Tower of Terror (1997)

Michael Eisner loved Hollywood. During his tenure at Disney (1984 – 2005), Eisner had a lot to do with the modernization of the Walt Disney Company, and a lot of that was adapting to being more Hollywood. In the eighties, while there were several movies that had a big-name star or two, it wasn’t until after he took over where he starting having multiple big names taking over their movies and theme park attractions. He was the CEO at Paramount prior to switching to Disney, where he was on a board of directors who listened to a pitch from Universal about a movie-themed park in Florida (When he spearheaded Disney-MGM Studios in the late eighties, he vehemently denied any sort of correlation, despite the suspicious coincidence). He even persisted in 2001, where Disney’s California Adventure had a whole section dedicated to Hollywood. But above all, he loved schmoozing and rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite, trying to get them in on various Disney projects. Among other high-profile entertainers? Mel Brooks.

You read that right. Mel Brooks. Supposedly after Disney-MGM opened, an idea was pitched where riders would ride through a recreation of a set of his 1974 classic Young Frankenstein, and be an out-and-out scary ride. The idea evolved into “Hotel Mel”, which took the park theming even further, where it became more of a ride-through of various horror movies complete with wacky sight gags, all with that irreverent Mel Brooks touch. But when the idea failed to gel, mostly due to Eisner’s drive to create a genuinely scary ride to rope in that elusive teenage demographic, the imagineers revisited their desire to build a drop ride. In 1994, Disney opened a new section of the park, where Sunset Boulevard would wind down to an abandoned, coral-colored edifice that bore char marks, flickering neon, and rusted wrought-iron gates. Welcome…to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

Why The Twilight Zone? No clue. After all, the property was owned by CBS, not MGM or Disney. But regardless, the ride instantly became a fan favorite, with similar ones popping up in Anaheim (2004), Tokyo (2006), and France (2007). But Eisner – in typical Eisner fashion – knew he had to synergize this famous E-ticket attraction. How? With a made-for-TV movie on The Wonderful World of Disney, three years after the ride opened.

Trip trepidatiously toward the terrifying, tumultuous tower!

The plot: Buzzy Crocker (Steve Gutenberg) is a tabloid journalist, who creates sensational stories and makes photos of them. His niece, Anna (Kirsten Dunst), is often roped in on the action, and while Buzzy clearly isn’t the best influence, she still enjoys getting in on his stories.

One afternoon, an elderly woman named Abigail Gregory (Amzie Strickland), begs Buzzy to report the Hollywood Tower Hotel legend. On October 31st, 1939, a young Hollywood couple, a child actress, her nanny, and the bellhop boarded the elevator to attend the party on the top floor, but a bolt of lightning struck the building and all five disappeared. Abigail reveals the child actress, Sally Shine, was her sister, and only on Halloween can the magic spell be broken.

Magic spell? Well, not only does Abigail suspect the nanny was to blame for their disappearances by dabbling in black magic, but the five ultimately became ghosts. They reach out to Buzzy, Anna and groundskeeper Q (Michael McShane), and beg them to fix the elevator so they can reach the party and have the curse lifted.

How’s the writing?: It’s not great. They get some good characterization down, but the story is a mess. Even for a TV movie. Especially one based on a thrill ride.

Now, the ride itself is already a confusing narrative. If you are the star of The Twilight Zone, why are you voluntarily boarding and elevator that will take you to the fifth dimension? How and why do you make it back to the real world when you exit? What does yo-yoing up and down an elevator shaft have to do with plummeting to…the Twilight Zone? It’s a flimsy premise, to say the least. But on top of that, one must remember it’s a thrill ride first and a story second. For as well-themed and intricate the narrative is, its primary duty is to be an exhilarating experience for parkgoers. The movie, however, resigned itself to just add a ton of crap that just cluttered what should have been a simple plot.

For starters, I failed to mention a whole subplot where Buzzy reveals he used to work for a legit newspaper until he published an unproven political scandal, which got him fired, hence why he does tabloids now. And how his ex is the editor, and he hounds her as badly as Pépé le Pew in trying to get back in her paper. Do you care? I don’t. Also, Q’s grandpa was the missing bellhop and he will inherit the hotel once the mystery disappearance is figured out. Also, Buzzy strikes up a possible casual romance with one of the ghosts. Also, Abigail has ulterior motives. Also, they have to cast a spell that is contrary to the original while fixing the service elevator and the main elevator. Also, they have to do all of this by Halloween night at 8:05 p.m. when the lightning bolt struck, and…aaaaarrrrgh!

It’s overkill, plain and simple, for no real reason. I still struggle to find why Abigail needed a tabloid writer to…do what she needed to do, something I’m still not clear on why the spell was only half-completed. Or why Abigail started the whole thing by having Buzzy investigate the nanny. And above all else for this ride based on The Twilight Zone, you may have noticed I have neglected to mention something.

Yeah. No Rod Serling, no ominous music, no nuanced touches of the fantastic. There is nothing Twilight Zone about this movie. To its credit, it couldn’t really be shoved in here any, save as some kind of framing for the movie, but all the same, you feel cheated, like if Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t have pirates or if Space Mountain just flew around the Earth. But what it does is rob the premise of its otherworldly implication as to why this happened. It’s never revealed on the ride why the five disappeared to the fifth dimension, and that was the TV show’s strength in playing with the ambiguity. But here? It’s black magic. Here’s the literal spell book and it’s a curse that’s meant to be reversed. And there is a definite happy ending, unlike most Twilight Zone episodes, that usually ended in weary relief with a side of confusion at best.

Does it give the feels?: Being a Disney product on local TV in the late nineties, there’s some definite cheesiness here that feels forced. Skip to “Who makes it worth it?” if you don’t want this part spoiled for you.

You good? Okay. The final twist is that the party at the Tip-Top Club was really meant for Abigail. (Aaw!) because Halloween is her birthday! (Aaw!) And Sally never forgot about her sister even though she felt forgotten! (Aaw!) And Abigail is just so very sorry she tried to kill them all…again! (Aaw!) And the curse is lifted when the sisters forgive each other! (Aaw!)

Seriously, this crap is hammered in in the last fifteen minutes and it just feels so damned forced. It’s more like Are You Afraid of the Dark? if it were made by…well, Disney. It’s saccharine in a story that only needed characters you can feel for. As in, ones you don’t want to die. But looking at such an obnoxious twit like Buzzy, he’s just so unlikeable. At most, I feel bad for teenaged Dunst forced to dress like Sally Shine, because it just looks so bad. Even the ghosts, particularly Gilbert, are just kinda jerks.

Who makes it worth it?: None of these performances are really worth remembering. You can tell these guys showed up, read their lines, got their paycheck, and left. They’re not being lazy, just uninspired. At best, I’d nominate Carolyn, the woman in the aforementioned Hollywood couple, who channels the most sincerity, even if it doesn’t seem particularly inspired. She has an inherent charm to her, but it’s not enough to save this movie.

Best quality provided: Well…it is ambitious, I’ll give it that. There are parts that feel relatively cheap or simple, and they tried to compensate with a tangled plot. There’s something to respect there. They could have just thrown in anything and called it a day, but there is definite thought put together, even if it doesn’t seem particularly cohesive. After all, lest we forget, it’s the very first movie based off a Disney attraction. And it was made for ABC as a one-shot television special, not a theatrical release. So, it has elements that work. I mean, at least it isn’t incompetent. It’s ambitious without be pretentious.

What could have been improved: Oh Lordy, Lordy, Lordy, if I were in charge, I’d send them back to the writers’ room.

In fact, if it were up to me, I’d suggest the movie be something like Citizen Kane: some sort of mockumentary where journalists and investigators are trying to figure out what happened, only in the end to end it on an ambiguous, haunting note. Because when you get down to it, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is less about story than it is about ambiance and atmosphere. It’s about feeling the unknown, the mysterious, the surreal. The creepy sense you get that something’s not quite right, and you can’t put your finger on why or how. For a made-for-TV movie, especially in 1997, by Disney, this isn’t surprising. But it could have so much cooler, like the ride millions have screamed on through the past 25 years.

Verdict: This movie could have been a cool, unique, undersung gem. Very few made-for-TV movies, unless they’re Disney Channel movies, get much exposure beyond a DVD release. This one has the added benefit of being sold at Tower Hotel Gifts, the signature gift shop as you exit the attraction. Plus, being forever inextricably linked to a beloved thrill ride. I just wish this could have been a great follow-up to a great ride.

Supposedly, as late as 2015, a remake of this was in the works, but things have been mum since then. And it’s a shame, too, because there is potential here. But in this version, it’s just an overcomplicated story that has no sense of nuance. Sorry, guys. This one gets a paltry three bellhop hats out of ten.

So should this next remake make its way to your local cinema, it would be best to appreciate a chance to start anew, and that no matter how disappointing things get, it can always get get better in…the Twilight Zone.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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