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The release of 1977's Rollercoaster on Blu-Ray marks another of my most-wanted titles on the format. While it's often grouped in with the classic "disaster movies" of the 1970s, its director James Goldstone prefers that you call it a suspense film instead. Sort of like the earlier Two Minute Warning, it deals with a disturbed individual who threatens to bring violence to places people go to for fun- in this case, amusement parks. The villain here, played by Timothy Bottoms, never gives his name and is referred to in the credits only as "Young Man." The movie doesn't go into much of his character background either, just that he's very skilled at constructing bombs, watching and listening to people from afar and can afford to fly to different parts of the country in a short period of time. He even has a phone in his car, at a time when those were rather costly and not commonplace. Still, he seems to need money which is his motivation for doing what he does- planting bombs on rollercoaster tracks in order to make the cars fly off the tracks and seriously injure or kill the innocent riders. He first does this at a small seaside amusement park- first sneaking onto the tracks and planting his radio-controlled explosives, then triggering it that night as it's being ridden.
Enter the film's reluctant hero- Harry Calder (George Segal), a guy who inspects amusement park rides among other things (it's never clear exactly WHO he works for, but he is an authority). He happens to be the person who last inspected the coaster before the "accident", and swore everything was in top shape. He then hears about a fire at another amusement park forcing an evacuation, and thinks that might be more than just coincidental. When he tries to get more info on it from people at the corporation that owns that park, they refuse to tell him anything. Then he finds out about a "secret" meeting people in the business are holding in Chicago and forces himself into it- there they play a cassette tape where the villain announces that they'll be seeing more of these incidents unless he gets a million dollars in cash, which went pretty far in 1977. He's also spying on these people and likes the way Harry reacts to all of this, so he asks that he be the one to hand off the demanded suitcase of cash to him at Kings Dominion in Virginia.
What follows is some good old-fashioned messing with Harry by the antagonizer, as he has to fly out to that amusement park to deliver the money. He's got a team of others on his side, but the bad guy knows this and still tries to make it as hard as possible. It plays out much like the sequence in the first Dirty Harry film where Clint Eastwood had to run to various pay phones in the city to answer the villain's calls and follow instructions, only here it's done against the lovely backdrop of the 1977 amusement park- which is still operating today but looks quite different. Some of the amusement park "geeks" out there enjoy this movie just for that reason, and it is a quite nice trip back in time even with the sinister goings-on. George Segal's character is quite a laugh as well, as he's quite business-minded and while he's supposed to be pretending to have a fun time at the amusement park, he's clearly just annoyed by the whole thing. We get to see him on many rides holding onto the suitcase of money with a rather displeasured look on his face, as he follows orders first via a pay phone and then a delivered radio. Timothy Bottoms is also shown watching all of this with amusement, telling him to go on several attractions before handing off the cash just to annoy him as well as throw off his backup team.
There's also a funny subplot of Harry trying to quit smoking, and a few scenes feature a young Helen Hunt as his daughter. Not to give away the entire movie but the climax takes place at California's Magic Mountain with lots of great 1970s looks at that amusement park as well. It's set against the grand opening of their "Revolution" roller coaster, which our villain just can't help but play his games with. A bonus here (and a major reason why this movie was one of my first blind-buys on laserdisc) is an appearance by the inimitable band Sparks, who I first discovered through their clever new-wave tunes in the 1980s but found they had been around since the 70s going through a few different phases then. Here they're sort of in glam-rock mode and in the background play the songs "Fill ‘Er Up" and "Big Boy", admittedly not among their best. (I was clued into this by singer Ron Mael's liner notes in their 1991 best-of CD: "Yes, you did see Sparks in the film Rollercoaster during your last airplane trip. No, we didn't know the film was going to turn out like that.") 70s TV-announcer mainstay Charlie Tuna (real name Art Ferguson) MC's the concert and ride opening as well, truly another plus.
Rollercoaster has had a few previous appearances on disc formats of the past, including the original DiscoVision laserdisc label, but it's never looked better in an American release than it does here (it was released on Blu-Ray earlier in Europe, but I have not seen and cannot comment on that disc's quality.) While it has been on DVD, that disc was in 4x3 letterbox format and not what they called "Enhanced for 16x9" in those days, and thus on a widescreen HD TV it doesn't look great as you're forced to choose between watching the lo-res picture in a small box in the middle of your screen, or zoom in and further magnify its low resolution. This Blu-Ray disc finally gets that right, plus brings out details I'd never seen in the countless times I'd watched it in its previous releases. I'd gotten quite used to the "aliasing" on many shots, inherent in standard-def video, but all of that is now gone here. Finally I was able to clearly read all the signage in the background, including the sign next to the singing mushrooms at Kings Dominion (saying that they have to rest or their throats will get "spore") and clearly seeing the date of July 1977 on a calendar. I'd always felt the 1993 letterboxed laserdisc looked a bit too clean and sharp on a CRT screen (the older pan and scan DiscoVision disc at least looked more film-like) but on this Blu-Ray it looks just like a film print, with appropriate grain and such but also with no signs of fading or wear. The disc encoding is top-notch too with no compression artifacts or banding.
Rollercoaster was the third of four films that used Universal's "Sensurround" system- while I never got to experience it in a theater, I'm told that it was accomplished by placing large subwoofers all around the auditorium so that they would shake the theater with heavy bass at certain points. (The first movie to use this was 1974's Earthquake and most home editions of that give you a good sense of what it must have been like.) Here, as well as on Universal's previous DVD, they've attempted to replicate that using the available discrete .1 subwoofer track. This film was recorded in mono and the DVD presented it with a Dolby Digital 1.1 track, but oddly here they've decided to encode it as Dolby Digital 3.1 (mislabeled on the cover as Dolby TrueHD), with sound coming from the front left and right speakers with the center channel silent. The subwoofer does kick in during the intended "sensurround" sequences (which were recorded live on location), mainly during the scenes with amusement park rides shown front-and-center. With my subwoofer set at a normal level however it doesn't exactly blow you away, and I've read prior criticisms of the DVD's sound from people who've studied Sensurround's history quite a bit saying that they didn't quite get it right. Still, it's better than nothing- and a mono track more comparable to the laserdisc is also included in 2-channel DTS Master Audio. (The DVD included a French dub also with the Sensurround track, but that's missing here.)
Hearing-impaired subtitles are included.
A nice surprise was an audio announcement of Sensurround at the beginning of the movie, saying "The management assumes no responsibility for the physical or emotional reactions of the individual viewer." I had heard of a similar announcement with text at the beginning of original film prints of Earthquake. The disc also features an interview with author Tommy Cook, who wrote the story that the movie's screenplay was "suggested by"- he was a rollercoaster enthusiast and had written the story with a movie in mind, but the screenwriters Richard Levinson and William Link (creators of several 1970s detective shows including "Columbo" which was still on the air when this movie was made) had a few different ideas. The theatrical trailer is included, which appears to be zoomed in and upscaled from the 4x3 standard-def transfer of it present on the DVD, and unlisted on the cover are a still gallery and four original radio commercials for the movie, in stereo which are quite a bit of fun.
Rollercoaster has been among my favorite movies from the 1970s, and with a sub-par transfer on DVD it's great to see it finally done justice on Blu-Ray. It's by no means a perfect movie, but the cat-and-mouse performances of George Segal and Timothy Bottoms never get old to me, plus the generous amounts of 1970s amusement park footage makes this as good for scenery as 1978's Dawn of the Dead was for fans of shopping malls of that period. Rollercoaster was upstaged a bit in theaters by another movie called Star Wars released at the same time, but of the two this one has the best presentation on disc right now.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.