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Spacewreck: The Captain EO Story

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joesmedia2012 via eBay

After months of production delays and millions of dollars spent covering budget overruns, the film editors working on the "4D" Disney theme park attraction dubbed Captain EO began to get frantic feedback from company executives who had seen some of the film's early footage: Michael Jackson was grabbing his crotch way too often.

The star of EO, Jackson was just three years removed from one of the biggest albums in music history, 1982’s Thriller. Disney had approached him with the idea of helping to create an exclusive, ambitious film with in-theater effects like fog and lasers that could be experienced only in Disney-branded theme parks. With the assistance of George Lucas, the production had created a 17-minute space musical, nearly seven minutes of which featured Jackson performing while frequently putting his hands in places Disney would never approve of.

The footage was zoomed, edited, or clipped to remove the gestures. But a bigger problem remained: Would enough people show up to justify Disney’s $20 million investment—on a per-minute basis, the most expensive film ever made at the time?

Meredith P. via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Disney of today is a monolithic enterprise, one that seems to be able to print money as quickly and easily as the U.S. Treasury. They own a sizable portion of pop culture’s most appealing brands—Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars—and reap billions from merchandising and films.

But the Disney of the 1980s was operating under markedly different circumstances. It would be years before their animated films experienced a resurgence, first with 1989's The Little Mermaid, and decades before they began to acquire other character libraries. One of their largest assets of the era was their theme park division—Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with a satellite park in Tokyo and one planned for Paris. The continued success of those parks was crucial to their business as a whole.

In 1984, newly installed Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided to pursue an attraction that would blend Disney’s resources in both live entertainment and film. His idea was to approach Michael Jackson, a recording artist who was arguably the most famous entertainer in the world at the time. Jackson’s second solo album, Thriller, had been released in two years prior and went on to sell 30 million copies in the U.S. alone. With director John Landis, he had proven himself to be a master of the music video form with an elaborate mini-movie of the title track. Most importantly, Jackson was a tremendous fan of Disney, often visiting their parks in disguise so he could enjoy the rides without being solicited by fans. He traveled there so often he bought his own private suite at Disney World.

Eisner asked Jackson if he’d be interested in appearing in a short film shot in 3D and accompanied by lights, smoke, lasers, and other sensory effects that would be accomplished live in the theater. He also assured Jackson that the production would be overseen by George Lucas, the filmmaker behind Star Wars, who had a working relationship with Eisner thanks to the numerous park attractions based on his space saga.

Jackson was enthusiastic for two reasons: He loved Disney, and he was eager to explore acting. He agreed to star in the project and provide the original music if Eisner could convince Steven Spielberg to direct it.

Eisner couldn’t; Spielberg’s schedule didn’t allow for it. But he and Lucas did enlist Francis Ford Coppola, the Oscar-winning director of the Godfather films. While Coppola didn't usually go for elaborate, effects-heavy fantasy flicks, he and Lucas were close friends; he also perceived EO to be a possible way of rebounding from various setbacks he had suffered early in the decade. Films like The Cotton Club had put his production company, American Zoetrope, in financial turbulence.

With Lucas, Coppola, and Jackson in place, four of Disney’s brainstorming Imagineer employees were asked to come up with a premise that incorporated music, outer space, and 3D effects. The result was The Intergalactic Music Man, a parable about an interstellar performer who can "heal" distressed civilizations with song. That morphed into Space Knights, which kept the weaponized music angle but was less of a fantasy.

After the Imagineers pitched Eisner, Lucas, and Jackson, the story settled into a kind of space saga that would feature Jackson as the captain of a starship that harbored alien life forms, including a flatulent, elephant-snouted creature named Hooter. When they crash-land on a planet ruled by an evil queen, Jackson’s performance art helps to break her influence over the population. It was Coppola who suggested the title be changed to Captain EO, after the Greek word eos, or "dawn."

Captain EO began production in the summer of 1985 and was conceived as a 12-minute film with a budget of $11 million. As the production dragged on, it became apparent that was an absurdly optimistic figure. Disney believed Lucas would help keep the film on schedule, but his work prepping Howard the Duck and various Lucasfilm projects meant he only checked in periodically. Coppola and his director of photography also had no experience shooting footage in 3D, which required deliberate lighting and camera set-ups. Learning on the job led to overruns, which Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to control. But Coppola found an ally in Lucas, who wasn't involved in day-to-day decisions but backed extravagant spending on things like the installation of a giant gimbal that could shake the spaceship set on command.

The problem grew larger after principal photography had finished. The planned 40 effects shots grew to 140; editors spent time avoiding Jackson making any dance gestures parents visiting the park would find objectionable; the Magic Eye Theater, which was being constructed to incorporate the live effects, suffered from delays. Executives even toyed with modulating Jackson’s speaking voice, since they considered it too high-pitched. (Since no one wanted to confront the issue with Jackson directly, the concern was dropped.)

Originally planned for a spring 1986 launch, EO was pushed to September. In the industry, the soaring budget, nine-month post-production schedule, and number of high-ranking entertainment names involved led to a new working title. In Hollywood, the lavish effects film was being referred to as "Captain Ego."

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With a minimum of $20 million spent on the production, there was little point in sparing any expense for the premiere of Captain EO on September 13, 1986. Disney hosted a screening at Epcot Center in Orlando, inviting the film’s stars and other celebrities. Anjelica Huston, who played the Supreme Leader in the film, rode in a motorcade with her then-partner Jack Nicholson and waved to park guests; Lucas put in an appearance. Jackson’s sisters La Toya and Janet were also photographed at the event, along with Dolph Lundgren and O.J. Simpson.

Curiously, Jackson himself was nowhere to be found. Eisner joked he was probably there in disguise "as an old lady"—something Jackson had actually done at one point in order to meet with the Imagineering team without drawing attention. But the more likely explanation was that Jackson had been embarrassed by the reaction to pictures of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, a publicity stunt he had orchestrated earlier that week that had gotten negative attention.

If the crowd was bummed by Jackson’s absence, they didn’t take it out on the film. Using fog machines, twin 70 mm film projectors, and 3D glasses for dramatic effect, EO debuted to hugely positive reviews from those in attendance and grossed an estimated $2 million its first weekend, confirming Eisner’s theory that original theme park attractions would help populate their front gates. In one poll, 93 percent of attendees listed EO as a main reason for wanting to visit.

 
Captain EO ran at Epcot until 1994 and in Anaheim until 1997, when it was replaced by a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids attraction. In 2010, the Disney parks revived the film following the outpouring of sentiment that accompanied Jackson’s death the previous summer. It ran until December 2015, at which point Disney announced it would be closing the attraction for good.

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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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Columbia/TriStar

If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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The Scariest 25 Minutes on U.S. Television
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ABC

On March 4, 1975, ABC affiliate Channel 10 in Miami announced to viewers that the network’s debut of a made-for-TV suspense film titled Trilogy of Terror would not be airing as scheduled. The reason, according to the station, was that the movie was too unsettling for the 8:30 p.m. hour. They would show another movie instead, and push Trilogy of Terror into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.

In West Palm Beach, Channel 12 aired it in primetime, but made sure to offer a disclaimer that it might be disturbing for younger viewers.

In a culture that had recently been shaken by the 1973 release of The Exorcist and a resulting glut of occult fiction, it seemed unlikely that a modestly-budgeted network Movie of the Week could rattle station managers to the point that they were concerned for their viewers' welfare. And for two-thirds of its modest 90-minute slot, Trilogy of Terror bordered on the forgettable. Actress Karen Black, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, played multiple roles in the anthology, with the first two—about a seductive teacher and vengeful twin sister—little more than stock fare.

The third, “Amelia,” was very different. In essentially a one-woman play, Black portrays a character hoping to impress her anthropologist boyfriend by gifting him with an African “Zuni fetish doll,” a fearsome-looking warrior cast in wood and grasping a spear. Alone in her apartment, Black finds that the doll is more spirited than your typical toy. As he hacks and slashes at her feet and hides behind furniture, it’s not quite clear whether Black will conquer her tiny terror, go mad, or both.

In the more than 40 years since its original airing, “Amelia” has seared itself into the public consciousness, with viewers genuinely riveted by Black’s plight against the fanged terror. Prior to her death in 2013, Black said she was approached by fans to talk about her fight with a killer doll more than all of her other roles combined; when writer Richard Matheson went in for meetings, he was often approached by executives who admitted to wetting themselves watching the film as a child. Channels 10 and 12 may have been on to something.

The concept for “Amelia” had been hatched over a decade earlier, when Matheson was working on The Twilight Zone. Pitching a script titled “Devil Doll” to series creator Rod Serling, the draft was deemed too grim for 1960s broadcast standards. Matheson tweaked the idea slightly for “The Invaders,” about an isolated, mute woman (Agnes Moorehead) who is terrorized by a tiny fleet of miniature alien explorers. (Another classic episode, “Talky Tina,” about a doll who threatens her owner’s abusive stepfather, had no overt connection with Matheson.)

Years later, Matheson found himself in frequent collaboration with director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows). The two came up with the idea for Trilogy of Terror and pitched it to ABC. Writer William F. Nolan scripted two Matheson stories; Matheson himself scripted the third installment based on “Prey,” a short story he had written based on his abandoned Twilight Zone idea, which first appeared in a 1969 issue of Playboy.

Matheson figured “Amelia” would be the standout, and admitted he was selfish to keep it for himself to script. But the network and Curtis felt the stunt of casting Black in all three stories—for a total of four roles, including the second installment’s twins—would be the hook. Black was not initially interested in the material, agreeing to star only when her manager was able to secure a role for her then-husband, Robert Burton.

Shooting “Amelia” necessitated three puppets, which proved problematic to operate. In interviews, Black said that the crew sometimes resorted to simply throwing the doll at her in order to simulate movement; its head or arm tended to fall off during simulated running.

Deprived of the production’s gaffes, viewers didn’t find a lot to laugh about. The final third of Trilogy of Terror is largely silent, with Black being browbeaten by her overbearing mother (appearing offscreen via telephone) and hoping to calm herself with a shower. With the doll springing to life, she uses everything within reach—a suitcase, an ice pick, an oven—to combat whatever evil force she has awakened in the creature. In the closing moments, it becomes clear that the seemingly-vanquished doll isn’t done claiming victims.

The VHS box art for an early video release of the Zuni doll segment
MPI Home Video

Trilogy of Terror was repeated on ABC over the years and came to the home videocassette market in the early 1980s under the title Terror of the Doll. A combination of its being difficult to screen and people's fleeting recollections of the violent little savage led the movie to develop a cult following.

Don Mancini, who wrote the Child’s Play series—a seventh entry, Cult of Chucky, is due in October—and Child’s Play director Tom Holland have spoken about the influence Trilogy of Terror had on their iconic killer doll; a 1996 Trilogy of Terror sequel brought the Zuni doll back for an encore, although it didn't generate nearly as much interest as the original.

When it finally received wide distribution with a 1999 home video re-release, Black bemoaned that people seemed to have remembered Trilogy of Terror at the expense of the rest of her career. “I wish they said, ‘That wonderful movie you did for Robert Altman,’ but they don’t,” she said. “They say, ‘That little doll.’”

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