“There’s no place in the world like Action Park!”
You can always count on Fantasia Fest to collect some of the most wild and entertaining documentaries out there with subjects so unbelievable and nutty, there’s just simply no better place for them. Among this year’s stellar line-up has been such off-the-wall subjects including the cutthroat world of indie filmmaking with Clapboard Jungle (my review here) and the controversial image and legacy of Pepe the Frog in Feels Good Man. Yet none of the titles in this year’s line-up contain as much compulsive watchability than Class Action Park. The brainchild of an overly-ambitious tycoon, New Jersey’s Action Park instantly became infamous for having rides which stretched the limits of both imagination and safety when it launched in the early 80s. Although quickly becoming a success and staple of the area, the mammoth-sized water park was plagued by mismanagement and shady business practices, eventually becoming a teenage-driven free-for-all that has gone down in history.
Filmmakers Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III weave a wealth of archival footage, present-day interviews and cartoon recreations in order to tell the story of Action Park; one of the most notorious amusement parks ever in existence. Former employees and guests (including writer/comedian Chris Gethard) all recount stories about the famed park, from the good times to the dangerous (and sometimes deadly) ones.
I doubt there is anyone wanting to check out Class Action Park who doesn’t want to hear about the “blood and guts” of its subject. Thankfully, they won’t be disappointed. Porges and Scott successfully chronicle the many elements of Action Park which went into ensuring the establishment would have no trouble living in infamy. Each and every single ride revisited here contains the same level of fear and enticement that it surely must have imparted during its heyday. A slide that shot guests out into 10 feet of air before letting them plunge into a pool way down beneath them, another enclosed slide with a full loop designed to flip guests upside down mid-ride and yet another slide designed to mimic the experience of riding down an alpine mountain were all considered favorites at Action Park. Home movies capture the rides in action, while a portrait of its larger-than-life, definitely unhinged creator, Gene Mulvehill, is also shown. The number of corners Mulvehill cut, his dismissal of logic, physics and anything having to do with the legalities of such an operation, launch Class Action Park into a bit of a fascinating true-crime story. It’s a story that’s made all the more unbelievable when at one point it’s revealed that even Donald Trump turned down the chance of becoming an investor after being rubbed the wrong way by the irascible Mulvehill.
Class Action Park delves into the many, many injuries accumulated at the park as a result of the unsafe and oftentimes illogically designed rides. The doc points out how the town of Vernon (where the park was located) couldn’t even afford to keep sending their limited number of ambulances repeatedly to Action Park to collect the injured. Things eventually take a somber turn when Class Action Park revists the first life claimed by the park, which took place at the beginning of its run, not long after its grand opening. Watching how such an event didn’t result in a shut down, or at least sanction of the park, feels almost unreal in 2020. Yet it also speaks to the era in which the park existed. The Reagan years were known as a time of decadence; and in a way, Action Park exemplified this with its overpacked crowds of teenagers (including the many employed by the park itself) guzzling beer and cheering their friends on as they flew down one death-defying ride after another. The sense of being untouchable and the idea that there were literally no limits when it came to embracing life spill through every piece of vintage footage in Class Action Park. While it was the 1% and the upper-middle class populations who felt that they had arrived in the 80s, it’s pretty clear that similar feelings were permeating through the minds of the kinds of average American teenagers who frequented Action Park and other places like it.
As a documentary, Class Action Park is a fun, “see it to believe it” kind of experience. Even if it lacks the kind of structured finesse of more earnest offerings, it’s bombastic, energetic, never boring and captures of spirit of it’s subject almost perfectly. I know my family traveled to plenty of states throughout the 80s visiting various family members. I’m tempted to ask if we ever made a pit stop in New Jersey since so much of the park looked and felt so familiar to me. I have clear memories of a wave pool and the Tarzan-like attraction. Maybe it was that similar slides were eventually seen in various water parks all over North America as the 80s became the era where those kinds of establishments became part of the cultural landscape. If the park and the film which explores it leaves any kind of impression, it’s in the revisiting of an era in the country’s history when the American spirit was full of a kind of gusto and adventure that truly embraced the possibility of the world outside and knew almost no bounds whatsoever.
Fantasia Fest 2020 runs August 20th- September 2nd.