Rollercoaster (1977)

Big Boy, Big Boy!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Just how many films exist which are centered on rollercoasters? – Unfortunately, exceedingly few. Well, that’s where the aptly titled Rollercoaster comes into play. Rollercoasters and theme parks, in general, have been a fascination of mine since childhood with all those hours spent sitting at the computer playing Rollercoaster Tycoon (ah, good times). Even the ending of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had me disappointed when that lovely rollercoaster was set on fire in order to kill the creature. I can happily sit all day and watch nicely shot and edited footage of theme parks as well as POV footage of Rollercoasters of which this 70’s thriller has in plenty supply.

Rollercoaster is often mischaracterized as a disaster movie and while it does feature that 70’s disaster movie motif of having an all-star cast, the only disaster occurs at the beginning of the film in which a bomb is detonated on an active rollercoaster (shot at Ocean View Amusement Park, Virginia). This leads to a very well staged and brutal sequence in which carriage goes off track and bodies are seen being crushed on screen, albeit very briefly. Throughout the remainder of the film, the killer in question is threatening disaster rather than having disaster play out. Rollercoaster is also one of several films in the 1970s to feature Sensurround, a process to give the viewer a sense of vibration. This along with the film’s ties to the disaster genre gives the impression Rollercoaster is going to be a gimmicky picture however it’s a stronger film than its exterior would indicate. Rollercoaster is a Hitchcockian, cat & mouse thriller which if anything owes more to Jaws than the disaster movie genre (both films feature July 4th as a major element in their plots). Rollercoaster also makes a worthy companion piece to fellow terrorist thriller from 1977, Black Sunday, which both explore how public attractions can’t just be shut down due to terror threats. Likewise, it goes without saying that in the 21st century no company would allow their brand to be featured in a film in which their product is at the basis of a terrorist attack while the plot itself would be less likely to occur in today’s surveillance world.

No motive is given to the killer played by Timothy Bottoms (simply billed as the “Young Man” in the end credits), however, the character comes off more frightening this way than if he was given a clear motive (see Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets for a similar villain). In one scene the Young Man is shooting with precision at a fairground range and is asked by the carnie if he is ex-military to which the Young Man gives no response. Could he be a Vietnam veteran? – Along with his knowledge of explosives, the movie leaves such a reading open. The relationship between the hero Harry Calder (George Segal) and villain in Rollercoaster takes place over audio channels as they never encounter each other face to face until the end. This dynamic would later become commonplace in action films such as Die Hard or Speed, but Rollercoaster is the earliest film I’m aware of to feature this trope. In retrospect, I feel Bottoms gives the strongest performance in the film. He has a cold, calculating menace to him and even manages to do a lot with his eyes and tone of voice. Timothy Bottoms would later go onto portray U.S President George W. Bush a total of 4 times, and once you know that you can’t unsee it.

The middle portion of Rollercoaster involves a lengthy sequence of mind games at King’s Dominion Park, Virginia, in which the Young Man orders Harry to perform a series of tasks including wearing a funny hat and going on various rides (including one titled Vertigo – a little Hitchcock reference?) in order to transfer a briefcase containing a cash ransom. It’s a very well constructed piece of suspense similar in vain to the Simon Says series of mind games in Die Hard With A Vengeance (not to mention that camera trick they pull off on the Rebel Yell rollercoaster is a real shocker).

So who is that band featured in Rollercoaster playing at the film’s finale in Six Flags Magic Mountain on the 4th of July? They’re called Sparks, a respected music act from what I gather despite their resemblance to an 80’s hair metal band as seen in the film. Their song Big Boy is played as a bomb squad is attempting to find and disable an explosive on the rollercoaster and on first viewing, it feels like the song is on loop for a comically absurd amount of time, even with several intervals in which the film cuts to other scenes in which the song is not played. When watching the film again and timing how long the song is actually played for it only lasts 5 minutes but on first viewing, I could swear it felt more like 20 minutes (good tune though). The roller coaster featured in film’s climax is the Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California which opened the year prior in 1976 and is the first rollercoaster in the world to feature a complete 360-degree vertical loop. The score by Lalo Schifrin on the other hand is surprisingly varied. The carnival motifs are original pieces composed for the film and not just lifted stock music, and like any carnival music, its one part joyous and the other part sinister. The score also occasionally transitions into the style of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score and even throws some nice blaxploitation style funk into the mix at the beginning of the Magic Mountain sequence.

The film’s writers Richard Levinson and William Link were primarily involved writing for TV, thus Rollercoaster does have a made-for-TV vibe to it which it can’t quite shake off. The plot itself does sound the type of premise which would be the basis for a TV movie and unlikely to make it to cinematic A-picture. The characters themselves in Rollercoaster are only surface-level interesting but the plot has enough intrigue to keep it engaging. George Segal is likeable as everyman Harry Caulder who gets caught up in the Hitchcock tradition of an ordinary man getting trapped in an extraordinary situation. He is also given an odd but memorable introduction seen trying to give up smoking via Clockwork Orange style methods. Likewise, the always cool Richard Widmark does his reliable thing however I’m just disappointed Henry Fonda’s role in the film barely goes beyond a cameo. Fonda’s part could have provided some entertaining comic relief with the antagonist relationship he shares with George Segal by popping up now and then but instead only appears in two scenes and is clearly phoning in his performance – the part must have been a quick pay-cheque. Regardless of shortcomings, for now, Rollercoaster is probably the best film in the not so contested category of best rollercoaster film of all time. 

San Francisco (1936)

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The disaster film is a genre thought of as being low brow but San Francisco is one of the few with class and sophistication. Like in James Cameron’s Titanic, the viewer is left waiting in suspense for the impending disaster as the emotional stakes rise. When the night of the earthquake arrives the movie draws out the final moments before the disaster; I’m left thinking to myself “It’s coming, it’s coming”. Also was it common back then to hold a ball at 5 in the morning?

The earthquake itself ranks among one of cinema’s greatest disaster sequences with the special effects and studio pyrotechnics making up for the less than stellar projection effects at the beginning of the film. The sequence shows the close up reactions of individuals just before they are killed by incoming debris as it lasts for the same amount of time which the actual earthquake itself did on Five-Thirteen A.M, April 18th, 1906 (or at least according to the movie, other sources state it occurred at 5:12 AM).  This is followed by the harrowing sight of death and destruction as Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) walks through the ruins of San Francisco as he observes the horrifying, brutal aftermath in a remarkable section of the film. Even famous silent directors D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim worked on the film without credit which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the plot of San Francisco would have been ripe for a grand silent melodrama.

On my first viewing, the ending of San Francisco felt far-fetched. I can see many people having an “Oh come on!” reaction but for me at least even on that first viewing, it still worked on an emotional level. However, after contemplating about the ending I have come around to accept the idea that a person, even a non-believer may turn to religion after experiencing something as horrendous as a natural disaster which leaves a trail of death and destruction. Although considering how religious the entire movie is I should have seen it coming not to mention the ending can be justified when looking at the deeper religious parallels within the film.

During the movie Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) performs the opera Faust on stage as we are shown recreations of various portions of the opera; throughout San Francisco there are parallels to the story of Faust. The clash between the moral and immoral, Mary’s tendency to refuse Blackie’s advances, the fire seen at the beginning of the film to lines such as “You can’t take a woman and then sell her immortal soul”. Even during the earthquake’s aftershock, the underworld itself opens up (and one poor sucker falls into it); and at the very end of all this Blackie repents his sinful ways. If you can accept Blackie’s conversion then you still have to deal with the extremely corny, patriotic finale but I can still get a kick out of such cheese.

Jeanette MacDonald, what a voice! The reaction of the churchgoers listening on in awe when she sings in the choir is the same reaction as the viewer; San Francisco is, after all, a vehicle designed for the full range of her talents. Plus that title song is one catchy tune and I’m happy to hear it multiple times throughout the film. Likewise, Spencer Tracy appears in the film for 15 minutes and 58 seconds but he is the actor who leaves the biggest impression acting wise. Father Tim Mullin is the predecessor to Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town. Tracy was an actor who had the ability to play such a saintly character without it being sickly even as he inhabits the office of his church amongst the most heavenly lighting.

Is Blackie an atheist or just non-religious? The first dialogue between him and Father Mullin suggests he may not believe in God; “So you still believe in Santa Claus?” followed by Mullin’s response, “Trouble with you is that you don’t believe in anything”. The character relationship between Blackie and Father Mullin is the same which was seen in Manhattan Melodrama (in which Gable plays a similar character also called Blackie) and later in Angels With Dirty Faces. The two childhood friends who end up taking very different paths in life (one of moral servitude and the other of crime and corruption) yet their friendship prevails despite such contrasting lifestyles and views. Blackie Norton couldn’t be more of a Clark Gable character; a man under great pressure, business owner, runs for political office, has a way with women, cocky, street smart and a loveable jerk. It’s not clear to what extent his criminality runs to other than that he (along with numerous business owners in San Francisco) run his establishment without a license; there was still a bit of the Wild West in 1906 San Francisco.