Class Action Park


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Class Action Park
"The message seems to be: you have permission to enjoy yourself - just please, please don't try this at home." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

If you were the kind of kid who was always clambering around in trees or ruined buildings, hurtling down steep slopes on improvised plastic bag sleds or fighting your friends using bits of wood that you found and only sometimes remembering to take the nails out first, you may wonder what has happened to today's youngsters, kept at home by worried parents, many of them sliding inexorably into the sort of sedentary existences that will take five to ten years off their life expectancy. Does nobody have any respect for fun any more? Back in the Eighties they knew how to have a good time. Back in the Eighties they had Action Park.

Opened in 1978 and subsequently dubbed 'Class Action Park' by lawyers, this was a place where child-like creativity and disregard for safety reined free. Coated in baking hot asphalt, serving alcohol at knock-down prices and built with a highway running through it, it boasted rides such as the Cannonball Loop and Alpine Slide whose potentially fatal flaws must have been obvious to anyone who stopped to give them five minutes' thought, yet which were opened to the public anyway. Cuts, bruises and partial drownings were par for the course. Kids boasted about their battle scars. Local medical staff rolled their eyes and referenced the park by name when new accident cases were brought in. But it wasn't all fun and games. "It was built into the numbers," says a mother who lost her son to one of its attractions. "It was a park that tolerated death."

Extremes of human experience always have a certain magnetic appeal, even to those who would not themselves step into a dark, steeply sloping tunnel with no idea where they would come out. Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III's documentary acknowledges that their audience will be there partly for the vicarious thrills and shows a healthy respect for this, accepting that it is a sentiment not necessarily at odds with sympathy for the injured and bereaved, nor with jaw-dropping horror at some of the stories they have to tell. The message seems to be: you have permission to enjoy yourself - just please, please don't try this at home.

Whilst most films of this type run out of shocking stories about half an hour in, Class Action Park, which is screening at Fantasia 2020, runs to 90 minutes and still leaves out the bloody histories of entire rides. It simply doesn't have room for every disturbing thing that happened there - and its directors seem alert to the danger of repeating themselves - yet its pace never slackens and it always has plenty to say. Extensive footage of the park in its heyday serves as illustration, complemented by a number of interviews. There's also a potted biography of its founder and his dubious history on Wall Street as they attempt - with moderate success - to connect the anarchic attitude of the park's managers (many of them just teenagers themselves) with laissez-faire capitalism and the disregard for ethics in the stock market during the Gordon Gecko era.

Constantly setting out to jump a bigger shark, Action Park wanted everything to be faster and more exciting than it had ever been before. The documentary echoes something of that spirit and will continue to shock you even at the point where you imagine there can be no more surprises. There's a romantic appeal to it, of course, and the directors acknowledge that it didn't develop in a vacuum - that it existed because it was absolutely and completely what a lot of people wanted. These were not, however, necessarily the kind of people you would want around you in an emergency situation. Guests injuring each other, accidentally and deliberately, seems to have been commonplace. Nobody really intervened. The teenage safety staff were often off doing what teenagers naturally do when given access to other teenagers, secluded huts and alcohol in an environment where anything goes.

With material like this it would be impossible to make a dull film. The real triumph of this one is that it avoids getting carried away by the glamour of it all, recognising its appeal yet retaining a clear perspective on the damage done. It's a story about breaking all the rules and yet it's made with discipline. The result is quite a ride.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2020
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Class Action Park packshot
A documentary that focuses on a famously dangerous water park and its slew of injuries and crimes along with child safety concerns.

Director: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III

Starring: Johnny Knoxville, Chris Gethard, Jimmy Kimmel

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US


Fantasia 2020

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