Tower of Terror (1997) — Steve Guttenberg enters the Twilight Zone

“They didn’t go anywhere. They’re still at the hotel. They’re ghosts.”

Justin’s rating: You’re entering a dimension of lights, camera, action!

Justin’s review: As of 2021, pretty much every single ride at Disney’s theme parks has been turned into some sort of movie treatment. We’ve had Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, Tomorrowland, Mission to Mars, The Country Bears, and Dinosaur — and that’s not mentioning the rides that were based on pre-established films. Considering how numerous these films are, it’s perhaps bizarre to consider that the very first ride-to-movie adaptation appeared in 1997… and that it was Tower of Terror starring Steven Guttenberg and (why not) Kristen Dunst.

This made-for-TV film drew inspiration for the drop ride in both American Disney parks that, in turn, thematically tied into The Twilight Zone. It’s about the closest spiritual successor to the Haunted Mansion that the parks have done, and I loved going on it several times. It had an original story created for this attraction, but since it was a ride, we’re not talking about War and Peace here. It’s a very short story that served as a framework for showing ghosts and other supernatural elements while making us lose our lunch.

Hollywood Tower Hotel, 1939. A child starlet, her nanny, and three others enter an elevator on Halloween night, only to be zapped into oblivion. Many years later, the place is closed up and heavily rumored to be haunted. Out of the blue, a past hotel resident appears to shed light on the situation: This is a case of Black Magic gone awry — and there might be a way to reverse it.

It’s the perfect story bait for Buzzy (Guttenberg), a tabloid reporter trying to break back into real print journalism (this was the late ’90s, when print journalism still mattered). Buzzy grabs his niece Anna, a local actress (who is played by The Office’s Jan), and the hotel’s caretaker for a scavenger hunt to find certain items to put the spirits at rest or whatever.

For people like me who grew up in the ’80s, Tower of Terror brings up a lot of troubling questions about the downward career trajectory of Steve Guttenberg. He went from being a very likable lead of movies like Police Academy, Short Circuit, and Cocoon to doing, well, thinly veiled promotions for Disney park rides. It’s more than a little sad, because he exudes this likable Tom Hanks-like everyman persona that is easy to like whenever he appears. How he went from an incredible streak of leading roles to increasingly forgettable stuff is beyond me.

Despite nominally being a haunted hotel movie, Tower of Terror is about as scary and nerve-wracking as you might expect for a made-for-TV effort with the Disney brand. There’s some halfway decent atmosphere (some of the film was shot at the actual theme park attraction), but before long, all pretense of frights is gone and the five ghosts appear to bicker and prod our heroes to get their quest done. There’s a whole lot of padding to draw out this story, including shoving an investigative mystery about who is related to who and what really happened that night.

Sure, it’s great to see Guttenberg and Dunst do their best to salvage a story here, but I found myself really disappointed that they jettisoned the Twilight Zone tie-in that the actual ride attraction features. The Twilight Zone is usually unsettling in the best and most interesting of ways, but this is a family-friendly romp with no real stakes or surprises.

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