Earlier this month, the Tower of Terror ride at Disney’s California Adventure permanently closed to make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy ride, coming later this year. And though the Tower of Terror at Walt Disney World in Florida remains, the CA closure reminded us of the movie the ride inspired 20 years ago.
In October of 1997, The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC aired Tower of Terror, starring Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst. It takes the story of The Twilight Zone-themed Disney ride (such as it was), removes The Twilight Zone, and adds enough subplots and side characters to stretch it into 90 minutes. And though it sounds absolutely terrible, it’s not! It’s by no means good, but it’s not absolutely terrible, especially if you grade it on a curve (which is to say “a 1997 made-for-TV movie”).
The story begins on Halloween, 1939. At the popular Hollywood Tower Hotel, lightning strikes while five people are in an elevator and they suddenly disappear. The story becomes legendary. Sixty years later, a woman claiming to know what happened to the missing passengers meets Buzzy Crocker (Guttenberg), a disgraced journalist who now uses his niece Anna (Dunst) to fake spooky photos for the tabloids. But when Buzzy realizes the legend of the Tower is real, he decides to write an article about it, hoping it’ll be his big comeback.
Again, there’s more to the film than just that, though: Buzzy has a romantic interest, all the missing people have back stories, the hotel caretaker plays a part, and there’s a twist, too. It’s actually a little overstuffed for a Disney TV movie.
And yet, if you’re a fan of the ride the film is based on, there are lots of things to enjoy. The costume design, the hotel lobby, the special effects, even the dial above the elevator—all of it screams “Disney Theme Park.” There’s even an actual “drop,” just like the ride, near the end of the film.
However, that comes after lots of long, exposition-filled dialogue scenes and Buzzy’s copious tiptoeing around the tower, encountering the type of “scares” safe for Sunday night television. These can be a little grating but at least the film is attempting to be a family-friendly, supernatural mystery... until all that just gets thrown out the window.
That’s when the ghosts start appearing to Buzzy and Anna in human form, and any actual mood or tone the film was going for disappears in favor of hijinks. At one point a woman (a nearly unrecognizable Melora Hardin, who later played Jan on The Office) talks to Buzzy at the hotel. They walk the grounds, flirt, and later we find out she’s one of the ghosts. It destroys any sense of spookiness the movie was going for.
Both Guttenberg and Dunst give their best, slightly over-the-top “we’re in a Disney TV movie” performance. But that means every emotion is exaggerated; everyone is totally shocked when they should be surprised, and utterly terrified when they should simply be scared. Still, watching the film you totally remember why Guttenberg was such a popular star in the ‘80s. Meanwhile, Dunst, two years before she was set to break out, has screen presence but her Anna never really feels like a fully-created a character.
Tower of Terror is full of problems: dumb logic questions, questionable performances, an abundance of exposition, and more. But if you roll with the punches and remember this is a Disney TV movie from the ‘90s, the production design, the acting, the hokey story—all of it makes the film moderately fun. That doesn’t make it good, but it stands as a solid monument to the now-departed ride.
Tower of Terror isn’t available to stream anywhere, but Amazon does have the DVD cheap.