Last updated: July 18. 2013 5:04PM - 58 Views
TOM DOTY
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'Roller Coaster'


A safety inspector matches wits with a lethal extortionist targeting the titular rides at the nation's most popular theme parks, in this late-1970s effort.
It all begins with a spectacular sequence in which a young man sets off a small bomb on the track of a roller coaster. The train derails when it hits the damaged spot and deposits its passengers all over the boardwalk while the killer slips away munching on cotton candy. The scene abruptly shifts to safety inspector Harry Calder submitting to a unique program to stop smoking. He's wired up and every time he takes a puff a technician administers a jolt of electricity to his body. Harry may not have picked the best method to stop smoking but he's sharp enough to suspect that a fire at a second amusement park is related to the roller coaster bombing and crashes a meeting of the top five amusement park owners in Chicago.
Sure enough they are delivered a tape stating that $1 million will stop the extortionist's reign of terror. Harry's advice is to bring in the feds because this guy is serious and, unfortunately, cunning. Turns out Harry is right, because the guy planted a microphone in the room and knows exactly what they're discussing. He also takes a shine to Harry and informs the FBI that Harry is to make the money drop.
This leads to a an excellent sequence in which the bomber arranges to receive the money at yet another amusement park. It isn't long before he reveals that another bomb is somewhere in the facility and then proceeds to send Harry on every ride in the park before coming up with an ingenious method of getting rid of the agents shadowing Harry so he can collect the money. The bills however are marked and the bomber announces he will teach them all a lesson.
It all comes down to a manhunt at Magic Mountain, with no one knowing what the bomber looks like, though Harry definitely knows his voice and that comes in handy during a crucial sequence that I won't give away here.
Though billed as a disaster movie - the coaster sequences are even recorded in Sensurround - this is actually a suspense picture and was written by the team of Levinson and Link, who specialized in mysteries and penned "Columbo" amongst others. Director James Goldstone uses a top-notch cast and they deliver the goods. George Segal is the perfect every man as Harry and one's never sure if he will be able to stop the madman he's after. Richard Widmark plays the FBI honcho as an authoritative if by rote lawman who learns that his methods need some improvement. Henry Fonda has a small but amusing role as Harry's beleaguered boss.
Timothy Bottoms, however, is the real casting coup here. His red hair and bland features make a perfect counterpart for his emotionless character, who is never given a name or background. A subplot involving his parents' bankruptcy as owners of a small scale amusement park was wisely cut, leaving us with a cold fish that is just out for the money.
There are also a few turns by people who hadn't been discovered yet and include Helen Hunt as Harry's daughter and Steve Guttenberg in a one-line role as a messenger boy.
The special effects are well executed, though the best sequence occurs at the very beginning.
All in all, this is a good fusing of action, suspense and disaster movies with a smart script and tight direction. In the summer of 1977 it didn't scare people away from amusement parks like "Jaws" did for beaches the previous year, but then again those were safer times and no one yet believed how far some fanatics would go to get some attention.
Best Line: "Harry, if you're trying to kill us, at least let me put on some lip gloss."
1977, rated PG.
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