FANTASIA FESTIVAL REVIEW – ‘Class Action Park’ is the dangerous and tragic history of a theme park where anything could (and did) happen

For kids of the 1980s and 90s, we all likely have stories of taking a risky spin on wildly unsafe theme park rides and carnival attractions that would never exist in the 21st century. As a youngster, I came close to dying on one myself. At a local “action park” that shall remain unnamed, I was coerced by my friends into jumping off a 20-foot tall attraction known as “The Rock,” which stood atop a deep and dark pool of water, bearing a sign stating this thrill-ride was “not for the faint of heart.”

Despite my brain knowing it was a bad idea and that I was far too young for the gargantuan jump, I refused to “wuss out” and foolishly leapt off the edge. Being a rather robust child, I immediately plunged straight to the bottom of the pond where the water was legitimately ice cold. My body went into sudden shock, causing me to forget how to swim, and I quickly started drowning. Had it not been for another park attendee raising the alarm with the teenage “lifeguard” (a term used very loosely), I likely would have sunk to the depths below.

These images of childhood terror all came flooding back upon viewing Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott‘s hilariously unsettling documentary Class Action Park, which tells the dangerous and tragic history of the infamous American theme park where anything could (and did) happen. A curious portrait of a time before safety laws and workplace regulations, the doco highlights how it was all fun and games until someone literally loses their life.

The park in question is the titular Action Park, a hedonistic utopia for teenagers in the sprawling greens of Vernon, New Jersey that one former staffer describes as “Ayn Rand meets Lord of the Flies.” Originally beginning life as the family-friendly Mountain Creek Water Park, the park took a turn for the dangerous in the early 80s. It’s here owner and one-time Wall Street crook Gene Mulvihill revamped the tourist spot with a series of outlandish attractions that defied physics and any consideration for guest safety.

Whether it was the rickety toboggan ride “The Alpine Slide” and its semi-functional brakes, the “Cannonball Loop” waterslide and its death-defying vertical loop, or “The Colorado River Ride” and its constant calamitous pile-up of yellow inflatable dinghies, the rides were generally born from any crazy idea of those who worked at the park. No engineers were consulted to create these catastrophes-in-waiting and safety (and the fundamental laws of physics) was the last thing on anyone’s mind, especially Mulvihill’s.

Thinking of himself as a modern-day P.T. Barnum (but, in reality, he was more akin to Willy Wonka by virtue of inviting youngsters into a wonderland that could spell their potential doom), Mulvihill’s sole focus was on crafting a cornucopia of high-concept rides to elicit as many ticket sales as possible. When combined with a workforce mostly comprised of inexperienced teenagers, a German-inspired beer hall with no concept of responsible service of alcohol, and management’s penchant to quickly cover up any injuries suffered throughout the park, Mulvihill hadn’t created America’s greatest fun park. He was brewing a recipe for absolute disaster.

Porges and Scott craft their snapshot of 80s nostalgia through the use of archival home video footage, interviews with former staff members and guests, and crude hand-drawn animations to replay the memories of those who survived to tell their tales. Those stories include everything from a guest being electrocuted in the river ride, employees being paid $100 to act as human crash-test dummies on new attractions, and detailed descriptions of every potentially deadly hazard littered throughout the entire park.

However, none of the stories (and injuries) coming out of Action Park did anything to decrease attendance numbers. In a curious twist that could only take place in the 1980s, it had the opposite effect, with the park gaining a notorious reputation for no-holds-barred mayhem that drew reckless teenagers like moths to a flame. In the New Jersey area, attending the park and living to tell the tale became somewhat of a bizarre badge of honour, especially if you had a few bumps and scrapes to show for it.

In the first two acts of Class Action Park, these playful stories are recounted with chuckling humour as those who lived through the experience laugh at the naive innocence of their youth and how utterly insane it all now appears in retrospect. Rose-coloured nostalgia has a funny way of glossing over the reality of our past and it’s clear the workers and guests have fond memories of their time in Mulvihill’s playland of madness.

Porges and Scott could easily have carried this throughout the entire documentary and delivered nothing more than a fluffy representation of a bygone era. To their credit, the directors made the wise decision to pull back the red curtain on Mulvihill and expose the park’s dark underbelly that would eventually lead to the deaths of six people in seven years and an injury toll so immense, the park was forced to purchase its own personal ambulance. Yes, you’re reading that correctly.

In a tonal shift within the documentary, the pair present the tragic tale of 19-year-old George Larsson Jr, who died after his Alpine Slide car jumped the track and threw Larsson onto a group of rocks Mulvihill had been told to clear out before the park’s July 4th opening. Through devastating interviews with Larsson’s mother and siblings, we hear how Mulvihill manipulated the story to absolve the park of responsibility and his shonky insurance scheme that made compensation for the Larsson family almost an impossibility.

While there’s a hefty helping of nostalgic frivolity, Class Action Park also stands as a damning exposé of Mulvihill and his gross incompetence that would eventually cost six young people their lives. With connections to the New York City mob and a swarm of Wall Street cronies (including Donald Trump, who showed interest with investing in the park before deciding it was even too risky for him), Mulvihill was a man who managed to bribe and lie his way out of any problem, making it abundantly clear how this park was able to operate for over 15 years.

In the end, the filmmakers pose an intriguing proposition that although life in the 80s was just as fraught with peril as it is now, kids and teenagers were far more blissfully unaware, which allowed them to truly enjoy the innocence of youth without constantly living in fear. We actively chased danger instead of running from it. We stayed out past dark. We ventured into places we shouldn’t. And, yes, we attended theme parks that could have led to our deaths. In an era where helicopter parenting is practically a given, the documentary stands as a reminder codling a child may be robbing them of simple pleasures we all once enjoyed.

In recent years, Action Park has become somewhat of a mythical urban legend people uncover through Wikipedia articles, YouTube footage, and tales from those who experienced it first-hand. It’s enormously pleasing there’s finally something like Class Action Park to fully document every chaotic moment of the most dangerous theme park in history. A sentimental depiction of an era of absolute freedom and the consequences that came from a total abandonment of rules and regulations, Class Action Park is as fascinating as it is shocking.

Distributor: HBO Max
Director: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Producers: Chris M. Johnston, Chris Lyon
Cinematography: Chris M. Johnston, Rob Senska
Music: Hays Holladay, Ryan Holladay
Editing: Chris M. Johnston, Chris Lyon
Running Time: 92 minutes

‘Class Action Park’ plays as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2020 from August 20 – September 2. For more information and tickets, head HERE.