When you think about it, turning a theme park attraction into a motion picture is a pretty strange idea, as most rides only last a few minutes it would seem hard to stretch that into a feature film, but back in 2003 Disney took one of their most popular rides and turned it into the feature film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, which grossed over $650 million dollars and launched a franchise, one that they would quickly run into the ground, but The Pirates of the Caribbean was not the first Disney attraction to become a feature film, that honour would go to a Twilight Zone inspired free-fall ride that would launch its own guests up and down an elevator shaft that would echo with screams of terror and delight, a ride that three years later would be adapted into a made-for-television movie for The Wonderful World of Disney.
The year is 1939 and a gala party is being held at the famous Hollywood Tower Hotel when five hotel guests, consisting of singer Carolyn Crosson (Melora Hardin), actor Gilbert London (Alastair Duncan), beloved child star Sally Shine (Lindsay Ridgeway), her nanny Emeline Partridge (Wendy Worthington), and bellhop Dewey Todd (John Franklin), mysteriously disappeared after entering the hotel’s main elevator and it being struck by lightning, while on their way up to a party at the hotel’s Tip Top Club. Six decades later and the events of that Halloween night still remains a mystery but an elderly woman named Abigail Gregory (Amzie Strickland), who was a witness to the original tragedy, seeks out journalist Buzzy Crocker (Steve Guttenberg), a writer for a supermarket tabloid who was a once-respected journalist but due to his publishing of a fake news story he now relies on manufacturing stories about alien abduction and ghosts, but Abigail believes he is just the man she needs to uncover the truth.
Abigail declares that the nanny, Emeline, was a bitter witch who tried to put a curse on Sally, only for the curse to misfire due to her only having an item belonging to Sally for the spell but nothing from the other four people in the elevator, so instead of sending Sally to the underworld for an “eternity of torment” all five passengers were trapped in a state of limbo, and now they haunt the hotel as a ghostly quintet. Abigail then explains that if items belonging to the other passengers can be found they will be able to replicate the spell and break the curse. Buzzy enlists the help of his young niece Anna Peterson (Kirsten Dunst), who he would often use to pose as a ghost or an alien for his articles, and he hopes to do the same here with her posing as the ghostly Sally Shine, but it becomes quickly apparent that the Hollywood Tower Hotel is actually haunted, and he starts seeing this as his big chance to repair his damaged reputation and get his old job back.
Buzzy and Anna recruit the help of Chris “Q” Todd (Michael McShane), the hotel caretaker and grandson of Dewey Todd, to help with their investigation but Q is very reluctant, having never set foot inside the place due to his fear of ghosts, but he decides to help his deceased grandfather and the four guests because as he stands to inherit the hotel if an explanation to the 1939 event is revealed, which was a strange clause that his great grandfather had put in his will after closing the hotel after the events of that fateful Halloween. The ghosts appear and repeatedly attempt to frighten off Buzzy and Anna but when Anna bravely offers to help the ghosts escape the curse they soon learn that the nanny deeply loves her young charge and was not responsible for the curse. Enter editor Jill Perry (Nia Peeples) Buzzy’s old flame, who doesn’t believe in ghosts, and kicks Buzzy out of her office and forbids him from ever returning, but this doesn’t stop her from looking into this Abigail person and she soon discovers that Abigail is the sister of Sally Shine and was secretly jealous of her younger sister’s talents and fame, to the point of having a hidden chest full of marked-up photos that would make any serial killer proud. It becomes quite clear that it was Abigail who cast the spell and she has been manipulating Buzzy so that she can get another “ring at the bell” when it comes to sending her darling sister to Hell.
Unfortunately, the film’s third act brings up a terrible manufactured conflict that is insanely lame, with Buzzy about to abandon the idea of helping the ghosts for the chance of getting back his old job at the Banner and Jill’s idiotic dismissal of the idea of waiting “One bloody day” is especially ridiculous. This is the resolution of a decade-old mystery, we’re not talking breaking news here so I don’t see any pressing need to write the story that very night, and this pretty much derails any sympathy the film had managed to build for Buzzy. One minute he cares more about rebuilding his career than that of the troubles of a bunch of “mouldy ghosts” but in the next, he’s all about helping the ghosts, that is until Jill shows up with a paper-thin offer for his old job and he’s back to being a selfish prick. If anyone deserves to be cursed and forced to haunt an abandoned hotel it’s Buzzy Crocker, a self-serving jerk who basically gets his redemption by default. This whole plot detour is pretty much a waste of time because, of course, he eventually makes the right decision and races back to the hotel to help save the day.
• After writing a fake news story for a reputable newspaper, Buzzy Crocker is forced to work for a disreputable tabloid paper, but why couldn’t he have just gotten a job at Fox News? That cable network had just started, so I’m sure Rupert Murdoch was hiring.
• Hotel curator Chris “Q” Todd is the sole heir to the Hollywood Tower Hotel, but he refuses to step foot into its haunted halls and could be considered a precursor to Chris Kattan’s character from the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill.
• Jill discovers that Abigail has been in a sanitarium ever since that fateful night six decades ago, but who commits a ten-year-old to a sanitarium? Did she axe murder a few guests as well?
• I’m not sure what most ten-year-old kids were doing to amuse themselves back in the late 1930s but practicing dark magic was not something that I ever imagined them doing.
• The film climaxes with a young Abigail arriving at her birthday party, where she embraces her sister after decades of separation and the two of them are whisked off to heaven, but that means that old Abigail must have just died yet no one seems to remark on this development or even look for her body.
• Why were the ghosts going all “Beetlejuice” on Buzzy and Anna, conjuring up terrifying images of phantoms dancing in the rain and headless figures wielding meat cleavers, when their only chance of freedom was in someone solving the mystery?
What should be noted is that Disney’s Tower of Terror is still the most faithful adaptation of a Disney ride, not that the original ride had much of an intricate plot in the first place. The whole curse and mystery were fabricated for the movie but when compared to the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise it’s a spot-on masterpiece of an adaptation. Where those films simply took the genre the rides were based on, and then went off and did their own thing, the Tower of Terror took the simple premise of that ride and fleshed it out with a fairly cool and interesting mystery, and sure, most adults will see the solution coming from a mile away but I doubt many younger viewers would. The film also has some decidedly creepy moments and it doesn’t have anything as traumatizing as the zombies found in Disney’s 2003 release of The Haunted Mansion so I’d call this one more family-friendly. Overall, this entry in Disney’s tiny horror canon is surprisingly good and while its low budget resulted in less-than-spectacular ghost effects it’s still worth checking out by fans of both Disney and ghostly mysteries.
Note: Of all the ride-based movies that Disney has produced over the years this is the only one to actually utilize the ride itself as part of the production.
Disney's Tower of Terror (1997)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Airing on the Wonderful World of Disney this little gem not only gave us a young Kirsten Dunst solving a ghostly mystery with Steve Gutenberg, but it is also one of the best park attractions-to-movie adaptations to date and even with its limited budget it holds up rather well.