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Is Constant Spine-Tingling a Job Hazard in This Field?

June 23, 1996|David Kronke | David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

William Castle never had enough money to create even a frame or two of a digital tornado, but he was the guy who first turned the act of watching a movie in a theater into a "thrill ride." To sell his schlocky horror pictures, he offered life insurance policies to the faint of heart, put seat belts in theaters, rigged screens so ghouls would pop from them and even tinkered with seats so that they would provide a mild electrical jolt at key dramatic moments.

"I'm not sure I'd call him a visionary, but he was certainly ahead of his time," says Jim Yeager, spokesman for Universal Studios' Recreation Division. "[Today's action films] are the high-tech versions of that sort of thing."

Indeed, this summer a movie isn't worth beans if it's not a "thrill ride." (Is "Ma Saison Preferee" a thrill ride? I don't think so!) Critics reviewing the blockbusters speak of them more in terms of being amusement park attractions than films; exhibitors might be wise to follow Castle's lead and make seat belts a permanent fixture in their multiplexes. Consider:

"Twister"--a movie that we actually wouldn't mind seeing converted into an amusement park ride (and, indeed, Universal Studios has the rights to it)--was first out of the gate. Neil Rosen of NY1 News quickly declared it "an eye-popping, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat roller coaster ride," and the Gannett News Service's Jack Garner enthused, "Grab your popcorn! A smashing thrill ride!"

Sally Klein of the Washington Journal, however, easily outgushed them both: "A roof-ripping, cow-tossing, silo-pulverizing E-ticket," she burbled, adding what we believe to be hyperbolically, "If you don't go off to see 'Twister,' you'll be the only one."

"Mission: Impossible" wasn't about to be outdone. "The wildest movie ride of the year," Stephen Holden of the New York Times hyperventilated, while Newsweek's Jack Kroll eschewed the word "ride" while meaning the same basic thing, calling the movie "a glittering thrill machine." Rolling Stone's Peter Travers echoed that theme: "A thrill machine that won't quit."

But then there's Patrick Stoner of PBS' apparent answer to Cahiers du Cinema, "Flicks," the most ride-happy critic this summer. "Mission: Impossible" is, by Stoner's estimation, "a brain-twisting, heart-pounding action ride," while "The Rock" is simply "the drop-dead thrill ride of the summer!" As for "Dragonheart," Stoner advises, "Open your heart and ride the dragon," which certainly sounds more romantic and exciting than "Open your wallet, plunk down $7.50, sit in an air-conditioned auditorium and watch the dragon cavort across a two-dimensional screen."

Yeager says that Universal Studios, the theme park, is hardly worried about this ostensible competition from the multiplexes. (And why should it be? Mega-attraction Jurassic Park--The Ride just opened this weekend.)

"It's about time" movies were appreciated as thrill rides, he says. "The irony is that for years, our slogan has been 'Ride the movies.' So in a sense, this is art imitating life, life imitating art and art imitating art. We've been bringing movies to life in a thrill-ride setting. So it's gone full circle."

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