We recommend classic movies to watch after Johnny Knoxville’s latest stunt comedy.
Not everyone loves Johnny Knoxville and his Jackass crew. They can be infantile and crude, and when they do make a movie with a plot, that narrative serves their stunts rather than the other way around. But even if that’s not the way the old masters of slapstick cinema did it, at their best anyways, the influence of people like Buster Keaton on Knoxville is apparent and appreciated.
The Jackass movies often paid homage to the classics, and now so does Action Point, which is also based on the true story of Action Park. Below I’ve compiled some recommendations of mostly silent films and documentaries that I see as forerunners to what Knoxville and friends are doing with their movie about the most dangerous amusement park in the world.
Shooting the Chutes (1903)
I’ve always found Action Park’s legacy to be tame compared to the history of Coney Island’s amusement rides. I don’t know of a death or injury count at any of the New York City location’s parks, which included Luna Park and Dreamland, but any old footage of these places in the early 20th century hints at the lack of safety of attractions back then. Coney Island was a place where stunts and rides went to dangerous lengths to draw the crowds. The rides and shows had to be thrilling more than they had to be secure.
This was a place where an elephant was electrocuted for the public to see (and Edison’s company to film), as part of a promotion for the opening of Luna Park, which was notable for its displays of electric lights and wonders. This was a place where babies in incubators were an exhibit. A place where recent natural disasters inspired staged spectacles re-creating the tragedies. A place where shows involved the fighting of real, controlled fires — it’s no wonder it was also a place where whole parks, Dreamland famously, wound up destroyed in fires.
The below film from American Mutoscope & Biograph, commonly titled Shooting the Chutes, is not the first showcase of a Coney Island attraction, not even the first to document the Shoot-the-Chutes ride, but it is one of the more focused and clearest available today — compare it to Edison’s too-closely shot 1896 film made when Sea Lion Park was its home. Did anyone die on this early water chute? I can find no record, but it sure looks like people could easily be thrown from the boats at the end and there weren’t as many safeguards 115 years ago.
Coney Island (1917)
As a matter of fact — well, fiction — you can see Fatty Arbuckle and Alice Mann thrown from the Shoot-the-Chutes ride in this 101-year-old silent comedy classic. The short is obviously staged, but you do get a good look at that and other rides, the possible danger of which was easily exploited for the sake of laughs. In addition to the water ride, we see the stars, including supporting player Buster Keaton, riding Luna Park’s famous Witching Waves ride, which apparently wasn’t as dangerous as it looks.
Like Action Point, the story of Coney Island seems mostly tailored to the bits, or at least to the simple idea that Arbuckle got to film at Coney Island and offer gags specific to that location. The plot involves Arbuckle’s character ditching his wife at Luna Park to pursue a woman only referred to as “Pretty Girl” (Mann), which makes me think of the dumb dads in later amusement park-based movies, namely National Lampoon’s Vacation and Escape From Tomorrow. Coney Island is particularly special for the high striker scene with the rarity of Keaton laughing.
The Circus (1928)
For more silent comedy antics at Coney Island, check out Harold Lloyd in Speedy. Also, the same year saw the arrival of one of my favorite Charlie Chaplin movies. It’s not set at an amusement park, but the plot does take place at a circus, which is similarly attraction-based. And Chaplin uses the attractions for all sorts of gags. The first reel involves a classic fun house sequence as well as a bit with a rotating device used for a clown act that I always forget isn’t a theme park ride. It might as well be.
Another one of Chaplin’s most famous bits from The Circus is something Knoxville and his fans could appreciate. Among his many stunts, the comedian, who also wrote and directed the film, got inside of a cage with a real lion for a scene where his Little Tramp character accidentally locks himself in a cage with a fortunately sleepy lion. And it wasn’t just a rushed stunt to get it over with: reportedly Chaplin shot 200 takes to get it right. And everyone watching the filming was afraid the most famous movie star in the world was going to be killed. To Knoxville’s credit, he does mess with a bear, an alligator, and a porcupine in Action Point.
For a while there, dangerous amusement park rides were funny. Then they got scary. A year before Action Park opened, this late entry into the ’70s disaster movie fad showed audiences why they should fear thrill rides, especially the eponymous kind that had been killing people for years. In fact, one of the deadliest rollercoaster accidents of all time was in 1915 at, you guessed it, Coney Island. People fall, or they get decapitated when they sneak into unsafe areas.
But Rollercoaster isn’t about a rollercoaster accident (never mind the one at the very end). For that, see The Final Destination (or not, it’s pretty bad, even for someone who loves that franchise like me). The tragedies here are all intentional, part of an extortion plot by a young bomber and arsonist played by Timothy Bottoms. As far as I know, there hasn’t ever been anything like the movie’s premise, though apparently some theme park terrorist attacks have been planned but foiled by authorities. And yet we’d see something similar again more than a decade later with the Die Hard at Disneyland concept of Beverly Hills Cop III.
Now for something completely different. Sometimes amusement parks are great, for visitors and employees, even if the latter begrudgingly work at a game booth until they happens to find the romance of his summer employed alongside them. This would be Action Point if it weren’t a Johnny Knoxville movie with stunts and focus on dangerous rides. Take that out, and it’s just your usual movie about a place to work and play during the months between the school years.
As with Action Point, the story of Adventureland isn’t even that memorable or important, but it’s entertaining for the cast. You’ve got SNL vets Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the couple who runs the park and Martin Starr as a nerdy employee who is perfectly the bridge between his Freaks and Geeks and Silicon Valley characters. And then there’s Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as leads with such surprisingly wonderful chemistry that the two have gone on to co-star in more movies like they’re a modern day Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
The Centrifuge Brain Project (2012)
Rarely have I seen a more perfect short than this one, and certainly not in the mockumentary format. In a span of just seven minutes (credits included), we get enough but not too much of a hilarious joke, exceptional special effects to execute that joke, and a single performance that is believable as a real person who is doing experiments with amusement park rides. I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone was fooled into thinking The Centrifuge Brain Project was real, despite how ridiculous the rides are.
The film is by writer/director Till Nowak, who since has done worked as a concept artist for Marvel’s Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And it’s about a scientist studying the effects of thrill rides on the brains of adults. The rides designed for the project are more extreme and ludicrous than anything than you’ve seen before, and they’re seemingly implausible but maybe not impossible. They look scarier and more dangerous than anything that exists. And the digital animation with the real footage is amazing. It looks real but also futuristic. Watch it here:
Aren’t you glad I haven’t mentioned Jaws 3D yet? Fortunately — no, that’s not right to say… Instead, we now have a documentary about the dangers of maritime theme parks such as SeaWorld. Blackfish mostly focuses on the issue of keeping orcas in captivity and how one in particular has been so harmed by that life that he’s managed to kill trainers employed by the park out of the blue. Who needs Westworld or Jurassic World when SeaWorld is just as bad?
Orcas might not seem as dangerous as an attraction for the public, because almost all incidents have involved trainers. But there was the one guy who snuck into Tilikum’s tank to presumably swim naked with animal after hours and was apparently killed by the orca. He wasn’t employed by SeaWorld, and his story is more akin to the people who are injured or killed by hopping rollercoaster fences to retrieve hats or phones or whatever, their fates mostly their own faults. Also recommended: Rust and Bone, the movie where Marion Cotillard is a trainer who loses her legs to an orca attack.
The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever (2013)
According to Johnny Knoxville, who never had the opportunity to visit the real Action Park, acknowledged to Fandango that his inspiration for Action Point was actually this short documentary. The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever was made by director Matt Robertson and writer Seth Porges as a collaboration between Mashable and Dailymotion, and it features mostly former employees of Action Park, some of whom are involved with the park that took its place, along with Mashable staff and comedian Chris Gethard.
The 14-minute doc lays out the infamous history of Action Park, its most idiotically dangerous rides, such as the looping water slide and the skin-scraping Alpine slide, and recognizes the reputation as legend and something deserved, with the multiple casualties of the attractions being identified. Some of the slides and rides are seen in Action Point, mostly in exaggerated form but not always. These were attractions that were heightened in their dubious safeness on their own. Watch the documentary short below.