Rollercoaster (1977) – You buys yer ticket, you takes yer chances

“If you’re trying to kill us, at least let me put on some lip gloss.”

Drake’s rating: You say you want a Revolution?

Drake’s review: The 1970s did love its fads. From 8-track tapes to Daisy Dukes, the decade was full of gimmicks galore. Hollywood took notice of the popular trends, of course, and although we unfortunately never got Pet Rock: The Movie, we at least got Roller Boogie. And Xanadu. And not one, but two Evel Knievel movies.

Geez, ‘70s, go home. You’re drunk.

But the gimmickry extended to the production of the movies as well as the content. The studios were well aware of the dangers that television posed to their audience numbers, and thus the bottom line, and were anxious to utilize techniques that were peculiar to the theaters and couldn’t be replicated on the home screen. And what better way to get butts in the seats than subject them to an auditory assault capable of literally shaking the plaster off of the walls?

So it was that in 1974, an audio company named Cerwin-Vega worked with Universal Studios to create Sensurround, which was an audio effects system that used special subwoofers to create vibrations via low frequency bass. This effect could then be used to enhance the movie-going experience on such films as Earthquake, in which it was first utilized in 1974, and Midway in 1976. Rollercoaster was the third film to use the Sensurround audio system, and it ended up being the harbinger of its demise. Because while Rollercoaster was designed as a movie event that would let you feel like you were actually riding an amusement park ride, all those fancy-pants audio engineers failed to take one thing into account.

And that thing was called Star Wars. Yes, Star Wars, not “A New Hope,” you little heathens. Now git off my lawn!

Star Wars did just a little bit of business in 1977, while Rollercoaster failed to even make back its budget and subsequently slid into cinematic obscurity, signaling an end to the Sensurround experience. Now to be fair, the movie itself isn’t horrible, but it is very, verrry ‘70s, and I’m not just talking about the rotary phones and polyester jackets here.

A decent disaster-movie style opener actually gives one some hope going in. A mad bomber (Timothy Bottoms) blows up part of a rollercoaster track, sending the chain of cars flying off into the amusement park. It’s an effective scene and also the only bit of real excitement we actually get. And that’s because the remainder of the movie involves safety inspector Harry Calder (George Segal) getting wind of the bomber’s plot and, in conjunction with the FBI, attempting to catch him.

As a thriller, that’s not too bad of a plot. But Rollercoaster isn’t exactly a thriller. It wants to be and tries for a few Hitchcockian moments, but the Sensurround technology means that even a simple money drop by Harry turns into an extended scene of him on one amusement park ride after another as the bomber orders him around via walkie-talkie. The climax of the film has similar problems, as the bomber plans to cause an accident on the Revolution, Magic Mountain’s famous looping rollercoaster. Harry’s girlfriend (Susan Strasberg) and daughter (Helen Hunt) show up at the park with the plan of riding the Revolution and one could be forgiven for thinking that some authentic tension is in the offing.

Instead, Harry spots them and asks them to leave. They do. And… scene!

Basically, Rollercoaster revels in putting the viewer in the rides. Now that might have sounded great on paper, and it was likely even somewhat effective in the theaters in ‘77, but watching it at home without any of the vibratory effects reveals what a thin movie this is. That’s a shame, as the actors involved do a good job. George Segal combines character competence with a healthy distrust of authority, clashing with both his boss (Henry Fonda) and the lead FBI agent (Richard Widmark). Widmark himself is well-cast as the no-nonsense federal agent, and Helen Hunt shows considerable talent even at an early age as Tracy Calder.

Unfortunately, Timothy Bottoms’ mad bomber is never given a motive, or anything in the way of personality. He wants money, but we never learn why, or even how he got his demolition skills. He simply exists as a threat to Big Coaster.

Still, if you want to watch George Segal try to quit smoking, argue with his boss and ride a rollercoaster, then this is unquestionably the movie for you.


  • There were two Battlestar: Galactica movies in the late ‘70s that utilized Sensurround, and Alien had a limited release with a remixed Sensurround track in 1979. But for all intents and purposes, Rollercoaster had killed the technology dead.
  • Well, not exactly. The technology went on to become a popular addition to discos and night clubs, and inspired later audio engineers to design dynamic new sound systems for motion pictures.
  • The band Sparks appear during the Magic Mountain scenes. They were hired after KISS turned the producers down.
  • A year later, KISS said yes to filming KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park at Magic Mountain. We only wish they’d said no to that as well.
  • Steve Gutenberg has a bit part with a single line. Blink and you’ll miss him!

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