With such films as Two Minute Warning and Black Sunday populating the theatres in the late 70s it’s a wonder people ever went out in public, it seemed that being killed by a mad sniper or similarly armed terrorist was almost a forgone conclusion, and if it wasn’t terrorists it was a Great White Shark terrorizing the local beaches. So for those who avoided sporting events and fled the seaside for the safety of a landlocked amusement parks they were in for a surprise as well, in the form of…Rollercoaster!
Meet Harry Calder (George Segal) a dedicated public servant who works for the governmental office of Safety and Standard Practices, a man who’s not above blackmailing his corrupt boss (Henry Fonda) to get the job done. It’s when there is a terrible accident at the Ocean View Amusement Park involving a rollercoaster, one that Harry had signed off on as being safe mere months ago, that our “man of the people” goes into action. Harry was already skeptical that the rollercoaster disaster, which took several lives, was just an accident, but when one witnesses mentions seeing a maintenance working walking the track at a time when the man whose job it was would have been long in bed, he knows something is wrong in the state of Denmark. When a week later he learns of a mysterious fire at another amusement park he begins to investigate further, even though that park wasn’t in his jurisdiction.
And just who is the man behind these “accidents” that are plaguing America’s parks? Well the film gives him no name or even a motivation beyond money. In the credits he’s simply listed as Young Man (Timothy Bottoms), and though earlier versions had him doing this because the corporations that own the parks had put his family’s “mom and pop” amusement park out of business, that motive didn’t make the cut and now all we know is he wants, “One million dollars.” Some critics at the time pointed this out as a failing, but for me not getting into the head of the killer made him scarier. Is it really just the money? Could he being doing this because it turns him on? Did an amusement park molest him as a child? None of that mattered to me as Bottoms’ cool and collected killer kept me at the edge of my seat with his calm professionalism and well thought out plans.
Calder discovers that several of the country’s top CEO’s that own amusement parks are having a secret meeting in Chicago so he decides to crash the meeting and find out what’s going on, but he’s not the only fly in the ointment as the killer has placed a bug in the room to overhear them as they listen to his tape containing his extortion demands, and when he hears Calder caution the CEOs to treat this extortionist like a credible threat, and that he tells them to notify the Feds, he decides to include Calder in his machinations. But when Special Agent in Charge Hoyt (Richard Widmark) arrives he thanks Calder for having the F.B.I called in but his services are no longer needed. That is until the extortionist calls and informs them that he wants Calder to be the one to deliver the money. Needless to say this does not thrill Calder.
What follows is a brilliant cat and mouse game between the extortionist and the Feds, with poor Calder caught in the middle. The highlight of the film is Calder being run all over an amusement park, while carrying the million dollars around in a brief case, and with the cops doing their best to keep track of him as the extortionist sends the poor civil servant on a long wild goose chase. It’s how well thought out the plan to get the money, while making a fool of the cops, is what sells this movie. This is a villain who clearly thinks four steps ahead everyone, and for this you can almost admire him and be on his side, that is if it wasn’t for the killing of all those innocent people that is. Rollercoaster is an excellent thriller, director James Goldstone does an excellent job of ratchetting up the tension while also relieving it with some nice humor provided by the ever talented George Segal, and if watched on a big enough television sets the rollercoaster POV footage is quite fun. Just make sure you get off before the bomb does, and remember you must be this tall to watch this ride.
Rollercoaster is one of the better 70s thrillers out there and an “E” ticket attraction if ever there was one.