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. 

Black Sunday (1977)

Hey There Blimpy Boy, Flying Through The Sky So Fancy-Free!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Black Sunday is another addition to the “They couldn’t make that nowadays club”. Unsurprisingly in a post 9/11 world, no studio would want to touch a film about a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl, nor would any company or brand want to be associated with it. Yet in 1977, a mainstream film was released about such an attack with cooperation from the National Football League and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company – now I can’t look at a Good Year blimp and not think of Black Sunday. Likewise looking at the film from a political point of view, it’s highly unlikely modern, left-wing Hollywood would make a film which is pro-Zionist and features Palestinians as terrorists. The terror group in Black Sunday is the real-life Black September of whom were behind the 1972 Munich Massacre – this was the basis for the inspiration behind Black Sunday.

Black Sunday was one of several high profile underperformers to be released in 1977 including Sorcerer, Cross of Iron, New York, New York and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. These films may be able to attribute their lack of success at least in part due to the release of Star Wars. Although Black Sunday’s timing was also compromised by another film about terrorism at a football game which was released months earlier in the form of Two Minute Warning starring Charlton Heston – a poor man’s version of Black Sunday. As of writing this review in 2020, Black Sunday can be viewed in high definition online but has yet to receive a Blu-ray release in any region. I can only speculate if corporate or political reasoning has any part to play in this.

Black Sunday is led by a trio of performers at the top of their game. Marthe Keller has a sinister presence as Black September member Dahlia Iyad. The Arab Mata Hari is no more unsettling than during the sequence in a hospital in which she disguises herself as a nurse to poison Israeli agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) in this very Terminator-like scenario. Dahlia is married to the mentally unhinged, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, Michael Lander (Bruce Dern). Lander is s divorcee who doesn’t get to see his children; the background behind Michael and Dahlia’s relationship is never revealed but is fascinating on the surface. There appears to be legitimate heartfelt feeling towards the two yet their bond is ultimately over ideology. Michael romanticizes himself and his wife’s martyrdom and in one scene basks in sheer euphoria with her after they have a successful weapons test which kills an innocent bystander – a disturbing look into the mind of a terrorist.

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Through Michael, Black Sunday also comments on the treatment of Vietnam veterans back home. In one scene Michael is not treated with respect by the rude receptionist at the Veterans Administration Hospital and made to wait amongst a crowded waiting area before seeing a psychiatrist. Yet during the film, he is still seen wearing his military uniform and taking pride in the medals he earned even though he plans to commit terror against the United States. When he flies the blimp prior to the execution of the terror plot, you can see the pain on his face as the Star-Spangled Banner is sung at the stadium.

Rounding out this trio is Robert Shaw as the total mad lad Major David Kabakov – an Israeli counter-terrorist agent and all-round unethical badass. A Dirty Harry type who play by the FBI’s rules (“In your own operational circle in Israel, I understand behind your own back they call you The Final Solution. A man who takes things to their ultimate conclusion and beyond ”). At the beginning of Black Sunday, Kabakov had the opportunity to kill Dahlia but allows her to live. Why doesn’t he kill Dahlia when he had the chance just 15 minutes into the movie? Well aside from the fact that the movie would have ended, Kabakov comes to regret this action and reject the notion of seeing both sides of the question (“The trouble is, Dave, you’ve come to see both sides of the question”). Also notice that he has a concentration camp tattoo on his arm which can be seen as he sits in the hospital bed – Kabakov being a Holocaust survivor goes unmentioned throughout the film.

The Long Beach boat chase and the Miami chase sequence are an appetizer to what comes later (despite some dubious sped up shots during the boat chase). Once the film reaches its final act on the Super Bowl date of January 9th, the final 40 minutes of Black Sunday is some of the most exhilarating action I’ve ever seen in a movie. Featuring chases on foot, car and then by helicopter, the phrase “Edge of your seat” doesn’t do it justice. The film’s advertising including the poser and the trailer (which is classic trailer fashion summarizes the entire plot of the film) focuses on the end of the film as the blimp reaches the audience at the football stadium, leaving the viewer to wonder how we get to that point and what happens next? The film never actually outlines the planned terror plot until we actually see it in action.

So how did the studio receive permission from Good Year to use their blimps and logo in the film? Director John Frankenheimer had already established good relationship with Good Year head Robert Lane as a result of working with the company in Frankenheimer’s previous film Grand Prix (1966). Lane granted Frankenheimer use of Goodyear’s blimps on four conditions: the film had to make clear that the villainous pilot did not work directly for Goodyear, but for a contractor; the final explosion could not come out of the word Goodyear on the blimp’s side as well as the blimp itself not being part of any violence, for example, nobody was to be churned up in its propellers. Lastly, the Good Year logo could not appear on the film’s poster or on any other such marketing materials, hence why the poster and home video releases the blimp simply has the words “Super Bowl” imprinted on its side.

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The grand spectacle of a finale during the Super Bowl X on January 18th, 1976 at the Miami Orange Bowl with the production returning to the same location film additional scenes on January 29th (I wonder how people present reacted to seeing Robert Shaw running about like a madman?). You get a real incoming sense of dread as the large crowds congregate and people are having a good time amongst the appearance of NFL players, coaches, sports announcers and CBS news crews.  Likewise, the President who appears at the Super Bowl in two brief shots resembles then POTUS Jimmy Carter. Carter was sworn into office on January 20th 1977, which means the earliest date if the movie’s timeline would be late 1977 to early 1978 at the earliest (the film indicates it takes place after January 1974). If the film takes place during the 1977 Superbowl then the President should resemble Gerald Ford during his last days in office but it’s only politics geeks like myself who get caught up over this sort of thing.

The score by John Williams is not one of his standout works as there’s no incentive to listen to it after watching the film, although it does succeed in creating suspense and you can hear shades of Star Wars from time to time. Likewise, the editing holds onto certain shots for just long enough not to notice imperfections in the special effects. My only minor criticism would be the very cheesy explosion shot once the blimp finally explodes.

Watching Black Sunday for the first time I was legitimately wondering if the blimp and its attached weapon would cause mass death and destruction and if Kabakov would live or will we get a Hollywood ending in which the day is saved – in the end, we get a bit of both. It’s clear some people are injured and killed once the blimp reaches the stadium but Kabakov being the chad he is, gets that thing away from the crowd and to a safe distance which it explodes, in a manner in which I can’t help but notice parallels the climax of The Dark Knight Rises. Some films once they end leave you that exhilarated, you’re dying to just tell someone about it – Black Sunday is one such film.