by Kayla McCulloch on Sep 3, 2020

After six recorded deaths and innumerable lawsuits, Vernon, N.J.’s notorious Action Park was forced to close its doors at the end of the 1996 summer season. For nearly 20 years prior, visitors from far and wide were drawn to a shuttered ski resort that had been crudely repurposed into a fantastical haven for both huge thrills and massive spills. Dubbed “Class Action Park” by people (rightfully) wary of the treacherous slides and motorized chaos of this vacation destination — which was once predicted to be the next Orlando, Fla. — this truly outrageous locale inexplicably thrived far beyond the point where any decent owner would’ve pulled the plug (or been arrested, whichever came first). Although there’s no way to justify the actions of the management or the lasting nostalgia for Action Park, the intricacies of this inconceivable neutral zone where merriment and mayhem could coexist are laid out in a new, far-too-kind documentary from directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III.

Action Park’s eye-catching attractions were clearly the stuff of dreams for any family daring enough to venture to the small Jersey township that was essentially dominated by park owner and Wall Street financier Eugene Mulvihill. Characterized by those who knew him as a penny-stock trader in the vein of Jordan Belfort, a proto-Gordon Gekko, and a Donald Trump-esque personality who drew similarly minded investors to him like a magnet, Mulvihill was able to easily snatch up acres and acres of land on both sides of an interstate in the late 1970s and convert it into a sprawling death trap. Class Action Park often grapples with Mulvihill’s legacy, going back and forth on whether to declare him a “villain or a victor,” as one journalist eloquently puts it, but it never really settles on one or another. (This conflicted tone is a common theme throughout Class Action Park: Old visitors and employees alike agree that, although it was extremely dangerous, sometimes even deadly, the park was also genuinely fun.)

After establishing the circumstances surrounding the origins of the place, documentarians Porges and Scott III (the former a regular patron himself) spend quite a bit of time going through some of the most crazed rides at Action Park, which was divided into three areas — Alpine Center, Motorworld, and Waterworld — and offered more than 75 unique attractions. Porges and Scott use a mix of archival footage, animated interludes, and interviews with past employees and frequent guests to paint a picture of one man’s fever dream come to life. From an enclosed water slide with a menacing loop to a river ride designed to replicate Class 4 rapids to a hillside sled ride constructed with concrete and asbestos, one thing is abundantly clear as the viewer traverses the park’s shameful glories: If Mulvihill could imagine it, he could build it — no matter what the risk.

As far as style goes, Class Action Park sits somewhere between a well-edited YouTube video one might stumble on after hours of clicking, an E! or TruTV special discovered while flipping channels one Saturday afternoon, and the borderline-exploitative watchability of Netflix’s breakout docuseries Tiger King (2020). There’s not much of a narrative here: Instead, the doc holds the viewer’s interest with colorful commentary, charmingly antiquated archival footage (complete with VHS fuzz), and the simple desire to know what kid of deranged contraptions Mulvihill managed to cram into Action Park. Some of the commentators offer better input than others. Comedian Chris Gethard is definitely the most utilized and least valuable talking head, primarily placed between segments as a crude segue of sorts. The ex-park employees are responsible for the best anecdotes because of their proximity to Mulvihill and his antics. These perspectives prove especially insightful when Class Action Park gets fatal.

The documentary’s abrupt turn toward the dark side of the theme park is so sudden that one can’t help but feel disoriented for a moment. No longer laughing about how “you could get away with more in the ’80s” or how “the world was way different before cell phones were invented,” Porges and Scott drop the comedians and home videos and switch to slow zooms on newspapers clippings and interviews with the families of individuals who perished at Action Park. The directors would have been better off incorporating this important part of the story from the beginning — or excising either the humor or the seriousness completely. The accusations and revelations about Mulvihill’s deceitful actions that are leveled in the final half-hour contradict the wacky Willy Wonka figure that the rest of the documentary sketches. To make matters worse, no one featured in the film other than the victims’ loved ones seems willing to call Mulvihill out for the sadistic businessman that he was.

Just as the interviewees praise Action Park for being exactly what it advertised itself to be, this chronicle of its rise and fall is no more or no less than what one would expect: an undeservedly loving documentary committed to profiling a place that never should’ve existed in the first place, let alone endured for two decades. Thanks to Mulvihill’s shady dealings and illicit affairs — such as his fake Cayman Islands-based insurance company and his de facto control over the local government and newspaper — there’s no way to tell just how many were hurt at Action Park. The cover-ups and misinformation campaigns were allowed to go on for years. Numerous injuries were not officially reported, and there’s also a very real possibility that the same could be said for deaths. Class Action Park glosses over this humorously when it should’ve hit back. For all the fun to be had with this loose and amusing film, its refusal to punch up at the management as hard as it punches down on the working-class people who flocked to the notorious theme park ultimately feels like an extension of Mulvihill’s deceptive ways.

Rating: B-

Class Action Park is now available to stream from HBO Max.