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It Disney Scare Me!


At half term, there is a tradition that I go away for a few days with that young shaver TF Simpson, leaving his mother in peace. We’ve been north, south, east and west in this fair country so this year we moved into Europe. We travelled to a kingdom where people of all races, creeds and colours mix, marvelling at the towering mittel-Europe chateau which dominates the centre of the land – and also at the enormous rodent problem. My god, the mice there are huge. So are the ducks. Yes, we spent a couple of days at Disneyland Paris, which people of my age still call EuroDisney. And a jolly good time we had there too.

      Disneyland Paris consists of two adjoining parks. One is the traditional ‘Magic Kingdom’ with the rides you expect, many of them copied from the California and Florida parks. The other is ‘Disney Studios’ which has a more varied range of rides and attractions, some of which would seem to have only the most tangential connection to the House of Mouse. Except that Disney is a global corporation and owns, let’s face it, pretty much everything that’s not already owned by Sony or Fox.

      Disney owns Star Wars now – but then it always did, to some extent, at least in part. The original Star Tours ride opened in 1987, long before the Mouse bought the Ewok as part of its global empire. It’s a cracking simulator in its own right and a must for any sci-fi geek, with plenty to look at even as you’re queuing (and it’s a long queue). The rides in the USA, Tokyo and Hong Kong have now all been replaced with a second generation simulator, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, so Paris is the only place to experience the original ride. And probably also the only place you can still get the Starspeeder 3000 toy that I bought TF, a very cool recreation of the little spaceship we sat in. In fact, there’s a significant amount of Star Wars merchandise in the various part-you-from-your-euros shops around the park. Donald Duck as Darth Maul? You’ve got it. Stitch dressed as Yoda? How many would you like?

      So that was cool and all, and Star Tours is fun and exciting. But the big surprise was a ride that is actually one hundred percent horror… The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror. Let me assure you, gentle blog-skimmer, that the Tower of Terror is, by a considerable margin, the scariest theme park ride I have ever been on. Which I suppose is appropriate because The Twilight Zone could be an unbelievable scary series. I first saw the original 1950s/1960s show in a run of late night screenings on Channel 4 in the 1980s. After my parents had gone to bed, a teenage MJS would stay up and spend half an hour in a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. One of the first episodes they showed was Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the classic tale of a pre-Trek William Shatner trying to convince his fellow passengers and crew that there was a gremlin ripping up the airliner’s wing. (This was of course remade as a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie with John Lithgow in the lead role. Many years later the Shat guest-starred in an episode of the Lithgow-starring SF sitcom Third Rock from the Sun with the inevitable gag: 'How was your flight?' 'Horrible – there was something on the wing of the plane.' 'The same thing happened to me!')

      But I digress. Disney now apparently owns The Twilight Zone, or as the French call it, La Quatrieme Dimension. And slap bang in the middle of the Disney Studios park is the Hollywood Tower Hotel, a five-storey, art deco, crumbling edifice (every crack carefully sculpted). As the queue snakes inside the lobby, you find yourself among the ghosts of Hollywood’s past. Not literally, of course. Not yet. Eventually a bellhop ushers a group of you into the library, apologising that your rooms are not ready yet. In the library, a TV screen flickers to life and Rod Serling informs you (in English, subtitled in French) that a group of people died in this hotel back in the 1930s, and generally warns you about entering La Quatrieme Dimension.

      The bellhop reappears and says your rooms are ready but you’ll need to travel up in the service elevator, to which he now ushers you. What I really loved about all this build-up, apart from creating a real atmosphere of unease and trepidation that you wouldn’t have if you just queued to get on the ride, is that the Tower of Terror bellhops are the antithesis of Disneyland. This is ‘the happiest place on Earth’ and everyone is supposed to smile and grin and wish you a nice day (though I get the feeling the French staff don’t smile and grin quite as much or as readily as the Yanks). If you work at Disneyland Paris, you are paid to be bright and cheerful. Unless you get the gig on The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror, in which case your role is to be creepy and disturbing. I bet it’s the most hotly contested job at the park.

      Eventually, a dozen or so of you strap yourselves into seats in this unnaturally large service elevator and the bellhop bids you farewell. The doors close. The elevator moves around a bit: left, right, up, forward, getting into position. Then it rises. And then it drops. And let me tell you, once it starts dropping, you start screaming. It goes up, it goes down. The doors open and you look down a corridor (or at least, the effect of a corridor) and see the ghosts of the people that young Mr Serling told us had died here. Then the doors slam shut and you’re off again, jolting up and down in a manner that is both entertaining and scary. But still you’re thinking (inasmuch as you have time to think between screams) that this is just a simulator. The jolts are exaggerated by the light and sounds and your own imagination into more than they really are. After all, the Starspeeder 3000 didn’t really hurtle around in space, you just felt like that was happening. So obviously the elevator isn’t really dropping any distance; just enough to lurch your stomach.

      And then – here’s where it gets cool – the elevator shoots upwards, and the doors open, and holy free-oly you are looking out across Disneyland Paris from five floors up. There’s no window, there’s no bars, there’s nothing between you and a five-storey drop except a seat belt. To cite an old British horror classic: and now the screaming starts. You have just enough time to realise that you really are very high up and very exposed to the elements before the doors slam shut and you descend at high speed. And you continue to shoot up and down for what is probably about a minute and a half but seems like forever, before eventually coming to rest and staggering out into the gift shop where a range of ‘I survived the Tower of Terror’ T-shirts and other distinctly non-Disney-esque merchandise can be purchased. The only thing they don’t sell is underwear, which is a market they should consider because you really need a change at this point.

      All credit to the Disneyland marketing and merchandise guys: they’re not afraid to play the horror card and appeal to people’s darker tastes. You might think that everything would be squeaky clean and bright and 'Hello Pluto!' and faintly nauseating for anyone over the age of eight: a non-stop parade of Frozen tat and all the Planes 2 crap they couldn’t sell because no-one went to see Planes 2 (or indeed, Planes, since we all got burned so badly by the dire Cars 2). But actually there’s a good range of spooky, creepy, dark merchandise on sale. Disney of course owns The Nightmare Before Christmas, so Jack Skellington is a recurring gothic motif. More recently, Disney turned to the dark side when they reimagined the story of Sleeping Beauty as Maleficent.

      Which unfortunately proved that, although the merchandise division fully understand the tastes of teenage emo older siblings dragged along to Disneyland so that little Johnny/Jenny can meet Buzz and Woody and Elsa and Anna, the actual filmmaking arm of the global Mouse-House, well, disnae. Maleficent should have been awesome. The title character is (or at least was, in the cartoon) a fascinating study in female villainhood. No simplistic ‘wicked stepmother’, she; not driven by the vanity of fashion like Cruella deVille, nor a literal monster like The Little Mermaid’s Ursula. Maleficent is (or was) as sexily-powerful and powerfully sexy as her name - a complex, Machiavellian dominatrix whose lust for power always hinted at a preference for the former over the latter. The casting of Angelina Jolie in the role should have ensured a classic. She looked awesome in the trailer and stills, but ultimately one is reminded only of how good Uma Thurman looked as Emma Peel in the 1990s Avengers movie. A publicity still is not a feature film.

      The problems of the Jolie film were both simple and basic. The filmmakers lost their nerve. They had not the courage of their convictions. They knew that Maleficent was a terrific character. They knew that Sleeping Beauty is a timeless story, one of the few fairy tale sagas that has enough intrinsically fascinating elements to extend its appeal beyond little girls who want to dress up as a princess. Back when I started buying Disney films on DVD – which was well before TF Simpson was born – the first one I purchased was Sleeping Beauty. And it did not disappoint. I took TF to see Maleficent and we both left the cinema saying, 'Well, the effects were good…'

      If you haven’t seen it (and relatively few have), let me spare you the trouble. The writers made Maleficent a good character. It started off promisingly: she was a fairy – not a Tinkerbell-style flower fairy but more of a Euro folk-tradition faerie – who was betrayed and actually harmed by her human friend/lover. The character was given terrific motivation for her subsequent evil plotting against an innocent child. Some of the cutesy CGI woodland goblins were a bit much, but adequate compensation came in the form of the giant CGI tree-demons and the big CGI battle scenes between them and armies of CGI knights. Yes, the effects were good.

      But someone at Disney clearly said: we can’t have a villain as the main character. Which is nonsense. Villains are fascinating. Villains are complex. Villains are always more fun to watch – certainly to play – than saccharine princesses and simpering so-called heroes. Did these people not watch Despicable Me and realise that audiences love a villain? Did they not watch Breaking Bad and realise that we can learn about the human condition through stories in which the central characters do terrible things? There was even a villain-as-lead precedent in early 1990s Peter Pan movie Hook – an Amblin production, not Disney - which wasn’t a great film admittedly (though it is more memorable than any subsequent versions) but did benefit hugely from the title character. Dustin Hoffman was fantastic as Captain Hook, playing him like a swashbuckling version of Peter Cook, forever frustrated by the Dudley Moore-esque foil of Robin Williams’s Pan.

      At least in Hook, Hook was still a villain. In Maleficent, Maleficent regretted her cursing of the baby, watched over and befriended the girl as she grew up under the inattentive care of three comic relief fairy godmothers, and even atoned for her sins. There was a dragon at the end of the film – a big CGI dragon – but it wasn’t Maleficent in dragon form, thereby missing the whole point  and instead just ticking the box marked ‘enormous, fire-breathing lizard-thing’. As for the way they reinterpreted ‘true love’s kiss’ – dear Lord, I nearly barfed. But the Maleficent merchandise at Disneyland, unhampered by the movie’s trite plot, is worthwhile. Which proves that, when it comes to horror and darkness, the House of Mouse is better at marketing it than making it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.