The truth of Action Park is stranger than fiction. A New Jersey amusement park infamous for its risky rides could easily inspire a horror movie or a comedy (which it has). Now, its incredible story is being told in the shocking yet hilarious documentary Class Action Park.
What kind of anecdotes do directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III unearth? Well, for one, there’s the insane origin of the Cannonball Loop, a waterslide that ended with an enclosed, completely vertical loop. Park owner Gene Mulvihill would try out his new rides on his workers, offering a $100 bill to anyone who dared play crash-test dummy. In testing, a few problems were found. If you were “too small,” you wouldn’t gain enough momentum to make it through the loop. If you were “too big,” you’d get stuck. But those who were “just right” got it worst of all.
With playful animation and interviews with former Action Parks’ staff, the doc reveals that the first round of testers hit the splash pool with bloodied mouths from having their faces bash against the top of the loony loop. So, the park added padding. But then, riders came out with lacerations. Why? Brace yourselves. When the loop was cracked open for troubleshooting, the cause was discovered: human teeth. The remnants of the smashed-mouthed riders scraped the flesh those that followed.
See, I told you: a horror movie.
However, Porges and Scott keep things light. Animated re-enactments invite us to laugh at the cartoonish mayhem that Mulvihill’s park unleashed. Former employees share their stories with a mix of wistfulness and wonder, remembering fondly the days when a pack of “horny teens” ran the most notorious park in the nation. For color commentary, comedian Chris Gethard and actress Alison Becker are brought in to recount their Jersey summers throwing caution to the wind at Action Park. And they do so with insight, wit, and enthusiasm. Finally, humorist John Hodgman plays the narrator for the doc, guiding us through with a bemused tone.
Reflected in these interviews is a conflicted nostalgia for the ’80s. Park patrons and employees remember the Goonies era where latchkey kids were left to their own devices with the naive assumption they’d come home relatively safe and sound. For this generation, Action Park was “heaven.” It was a summer destination known for rides that scrape your skin, break your bones, and thereby prove your mettle. It was a place where working-class city kids got a taste of beach vacations, thanks to a wave pool and water slides. It was a place where lifeguard stands were largely ornamental and trust in its wealthy founder was dangerously misplaced.
Just as it seems Class Action Park is about to wrap up as the story of an eccentric businessman and his risky but beloved park, the documentarians drop the other shoe. People were seriously injured at Action Park. Patrons died there. And when their families sued, the manipulative Mulvihill used his wealth and status in the community as a major employer to battle back. The doc not only reveals the sinister ways Mulvihill managed to avoid paying for the damage his mismanagement caused but also speaks to a family who mourns a teenager killed by Mulvihill’s negligence.
This section complicates the outrageous but fun narrative of Action Park, making audiences face the tragedy of Mulvihill’s flagrant rejection of safety standards, insurance mandates, and laws in general. Here, the film firmly becomes a true crime doc. The Larsson family recounts the day they lost 19-year-old George Larsson Jr., who died from injuries sustained on a ride infamous for its faultiness. While much of the film boasts a rollicking pace and devil-may-care humor, this section slows to respectfully unfurl the dreadful and needless loss of lives. Larsson is not the only person killed by Action Park.
After this sobering section, Porges and Scott offer a conclusion that does not attempt to reconcile the collision of these two Action Parks, the one that was a place of free-spirited fun and the one that was a merciless money-maker where death was viewed as the cost of doing business. After a wild ride of shocks and laughs, Action Park ends with a knowing jolt that refuses to let its audience walk away without an ache.
Class Action Park made its International Premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival on August 22. It’s now available on HBO Max.
Header Image Source: HBO Max