Expectations can make or break a movie-watching experience if you allow them too much headspace. I try to approach every film with an entirely blank slate, but it can be difficult to achieve that intellectual distance. For instance, watching a mid-90s Steve Guttenberg helm a made-for-TV kids’ movie based on a Disney World theme park attraction comes with its own expectation baggage that’s difficult to leave at the door. To be crassly honest, I expected a pile of shit. 1997’s Tower of Terror movie is a thoroughly pleasant surprise, then, shirking the stench of its compromised pedigree in nearly every scene. Even as a cheaply made VHS era kids’ horror starring The Gutte, the film is a massive improvement over Disney’s other haunted house amusement park ride adaptation, the miserable Eddie Murphy comedy The Haunted Mansion. It’s a charmingly silly, mildly spooky comedy that delivers just as much genuine entertainment as it does unintentional camp. I can’t parse out how much of my enjoyment was a surprise result of setting my expectations low, but that ultimately does not matter. What matters is that, against all odds, Tower of Terror is a good movie.
Steve Guttenberg stars as a sleazy photojournalist for a National Enquirer type publication, where he publishes hoax stories of alien autopsies & ghostly apparitions. Child actor (turned indie darling) Kirsten Dunst co-leads as his accomplice & niece, helping The Gutte fulfill his obvious destiny as a Goofy Uncle archetype. The pair get in over their heads when a mysterious old woman rope them into investigating a real life paranormal mystery, a 1939 incident at the infamous Hollywood Hotel that occurred on Halloween night. That evening, during a glamorous Halloween party (complete with big band swing music) a Shirley Temple/Baby Jane Hudson archetype mysteriously disappeared along with her drunk parents, her nanny, and a bellhop when the elevator car was struck by magic lightning. The answer to the mystery of what caused this supernatural event is explained upfront with the old lady’s tales of evil witchcraft and a Book of Souls MacGuffin. As Dunst & The Gutte search for this all-powerful talisman in the haunted hotel, however, the source of that witchcraft is called into question and the ghosts of the missing weigh in on what really happened that Halloween night. It all has very little to do with the actual Tower of Terror ride, but as a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by way of Hocus Pocus or Jumanji plot, it all works out as a perfectly entertaining children’s creepshow.
The actual Tower of Terror at the Disney amusement park is also shaped like a 1930s hotel and was actually utilized for the film’s frequent exterior shots to establish setting & mood. The ride is Twilight Zone-themed, however, which is a licensing choice this made-for-TV venture couldn’t afford to make. Instead, the hotel is utilized as a kind of standard issue haunted house contraption where headless figures brandishing meat cleavers, singing child ghosts dressed like the twins from The Shining, and elevators full of hellfire pop up from around corners to startle the audience. Instead of treating the film like a single trip through this haunted space like an amusement park ride, however, its ghostly mystery & fascination with witchcraft is spread over several days. This allows for long, bizarre speeches about “banishing children to the underworld” and how the lightning “half-zapped” everyone in the elevator, trapping them in limbo. Director D.J. MacHale doesn’t have many credits to his name, except that he helmed twenty episodes of the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which almost makes him overqualified for the task. For better or for worse, the movie plays like a feature length episode of that show that just happens to star two recognizable faces (along with exciting bit players like Melora Hardin & John Franklin) and is based off an amusement park ride (complete with mimicking the ride’s elevator drops at its climax, naturally). Expectations aside, it’s a form of entertainment I’ve been trained to appreciate for nearly my entire life.
Somewhere around 2015, as with all Disney properties (including The Haunted Mansion, somehow), there were talks of remaking Tower of Terror as a new, presumably better-funded feature. You can easily see how the studio would find easy potential in that idea, even if they nuke this original version out of existence & return to the property’s Twilight Zone roots. If that idea is dying along with the theme park attraction (which is gradually being replaced with some kind of Guardians of the Galaxy ride), however, the original will still persist as a perfectly entertaining, family-friendly haunted house tour starring Dunst & The Gutte. Even that kind of a modest success exceeds expectation, which is as good of a litmus test for a movie’s worth as anything, I suppose.