On October 26, 1997, Tower of Terror aired as ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney feature presentation, initiating a trend that would go on to shift the paradigm that had long existed between Disney’s immersive theme park attractions and their successful movie slate. The line between rides and movies was blurring and soon the path that carried the silver screen to the realm of reality would no longer be one-way.
Twenty six years later, the studio is on the cusp of their twelfth ride adaptation and their second big screen attempt at a blockbuster Haunted Mansion movie. Far removed from the made-for-TV Steve Guttenberg starring spook fest that served as a gateway horror flick to so many young and impressionable minds, these multimedia ticket drivers have left behind low budget simplicity in lieu of multi-million dollar CGI driven set pieces and A-list casts. Still, with its on-ride filming sites, colorful character actors and dedication to eerie atmosphere over eye-catching special effects, one would be hard pressed not to count Tower of Terror amongst the most successful ride-to-movie adaptations in Disney’s ever expanding portfolio.
After all, shouldn’t the aim of the movie be to capture the essence of the ride?
Originally pitched by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner as a Mel Brooks themed Haunted Hollywood Hotel attraction, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride became one of Walt Disney’s World’s premiere attractions. Dubbed “a white knuckle screamer” and “Disney’s newest, fastest, strangest thrill ride” in advertisements, the tower in question stands over two hundred feet tall. It comprises over three million pounds of steel, almost fifty thousand cubic yards of concrete and is topped with approximately twenty seven thousand roof tiles, making for one of the most elaborate and engaging locations in any of Disney’s massive parks.
Based on The Twilight Zone TV series, the ride takes patrons into the fifth dimension that Rod Serling was only ever able to show them before. It’s peppered with specific references and nods to the series, easter eggs for keen eyed fans to seek out and pour over, like the broken glasses from Time Enough at Last or the Caesar ventriloquist dummy from Caesar and Me. At the same time, the hotel transports people back to 1939 Hollywood, reflecting the glitz and glamour as seen through the inevitable lens of neglect, despair and decay. Pair that with actual video of Rod Serling and a short film directed by genre legend Joe Dante telling the tale of the people who mysteriously vanished in the hotel all those years before and the ride becomes a story driven experience of wonderment and terror unlike anything else Walt Disney World has to offer.
Despite the studio’s decision not to license The Twilight Zone for the film, it was that inherent sense of story, built-in enveloping atmosphere and borrowed production value that made the ride the ideal candidate for adaptation. Kid-friendly horror storyteller extraordinaire D.J. MacHale, co-creator of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, was brought in to write and direct and the screen was populated with recognizable players for the Tower of Terror movie. Starring alongside Steve Guttenberg was Kirsten Dunst, known then for her work in Interview with a Vampire (1994) and Jumanji (1995), and Michael McShane, who most kids would have recognized as the inimitable Professor Keenbean from Richie Rich (1994).
Opening with eerie music, an unintelligible ghostly whisper and the text, “It started on Halloween… 1939”, the image tracks to an ancient tome as it slowly opens before landing on a propped up invitation to a party at the Tip Top Club at the Hollywood Tower Hotel. The camera lingers as fire dances behind the invitation, slowly engulfing its elegant print in red, flickering flame. That’s when the film reveals the tower in question, a vibrant place, reveling in old Hollywood excess, moments away from the curse which will lead to its downfall. For when a storm arises and lightning strikes, five guests on their way to the party at the top of the tower disappear forever as the hotel elevator comes crashing down.
Immediately the tone of the film strikes at the heart of the very best Halloween fare, offering up the kind of spookiness that leaves the average horror kid feeling warm, fuzzy and a little bit fearful. In the tradition of Hocus Pocus (1993), The Halloween Tree (1993) and TV series like Goosebumps and of course D.J. MacHale’s own Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Tower of Terror arrived at its ghostly thirteenth floor with the potential to be an instant October classic.
The film pivots from its very real ghost story to the life of Steve Guttenberg’s tabloid journalist Buzzy Crocker, a man who fakes outrageous narratives for a living with the help of Kirsten Dunst’s Anna, his niece. He’s soon approached by an elderly woman named Abigail, played by the always engaging Amzie Strickland, who tells him the story of the five spirits trapped in the hotel, enlisting his help in breaking the curse. Along for the ride is the descendant of one of the supposed ghosts and man in line to inherit the hotel should the curse be lifted, Chris ‘Q’ Todd, played with nervous gusto by the great Michael McShane.
Complete with a MacGuffin-style scavenger hunt through the old hotel for items representing the cursed souls as well as the five ghost’s sordid, melodramatic, show-business backstories, Tower of Terror revels in the glowing green light of eerie, over-the-top Halloween season programming. Its twists and turns reveal foes to be friends along with just the opposite, coalescing with a race against the clock to fix the infernal elevator and lift the decades old curse. All the while ancient grudges resurface and a Halloween party that never was finds a path toward making its scorned invitees whole once more.
Presented in a full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the movie at times struggles to escape its television roots but is often bolstered by the impressive locales of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride where a significant portion of its runtime was filmed. Taking advantage of nearly every usable area of the park space, even spending time where excited park goers would normally wait in queue or patiently deposit their strollers, the film benefits from the careful attention to detail that the Imagineers put into every square inch of the decrepit Hollywood Tower Hotel. What’s constructed on a sound stage works in conjunction with the park’s extravagant design, ultimately helping Tower of Terror feel far grander than its paltry budget might suggest.
While The Twilight Zone may be absent from its title, the legacy of Rod Serling’s program is felt in Tower of Terror, as it is in D.J. MacHale’s work on Are You Afraid of the Dark?. The end result may not feel like a huge-screen blockbuster, but it encapsulates the sense of being in queue for the ride, of wandering through the dilapidated lobby and eyeing the cobwebs collecting dust on the abandoned tables of mahjong and forgotten cups of tea just before the elevator ushers forth a place both mysterious and strange. The film finds the joyous awe that lies in the immersion unique to such an experience and translates it for both seasoned park goers and the uninitiated alike.
The best of Disney’s ride adaptations have always leaned on atmosphere and genre storytelling over the path of safe family entertainment. It seems the studio is still trying to harness that spirit today with the new Haunted Mansion (2023) and rumors of yet another Tower of Terror movie. Whether the lessons the original has to teach will be reflected in these new outings remains to be seen, but the renewed reliance on horror heavy rides onscreen is a heartening sign.
Over the years Disney has moved away from the simplicity employed when they made Tower of Terror, approaching their ride adaptations with bigger budgets and more famous faces. The result is far removed from the small screen Halloween special that started it all, birthing behemoth pictures that have to generate hundreds of millions of dollars or more to turn a profit. With releases like The Haunted Mansion (2003), Jungle Cruise (2021) and the various Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, the adaptations drifted away from their quaint primetime beginnings and into the realm of tent-poles by committee.
For all of its strengths, Tower of Terror remains one of the most difficult of these adaptations to watch, oddly absent from Disney Plus and unavailable on any streaming service for rent or purchase, leaving the DVD as the only viewing option. Still, in the end, Disney should be proud of the film. It was Tower of Terror that proved these pictures could be more than just an advertisement for their respective ride. They could be expansions of the experience, providing new and exciting reasons to want to go to the parks and explore the ideas presented in every nook and cranny of Disney’s most engrossing reality breaching creations. After twenty six years and billions of dollars, Disney simply needs to recognize that when adapting a ride, the studio’s greatest resource is exactly that: the ride.
On October 26, 1997, Tower of Terror hit small screens across the country. Hopefully this October Disney will bring it to Disney Plus and help the movie take its rightful place beside the multitude of spooky season watches that are required viewing in the days leading up to October 31st. It may not have the trappings of their modern day wide-release ride-to-screen remodels, but Tower of Terror absolutely captures the essence and atmosphere of the ride.
And, after all, isn’t that what these movies are all about?