young man for one million dollars.

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Harry advises calling in the Feds, because the bomber is smart—an assessment the young man, who bugged the room, appreciates. Agent Thomas Hoyt (Richard Widmark) arrives at the meeting and dismisses Harry, but soon the bomber makes another demand: he wants his new “friend,” Harry, to make the money drop at Kings Dominion, in Virginia, the site of the bomber’s next intended attack. Hoyt is suspicious of Harry’s involvement, but the drop is arranged, with Harry put through his paces at the park—which includes many rides while unknowingly carrying a bomb in his walkie talkie—as the young man directs his actions from atop the park’s Eiffel Tower replica. The bomber again outsmarts the authorities, but soon discovers Hoyt marked the ransom money, and so vows to make his demands more clear…no matter how many die.

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The movie summer of 1977 will forever be remembered for the continued success of Universal’s revolutionary movie sound advancement, Sensurround, when Rollercoaster absolutely destroyed Star Wars at the box office, consigning that cliched, juvenile “B” space opera to relative obscurity and, uh…oh, wait. Strike that (I was daydreaming again).

RELATED | Read more 1970s film reviews

You know you’re alone in this world when you ask your school friends if they want to see either Rollercoaster in Sensurround, or maybe A Bridge Too Far…and they opt instead to see Star Wars for the fourth goddamned time. Now sure I enjoyed Star Wars as an 11-year-old that summer (but no more or less than I enjoyed Logan’s Run the summer before…and let me tell you, Star Wars didn’t have an almost-nude Jenny Agutter). However, there were a whole lot of other movies I wanted to see, too, and for a movie-crazy kid like myself, the prospect of missing Sensurround to see something I had already paid for twice before, didn’t just seem dumb—it was criminal (lawn mowing money only went so far).

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Besides, I was already primed that summer for the “big” hyped movies like Rollercoaster and Sorcerer (had to sneak into that one) and Airport ‘77; I didn’t even hear about Star Wars until it started making headlines for its repeat business. Not so for Rollercoaster; its Sensurround technology made it a pre-sold hit-in-waiting months and years before production. Universal cleared theater bookings for June, 1977 and began selling Rollercoaster

To exhibitors and the public before a script was even written, such was Sensurround’s reputation for putting asses in the seats—and then knocking them out again.

Sensurround, with its huge subwoofer speaker horns set behind the audience and behind the screen, pumping out audible and inaudible tones at an insane 120db, was like nothing I had ever experienced, before or since, in a movie theater. You didn’t just hear Sensurround, you became a part of it, or more accurately, it became a part of you, as those impossibly loud, low sound waves crashed through your body, shaking you and your seat and the theater (in my twenties, I managed a local multiplex that had shown some of the Sensurround movies back in the 70s, and during my first tour I was taken back behind the screens and shown all the structural cracks that Earthquake, Midway, and Battlestar Galactica had caused to the theater…along with one of the leftover subwoofer cabinets, sitting there collecting dust!). Earthquake, the first Sensurround movie, was the fifth highest grossing movie of 1974 and Midway was 1976’s tenth most popular movie, so there was no doubt in Universal’s and producer Jennings Lang’s minds that Rollercoaster would be a guaranteed money-making machine, particularly against some corny Saturday matinee serial-turned-space opera with no big names….

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Of course, as with most “sure-fire” Hollywood handicapping, it didn’t work out that way. Shot at a reasonably inexpensive $9 million, Rollercoaster still lost money, with only $13 million in ticket sales (that’s about $7 million in returned rentals to Universal). In hindsight, it may not be too surprising that Rollercoaster wound up doing far less business than the previous Sensurround titles, though, regardless of whether or not Star Wars played at the same time. Most of Sensurround’s trend lines (and indeed the disaster genre itself), if looked at closely, indicated less-than-promising future results.

No matter how many times in interviews director James Goldstone (Winning, Swashbuckler) insisted Rollercoaster wasn’t a disaster movie, but rather a traditional suspense thriller, it was structured and certainly sold as a disaster epic, and that genre, by the summer of 1977, had already peaked. 1974 is generally acknowledged as the genre’s high water mark, with The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and Airport 1975 all landing in the box office top ten…to be followed in the months and years to come by increasingly critical notices and dwindling box office returns for disaster titles like The Hindenburg, The Cassandra Crossing, Two-Minute Warning, Damnation Alley, Black Sunday, Gray Lady Down, Avalanche, The Swarm, Hurricane, Meteor, The Concorde…Airport ‘79, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and the mother of all disaster stinkers, Irwin Allen’s big screen swan song, When Time Ran Out… (courtesy of none other than Rollercoaster director James Goldstone).

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Admittedly, with only two previous titles to determine thin trend numbers, Sensurround as a ticket seller was going in the wrong direction, with still highly-successful Midway making only a little more than half of Earthquake’s gross. And with theaters across the country increasingly splitting their auditoriums in half giving rise to the multiplex (to play more movies and get those high first weekend grosses), Sensurround’s timber-and-concrete-shaking prowess proved intrusive on other customers’ experiences watching adjoining movies (expensive equipment outlays and local building code troubles also doomed the process). By 1977, Sensurround looked more like a fad, rather than an innovation that was here to stay.

As well, the opportunities for Sensurround effects in Rollercoaster—merely…riding rollercoasters—were far more limited and not nearly as engaging or intriguing to the audience as the epic settings of the two previous Sensurround entries: a Los Angeles earthquake and nothing less than WWII. And while big stars were no longer guarantees of boffo box office in the disaster genre, no true “A-list” star, let alone a roster of them, headlines Rollercoaster.

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George Segal was never a top ten attraction, with his critical and b.o. peak of 1973—Blume in Love and A Touch of Class—giving way to five straight b.o. flops by 1977: The Terminal Man, California Split, Russian Roulette, The Black Bird, and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox. No one who wasn’t already into disaster movies or Sensurround pulled the trigger for Rollercoaster because it was “a George Segal movie” (he did much better that year with Jane Fonda in Fun With Dick and Jane, but more misfires like Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? and Lost and Found followed…before he made the biggest mistake of his movie career: pulling out of Blake Edward’s smash hit, “10”).

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Written by famed Columbo duo Richard Levinson and William Link, and helmed by James Goldstone, who began and ended his career as a TV director (that should tell you something…), it’s not too surprising that Rollercoaster has that certain “TV movie of the week” feel to it, albeit pumped up with Panavision and Sensurround. That “made-for-TV” label isn’t a pejorative, however; the 1970s was the golden age of MTVs, and had Rollercoaster debuted on The ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week, it might well have joined the ranks of fondly remembered titles like Duel, The Night Stalker, and The Legend of Lizzie Borden, just to name a few.

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Focused just as much on the character development of Segal’s Harry Calder as it is on the actual “mad bomber” plot, Rollercoaster ditches the disaster movie convention of concentrating on the potential victims for audience identification (we get no hour-long build-up and backstory on those first—and only—people killed in the opening coaster crash). Instead, we get a rather amusing, post-Watergate context where cocky, mouthy Calder (Segal, perfectly cast) expresses constant disdain for anyone in a position of authority, and with good reason. His surly, contemptuous boss openly hates him (“You’re a big disappointment to me, Harry….It’s your mouth,”) while Agent Hoyt alternately dismisses him as a harmful nuisance, or suspects him of being in league with the bomber (Hoyt doesn’t think it’s necessary to tell Calder the Feds have endangered their bag man Harry by marking the money).

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There’s an agreeably nasty underlying tone and edge to Rollercoaster’s dynamics that are quite funny, beginning with the first shot of Segal (he’s getting painful electric shocks, trying to quit smoking), to boss Fonda happily informing Segal he’s on the hook for inspecting that rollercoaster that just killed a bunch of people, followed later by Segal blackmailing his boss to get a plane ticket to Chicago (Segal threatens to spill the beans about Fonda’s son-in-law’s contracting business, which used substandard material for a hospital roof that collapsed—which Fonda covered up). Link, Levinson, and Goldstone amplify this tension throughout the movie, even down to funny little throwaways at the parks where parents and kids constantly squabble. Nobody seems to be having any fun here (exactly).

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Nicely contrasted to Segal’s sharp, ingratiatingly put-upon Harry Calder, is “the young man,” played unnervingly by Timothy Bottoms (wisely, he’s never named in the movie). Whereas we get lots of comical details about Harry’s complicated life (we even see him humiliated by his ex-wife at his former home, where her new, mean-looking boyfriend is wearing Harry’s old birthday present: his bathrobe), we know nothing about the bomber except one thing: he’s doing this strictly for the money (“I’m not in it for kicks”). Some critics complained that Bottoms’ character needed to be fleshed out, but I find his blank contrast to Segal quite interesting. We like Segal’s Calder for his smarts, his wiseass cynicism, and we sympathize with his screwed-up domestic and work lives…while we’re chilled by Bottoms’ opaque, emotionally vacant mad bomber (Goldstone has a beautiful shot where super clean-cut Bottoms looks coldly at the wild, gyrating hippies and other young people at the Sparks concert, as if he’s an alien from a totally different, completely dispassionate world).

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Dehumanizing Bottoms keeps us from rooting for him to succeed, which we might be tempted to do because of his sheer competency, as Hitchcock often did with his villains. We’re put in the same place Segal is, not Bottoms. We acknowledge Bottoms’ character’s brains and ruthlessness, but we don’t admire him for that: he’s a stone-cold killer who does what he does simply for the money. The only time he shows any recognizable emotion is at the end, when his “friend,” Harry, shoots him—it’s a look of betrayal that only illustrates how far the seemingly in-control, inhumanly capable “young man” is divorced from his own reality.

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As well as the comedy and suspense elements of Rollercoaster play, it’s too bad that the “spectacle” aspects of the movie aren’t equally emphasized—that’s where the movie lost money. The scripters and Goldstone treat the rollercoaster/Sensurround action sequences as almost an afterthought, when they should be front and center. The opening sequence is beautifully built, with the audience primed for its first Sensurround coaster ride (I still remember “feeling” that first shot of the motors switching on to crank the cars up the first drop). Sensurround was constantly retooled and improved as each movie came out, and with Rollercoaster, Lalo Schifrin was the first composer able to write musical cues that were included on the Sensurround optical tracks (by this third movie, Sensurround’s Mod-II had eliminated the need for an outside “rumble generator”). So when those cars go bouncing over the wooden coaster’s tracks, and Schifrin mixes in these frightening, shrill organ blasts, the effect, even on Blu-ray, is notable (the movie’s single best shot shows a diopter composite of the coaster high up in the frame, going around a curved piece of track, with taut guy wires anchored at the bottom, “singing” in protest from the strain—it’s a remarkable mix of visual and audio components).

Unfortunately, the rest of Rollercoaster, from a Sensurround standpoint at least, feels like a let down, as if the director and scripters said, “We gave you a taste of your ‘gimmick,’ now it’s time to focus on our clever little suspense tale.” A big mistake when the Sensurround process is selling the movie. Critically, we’re cheated out of the bomber’s second attack (we only get a shot of smoke crossing our field of vision at the fictitious “Wonderworld” park), leaving a big action void in the movie until we later see Segal riding a coaster at Kings Dominion…where nothing happens to him or the coaster (another cheat).

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Flaws can also be spotted in Levinson’s and Link’s script. The authorities couldn’t determine right away that the first coaster suffered an explosion on the track? How many times is that cop going to walk by Bottoms—who’s wearing an earpiece and binoculars, for chrissakes—up on the Eiffel tower? Why, exactly, is Harry’s family at the amusement park…if nothing is going to happen to them? And please god why do we have to listen to 11 ½ minutes of Sparks singing “Big Boy”? (where are the Bay City Rollers when we need them?). We can forget those lapses as the suspense is ratcheted up. Unfortunately, the lack of frequent, strong Sensurround action scenes can’t be ignored (apparently the script’s first draft included a wild chase between Calder and the bomber on the rollercoaster—a socko finish). That reserved, careful tone (by a director, I suspect, who didn’t want to make a “Sensurround picture”) may be fine for a TV movie of the week…but not for summer popcorn spectacle.

Shout!’s 2K 1080p HD widescreen 2.35:1 transfer of Rollercoaster is a big, big improvement over that old Universal letterboxed disc. Fine image detail, when the shot is close, is impressive (some of the medium shots go soft, but that was the original look of the movie), colors are solid and correctly valued (if unimpressive—Goldstone used a lot of browns and mustards), while grain is a tad loose in some of the aerial and darker shots.

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It’s pretty cool that Shout! and Universal would include the original 2.1 Sensurround audio track, presented here in TrueHD…but unless you’ve got a bunch of those huge wooden cabineted Cerwin-Vega Sensurround horns sitting around, as well as the wiring and juice to handle the track…it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. You simply cannot recreate Sensurround in your home theater (even Sensurround couldn’t do it; their own home system was briefly offered, and it failed miserably). So, I actually preferred the DTS-HD 2.0 track here, which was cleaner, with more defined effects and music cues (if you’re wondering where the 5.1 is, remember that Earthquake was the only Sensurround movie recorded in actual stereo; any stereo effects in the theaters for mono optical Rollercoaster were created through front and back speaker manipulation on the Sensurround track).

Extras here include an interview with associate producer Tommy Cook (12:47), the former child actor who came up with Rollercoaster’s original story…and from the sound of it, pretty much got aced out of any real position on the production. Good info on how he came up with the story, and its genesis through Universal Studios (apparently, his good friend James Franciscus turned down the lead because the money wasn’t any good), and his own take on the finished product (he doesn’t sound all that enthusiastic about what they did to his story, nor is he impressed with the Sensurround element). Radio spots, a stills gallery, and an original trailer round out the extras.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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