Collin's been a movie critic since 2009. In real life he works in marketing and is also a novelist ("Good Riddance" published in Oct 2015).
Yes, kids, long ago there really was a place called Action Park. From 1978 to 1996, it attracted mainly teenagers primarily from the New York area to a quaint little grassy knoll an hour outside of town in the northernmost part of New Jersey. The place was a no-holds-barred, largely unsupervised free-for-all that seemed to encourage kids to live on the absolute edge. In fact, six people died there over the course of those 18 years, and scores were injured (some very seriously).
In recent years, the now-defunct “deathtrap” is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, beginning with the 2016 debut episode of the Ungeniused podcast and then serving as the inspiration for Jackass creator Johnny Knoxville’s movie Action Point in 2018. Now HBO Max is getting on board the retro-train with the aptly-titled documentary Class Action Park, a film that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief, as you slowly realize that all those urban legends you heard were actually true.
Yes, drunk employees were often the first to test new rides at their own peril (for $100 a pop). Yes, founder and owner Gene Mulvihill was so shady he created his own (fake) offshore insurance company to cover it. Yes, the wave pool was so dangerous (three deaths in five years) that staff nicknamed it “the Grave Pool”. And yes, the Cannonball Loop waterslide was so ridiculous that people cut themselves sliding along embedded teeth lost by prior riders.
Class Action Park writer-directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott rely not only on VHS-era archive video of kids enjoying themselves but also on long-ago guests—including Jimmy Kimmel, comedian Chris Gethard, and actress Alison Becker—and former employees, including the operations manager, head of security, head lifeguard, and Mulvihill’s own son. Narrated by John Hodgman, Class Action Park is a behind-the-scenes tell-all of a simpler and far more dangerous time.
Porges and Scott go ride-by-ride, exposing the lunacy behind each and every square foot of the park, which one interviewee colorfully describes as “something between Ayn Rand and Lord of the Flies”. But they save the real gut-punch for the end with an interview of Esther Larsson, the mother of the park’s first fatality; her son George was 19 when he went into a coma and later died after a horrible accident on the Alpine Slide. Her vitriol at Mulvihill and the wildly reckless world he created takes the film from being one long, nostalgic 90-minute flinch into a somber commentary on the corruption and lack of supervision that resulted in George’s death (and subsequent cover-up).
Class Action Park is an expertly crafted documentary that demonstrates the perfect dichotomy of the park itself (and even many of its attendees). As the film’s subjects nervously laugh about what an absolute blast they had cheating death on rides like Kamikaze and the Super Speed Water Slides, they also freely admit what a criminally messed-up place it was. And while it’s true that Action Park should have only lived as a figment of someone’s imagination or as a shard of unfounded urban lore, Porges and Scott make a strong and often poignant case on why we need to just be thankful that it is no more.