Pure escapism, Rollercoaster combines many styles of pulpy entertainment that thrived in the ’70s: It’s a disaster movie, a police procedural, a terrorism thriller, and a theme-park romp all rolled into one. So, while it might be exaggerating to call Rollercoaster a good movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch. The movie begins when a psycho identified only as “Young Man” (Timothy Bottoms) begins a killing spree by blowing up the tracks on a rollercoaster in Virginia. Ride investigator Harry Calder (George Segal) arrives to survey the damage, suspecting foul play instead of a simple accident. Soon, the Young Man strikes again and issues a demand for $1 million to prevent further attacks. Although hard-nosed FBI Agent Hoyt (Richard Widmark) is placed in charge of the investigation, Harry insists on remaining involved, which turns out to be a bad mistake, since the Young Man identifies Calder as his preferred courier for ransom payments.
Thus begins an enjoyably silly cat-and-mouse game that climaxes with a showdown at the Magic Mountain theme park near Los Angeles (which fans of ’70s kitsch know and love as the setting for the TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park). Plus, as happens in these sorts of contrived cinematic situations, Calder’s teenaged daughter (Helen Hunt) gets caught up in the danger, so catching the crook becomes a personal matter for Our Hero. Although Rollercoaster is padded with a few tiresome sequences, like an extended concert by the New Wave band Sparks and lengthy point-of-view rollercoaster shots designed to showcase the “Sensurround” format in which the picture was released, the bulk of the movie is suspenseful and zippy.
Segal’s dry humor fits the thriller genre well, offering a sly wink at the audience whenever the plot gets too preposterous, and the idea of a madman hiding amid the huge crowds at an amusement park is consistently unsettling. (Casting the boyish Bottoms was a clever choice that adds to the queasiness.) Justifying the disaster-movie element of its cinematic DNA, Rollercoaster delivers several harrowing highlights, though the flick never slips into gory excess. After all, producer Jennings Lang was an ace at the disaster genre, having made 1974’s Earthquake and most of the Airport movies. Widmark and fellow supporting player Henry Fonda ground the movie with their familiar personas, and it’s a kick to see future Oscar winner Hunt at the apex of her child-acting career. All in all, Rollercoaster is a tasty trifle with the added benefit of capturing vintage theme-park scenes that will make any former ’70s kid nostalgic for simpler times.