The Hollywood Case of Terror

Well cassettes, it’s the SPOOKY MONTH! This is not a drill! It’s time to get spooky! Two years ago, we spent October learning all about some Disney Halloween movies. This year, we’re doing it again! Get ready for three episodes on some of our favorite spooky stories from Walt Disney. 

Before Emily Blunt rode off on a Jungle Cruise, before Captain Jack Sparrow sailed on The Black Pearl, before Eddie Murphy got trapped in the Haunted Mansion, Steve Guttenberg helped a group of ghosts move on from their untimely death in an elevator shaft. Not sure what I’m talking about, well, strap in because you are in for one thrilling ride. 

Back in 1997, The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC premiered its latest made-for-TV movie. It starred Steve Guttenberg as a former journalist, and a pre-Spiderman Kirsten Dunst playing his niece. The film had an interesting concept, to say the least. It was based on a Disney World ride: The Hollywood Tower of Terror!

Today, we’re taking you back to the late 90s, as we uncover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of 5 guests at the Hollywood Tower Hotel on Halloween night, 1939. Join us as we take a terrifying look at this spooky Disney gem. 

HISTORY (OF THE RIDE)

  • The Twilight Zone
    • We don’t know about you, but we LOVE rides with themes. Not only do you get a thrilling ride but a story that keeps you interested while you wait in line. In Ohio the best example of this, and the ride that we personally (Robin and Marci at least) love is called Flight of Fear at Kings Island and has a history of its own. 
    • On May 1st, 1989 Disney-MGM studios opened in Florida. Imagineers modeled this park to look like a soundstage, as it was themed around films and TV. 
    • When Disney needed to add shorter attractions to their parks, Imagineer Kevin Rafferty began brainstorming with his coworkers. One idea that had been tossed around, was the concept of a haunted Hollywood hotel. He was talking with another imagineer named Steve Kirk when he considered the idea of working in The Twilight Zone to draw the ride into a TV theme. Then, the name of the ride just came to him: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Rafferty later said that when he said the name, Steve Kirk dropped the pencil he was holding and said, “you may be on to something.” 
    • Rafferty recently recounted pitching the idea to Disney executives, saying, “Michael Eisner just lit up when I said, ‘Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.’ When he asked, ‘What happens?’ I knew I had him.” Later, he added, “This is one of my most vivid memories in my entire career: Michael looked at me and said, ‘This is a home run. We’ve got to do this.’ It was awesome!”
    • So, the Imagineers got to work. The design of the building was modeled after the early revival styles of the 20th century in California. Buildings that were looked at for inspiration included the Mission Inn, the Biltmore Hotel, and the Chateau Marmont.
    • Since the ride has a 1939 theme, the aesthetic of the building was planned out, including how tall it would be. Imagineers wanted it to be as tall as possible. Due to FAA regulations at the time, any building over 200 feet must have a red beacon at the top. Since this would take away from the theme, it was built to 199 feet to avoid the red eyesore. It is currently the second tallest attraction in the Walt Disney World Resort after Expedition Everest which is 6 inches taller. 
    • As they prepared to design this themed ride, the Imagineers reportedly watched all 165 episodes of The Twilight Zone twice! Some of them were screened even more. The building’s entrance is littered with references to many Twilight Zone episodes. The music, props, settings, and more were created in the spirit of the TV show.
      • Although it is not centered around an already existing episode, the ride’s plot was inspired by a few certain episodes. “Little Lost Girl” (Season 3 Episode 26) is what prompted the team to center the ride around entering the 5th dimension. Though mostly they talk about the 4th dimension in this episode, at the very end Rod Serling questions if it was the fourth dimension or even a fifth dimension. The footage of Rod Serling in the ride’s pre-show was taken and transformed from the 8th episode of season 3, “It’s a Good Life.” 
      • Since Rod Serling had passed away before they created the ride, Imagineers watched Rod Sterling’s opening and ending credits a minimum of 10 times in order to pull out the common phrasing he used. This in turn helped them to fashion the pre-show ride video.
    • CBS licensed the rights of Twilight Zone to the Disney Theme Parks. On July 22nd, 1994 Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened and quickly became one of its most popular attractions. It was located in Florida, at the end of Sunset Blvd.
  • After walking into the lobby of the ride, visitors watch as Rod Sterling introduces the pre-ride video. A voice actor imitating Sterling then recounts the unfortunate events that occurred in 1939, when 5 people mysteriously disappeared after entering the elevator. Then, the voice invites the visitors to ride up the service elevator and into The Twilight Zone. 
  • Multiple sources said that the 1930’s costumes used for the bellhops in the video were the most expensive, costing over $1000 per uniform. This made it the most expensive costume for any ride at Walt Disney World.
    • Because the video is in black and white, audiences don’t see that the uniform that the bellhop wears is actually blue, and not the iconic deep red color that bellhops tend to wear.
  • Eventually, the ride was so successful, it had four different locations! 
    • The original ride is in Florida. In 2004, Disneyland added its own version of the ride, which was also a major success. 
      • Many fans were incredibly upset in 2016 when it was announced that renovations would be made to this location to turn it into the Guardians of the Galaxy-Mission: Breakout! We will link to the youtube video of the announcement and by looking at the thumbs down and comments, you can see what we mean.
    • The Tokyo DisneySea version was completed in 2006. 
      • Imagineers had to reimagine the story for this version of the thrilling ride. This was due to the fact that The Twilight Zone was not popular in Japan. The story became about Harrison Hightower III who was a collector and multi-millionaire. On the Eve of New Years in 1899 he vanished after having collected a strange statue from Africa. His elevator crashes to the ground and only the statue is found in the elevator. 
    • The Tower of Terror in Paris opened in 2007
      • It follows the story of the original but in 2019 they announced a new dimension of chills where 5 new experiences were put into the ride. This included shaft creatures that become scarier the more you scream and the little girl haunts you even more while you are in the elevator. 

SYNOPSIS

  • It is Halloween night in 1939 and there is a party at the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Five guests board the elevator to head up to the Tip Top Club on the 12th floor. Strange green lightning strikes the hotel and the guests on the elevator disappear. Sixty years later a disgraced journalist, Buzzy Crocker, continues to try to make his way back into The Los Angeles Banner.  As he continues to work toward that goal he creates fake news stories for the tabloids with his niece, Anna. His “stories” attract the attention of Abigail Gregory, an elderly woman that was at the hotel on the day of the fateful incident and has information that will shed light on what happened to the five that disappeared. 

MAKING OF

  • In the mid-1990s, writer and director DJ MacHale was finishing up his groundbreaking children’s horror anthology show, Are You Afraid of the Dark. If you have heard our podcast before, you may have heard us mention that show from time to time. Some Nickelodeon producers jumped ship to Disney around the time DJ was wrapping up his final episodes, and they asked DJ if he would be willing to work on a project for Disney. MacHale had built a reputation as someone that had “honed his craft” of creating entertainment that was scary, but not tooo scary. 
    • When asked by Beyond the Mouse Podcast about how he kept this balance, DJ said, “It’s all about tension. It’s about (and this applies to all horror movies frankly) it’s what’s truly scary is what you think you might see, not what you see. Using that kind of tension 101 you can translate that to a kids show because the payoffs will never be as gruesome as they are in adult movies.”
  • When DJ MacHale started writing the script for this film, he had to drop any reference to The Twilight Zone because Disney did not secure the rights to the show. Although it might seem like this would make the writing process more difficult, DJ MacHale was thankful that he did not have to work it into the story. Since the characters in the pre-show were not given detailed backstories, he could use their appearances to give them character, stories, and personalities. 
    • Disney did not give the team the budget for a big production, so MacHale knew that he could not afford to create a period piece that would span the whole movie. For this reason, we are brought into a contemporary setting for most of the film. The story only needed to have two major points that matched the ride; the characters from the elevator and the lightning. DJ MacHale felt it was easier to have parameters than to make up a story from scratch.
    • In order to begin preparation for the film, DJ got to meet with the Imagineers that worked on creating the ride. When he arrived at the Glendale offices he noted how bland and unimaginative the offices were with all their normal cubby holes. Once you stepped inside each cubby however you got to see where all the magic and innovation came from. In order to protect all this magic, DJ had to sign non-disclosure agreements before entering. When he talked with the creators it was obvious how proud of Tower of Terror they were. The Imagineers did not hesitate to show him all the schematics and information they had on it. They gave him all the information they could, and let him control the story.
    • Tower of Terror Replica
      • As mentioned before, the ride is incredibly detailed. DJ assumed that a lot of the filming would be done within the actual building of the ride, but Disney did not want to shut down the ride for the duration of filming. They also do not let you skip the line, even if you are making a movie about the ride (according to DJ.) So in order to film at the location, they would have only been able to shoot during the hours of midnight to 4 am. Due to this short time frame, they were not able to film on location. Although there were soundstages nearby, the production team could not use them because they had been booked for months. So, they moved production from Florida to California. There are shots of the actual ride in the film, however. They are wide building shots and detail shots of statues and carvings that are shown when Buzzy Crocker first enters the building.
        • The beginning exterior shot of the film set in 1939 needed a Hollywood Tower Hotel that looked new because the audience needed to believe that it had recently been built. DJ MacHale was worried that the team would have to use CGI to light all the letters on the sign as some of them blink or are not on. When they went to the top of the tower with a worker they were in luck and found that there were switches for the neon lights that would fully light the sign.
      • The Production designer was Phil Dagort (pronounced Dagore). He most recently has worked on the set design for the TV series Why Women Kill. Dagort was dedicated to creating the perfect aesthetic for the film, which also meant building an almost exact replica of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’s lobby. The only major difference between the replica and the real lobby was that the replica did not have a ceiling! Because a quarter of the budget went to building this set, more scenes needed to take place in the lobby to justify the expense. DJ MacHale had scenes that were going to happen in other parts of the hotel; like the kitchen, but they got moved into the Lobby. Luckily the room was so diverse and expansive that it does not look like it was all shot in that room.
    • One major feature of the hotel is its enormous gates that display the HTH acronym. While searching for a cheap material to make the gates, they found themselves at the same shop that had created the gates for the actual attraction. Not only had they done that, but they had also created a backup set! MacHale could not recall for sure but he believes that they were given to the team for free because they were in a scrap pile.

CAST

When DJ was interviewed by Beyond the Mouse Podcast, he commented on what it was like hiring and working with the cast. This was one of the few movies that he shot in Los Angeles, so many actors that came in to audition were well known. Because of this, he was actually a little starstruck. On another note, he mentioned that it was fun to be able to work with a predominantly adult cast who could carry the workload after having worked with almost exclusively kids. 

  • Steve Guttenberg as Buzzy Crocker
    • Known for his roles in the Police Academy series and Three Men and A Baby 
    • This was not the first time that DJ MacHale had used the name Buzzy Crocker for a character. As an NYU student, he made a film called Deadline and the reporter’s name was Buzzy Crocker.
    • When having to replace audio, DJ met up with Steve at a street cafe in Toronto where Steve was recognized constantly and everyone who saw him wanted to say hello. DJ said that Steve was genuinely happy and nice to each and every person.
  • Kirsten Dunst as Anna Petterson
    • Starred in many child roles until one of her most popular roles in Spider-Man (2002)
  • Nia Peeples as Jill Perry
    • Was in the show Fame from 1983 to 1987 as well as Walker, Texas Ranger from 1999 to 2001
  • Michael McShane as Chris ‘Q’ Todd
    • Known for his roles in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Office Space, and the voices for both Tuck and Roll in A Bug’s Life
  • Amzie Strickland as Abigail Gregory
    • Her acting career dates as far back as 1937 in many uncredited roles, as well as many TV series like Seventh Heaven and Sister, Sister. 
    • DJ MacHale said that she was one of the greatest people to work with because she had been in pretty much everything. He said that normally resumes come in chronological order but hers was in alphabetical order.
  • Melora Hardin as Claire Poulet
    • And actress with many TV roles such as Little House on the Prairie, Murder, She Wrote, and Gilmore Girls
    • The song that she sings at the end is one that a close friend of hers wrote. 
  • Alastair Duncan as Gilbert London
    • He has become a well-known voice actor for video games and cartoons such as The Batman (2004), Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and the recent God of War
  • Lindsay Ridgeway as Sally Shine
    • She doesn’t have very many credits, but those she does have to include Boy Meets World from 1996 to 2000, and Cats Don’t Dance
  • John Franklin as Dewey Todd
    • Another actor with relatively few credits, but he appeared in films and series such as Tammy and the T-Rex, Star Trek: Voyager, and The Addams Family
    • Dewey appears in the book series Pendragon that DJ MacHale created! The events take place prior to 1939 in Manhattan and in book 3  he says he is going to go to work at his Grandfather’s Hotel in California. In book 8 they go back to the Manhattan hotel and someone comments on the fact that Dewey disappeared at the California hotel.
  • Wendy Worthington as Emeline Partridge
    • She has had many roles and Tower of Terror is one of her most well-known. Others include Ally McBeal, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

RECEPTION

  • Although it’s not the most well-known film from The Wonderful World of Disney, Tower of Terror has garnered a cult following in recent years. Kirsten Dunst was nominated for a Young Artist Award for best actress in a TV movie/mini-series/pilot!
  • You cannot currently watch the movie online, but it is available for purchase! 

TALKS OF NEW MOVIE

  • Recently there had been talks about creating a new movie based around the Twilight Zone of Terror. This movie would also have its own story due to CBS still owning the rights to The Twilight Zone. Scarlet Johanson’s Three Pictures Production Company was set to produce the film, and have her as the lead. Pre-production for the film halted due to the recent legal disputes between Scarlet Johanson and Disney. This does not completely rule out a new Tower of Terror but it will most likely not be with Scarlett Johanson.  

Although Disney’s Tower of Terror wasn’t technically a Disney Channel Original Movie, it was prominently featured on Disney Channel for several years. For many of us 90s kids, it was a Halloween staple, a fun ride that felt like a prolonged episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. 

So, for our first episode of Disney Halloween, we were happy to take you into the fourth or maybe fifth dimension…down an elevator shaft and into the not-so-Twilight zone (because copyright I guess). 

So if you haven’t seen this wonderful Disney charmer, go ahead and give it a go. We’re sure you’ll FALL in love. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

You can now buy us a Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


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