Monday, December 17, 2007

Do Not Stand Up

I’ve always been a little fascinated by the slight differences in the Universal logo which was used during the 70s and the 80s, the one where we travel through space towards the Earth. The one used for all Scope releases is a slight variant, in which the approach to the planet seems slower, shorter and more mysterious. Back before I fully understood the differences in aspect ratios it somehow gave me the impression that the following film was going to be somehow grander than normal movies—well, it works in the case of JAWS. Why were there these two slightly different versions? And why does the Universal logo before E.T. play backwards? That’s right, these are the things I wonder about. I no longer make apologies.

The Scope Universal logo is seen in all its glory before the 1977 ROLLERCOASTER which I just saw for the first time. There was no big reason for seeing it now, except that I had never seen it before. Visually it bears all the marks of the various disaster-type films that came from the studio back then, with the flat, TV look shot in Panavision fully present. The film was released in Sensurround, the big gimmicky sound system developed by the company in that decade which of course is not replicated on the DVD. The film is set around what I guess was the amusement park craze of the 70s. Did you ever notice how in films based around a fad everyone in the world seems to be crazy about that fad? If it’s a video game movie, everyone’s nuts for video games. If it’s HALLOWEEN III, everyone’s crazy about those masks. In ROLLERCOASTER it’s amusement parks and, of course, rollercoasters that everyone is bonkers for. It was released in June 1977, feels about as dated as an issue of Dynamite Magazine with Mark Fidrych on the cover and was probably a total relic by the following year. I got some enjoyment out of that 70s style of suspense but then again, I got some enjoyment out of the logo at the start, so what can I tell you.

Timothy Bottoms plays a madman who sabotages a rollercoaster with a radio-control explosive, killing a number of innocent people and attempts to use this to extort money from the authorities so he won’t commit the same act again. George Segal plays Harry Calder the insurance investigator who figures out Bottoms’ agenda very quickly, which attracts the attention of the madman who begins to take a personal interest in Calder and involves him in his further plots.

There seems to be miles and miles of rollercoaster and amusement park footage in ROLLERCOASTER and really not very much else. It utilizes a little of the disaster movie formula made familiar by Universal by this time, along with the basic TOWERING INFERNO/BLACK SUNDAY template of public events where innocents are placed in jeopardy. The three acts contain three separate amusement parks with the first two filmed in Virginia and the 'thrilling' climax taking place in the familiar environs of Magic Mountain in Southern California. That climax has a little of the same problem that BLACK SUNDAY has—if the villain succeeds, what occurs would be horrifying but the hero can’t fail so how could there be anything spectacular that will occur in that climax? The film is directed by James Goldstone, a journeyman probably best known for the second STAR TREK pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. His direction here is strictly workmanlike and never seems to be able to ratchet up the tension even during the climax which is dully shot like every other scene in the film. Do not look for Hitchcockian-level thrills here. Still, if you’re a rollercoaster buff, and I know some of them are out there, there’s at least a lot of documentary-type footage at the various locations used. The finale is bungled, as if they couldn’t or wouldn’t figure out a more exciting way to stage it and when the credits roll, there’s a feeling that they weren’t interested enough to come up with a simple wrap-up scene. It all makes you wonder what sort of film JAWS would have been if it had been directed by somebody like Goldstone working with the same writers and starring somebody like Chuck Heston. Actually, I’d rather not think about that.

Easily the best thing about ROLLERCOASTER is George Segal as Harry Calder, making for a likable lead and one a little different than expected from the Universal disaster stable. He helps make the movie about as enjoyable as it is. Paired with Elliott Gould’s Robert Caulfield in CAPRICORN ONE, these films would make for a nice “70s schnooks with similar names who become unexpected heroes” double bill. Richard Widmark plays an FBI agent who butts heads with Segal, though there’s not as much yelling as there is between Widmark and Michael Caine in THE SWARM. Henry Fonda has a handful of scenes as Segal’s boss, Susan Strasberg (wasted) is his girlfriend and a pre-teen Helen Hunt makes her film debut as his daughter. You of course think she’s going to be placed in jeopardy, but as is typical in the half-assed nature of some of these 70s Universal films (EARTHQUAKE, also in Sensurround, is the best example) that never happens, which means that there’s never a reason for her character to exist. Craig Wasson and an uncredited Steve Guttenberg make early appearances as well. The rock band Sparks appears during the Magic Mountain climax, playing a few really bad songs that seem to go on forever. The rollercoasters play themselves. They are very convincing. I’m sure I’ll never get the chance to experience the thrills of ROLLERCOASTER in Sensurround as it was intended, but I’ll get over it. It may not be much of a movie, but I’m still kind of glad it exists.


Unknown said...

I've always thought the reason that the Universal logo before E.T. was backwards was because it was Spielberg's way of incorporating the imagery into his film (as he and other directors of his generation did, i.e. his use of the Paramount logo in the RAIDERS series): the image of "leaving" the Universal planet and flying through space was suggestive of the alien's flight. Anyway, that is what I thought when I saw the movie in junior high (I haven't watched it since).

I caught ROLLERCOASTER in a drive in as a kid, and I distinctly remember how boring the ending was ("That's it?"). Like E.T. I haven't seen it since that first viewing, but it was the movie that was on when I flipped past American Movie Classics one day years ago and realized that with Turner's library now being used for his own TCM channel, AMC was stuck showing stuff like ROLLERCOASTER. That's right, ROLLERCOASTER -- an American Movie Classic!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I always thought it looked like the logo at the start of E.T. is going to be incorporated into the film, but instead it fades out and the credits roll over black. So beats me.

Whatever you remember about the end of ROLLERCOASTER from when you were a kid is right on the money. It hasn't gotten better. But, Sensurround gimmick aside, it sounds like a drive-in would have been the ideal place to see it.