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Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

Psycho IV poster
Image: Universal

Psycho IV would have to wait, too.

The Bates Motel and obligatory house on the hill behind it was fully constructed and ready for cameras by the end of October 1988. The set alone was exciting enough to score a mention in the Chicago Tribune, promising an un-subtitled Psycho IV would premiere sometime the following year.

Universal delayed production until the rest of the park was finished. The 25-day shoot, helmed by Critters 2 director Mick Garris, would coincide with Universal Studios Florida’s first month of operation so the earliest visitors could get a glimpse of genuine movie magic. It also made the famously shy Anthony Perkins available for the opening day ceremonies of Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. At least in theory. According to the Tampa Bay Times, he was mostly a no-show. 

For most Universal visitors, the entire production was a no-show. Psycho IV: The Beginning didn’t call for much exterior work, especially during park hours. Besides a handy placard that said it was shot there, the only sign of the film coming or going lives on in home videos from June 1990, when the Bates Motel and mansion were briefly painted in their pastel Sunday best before reverting to the iconically rundown look.

The same Tampa Bay Times story includes a quote from a publicist at Showtime, the network that premiered Psycho IV, stating that the sets would be moved across the park after the production wrapped. No mention is made of where they would’ve been relocated. It may have been a misunderstanding about the capability of moving them, having been built on stilts specifically for the option, but it turned out to be an omen in the end. The sets were never in the way of incoming productions so they stayed put until the theme park needed more real estate. The Bates Motel was destroyed in 1995 for A Day in the Park With Barney and the "Psycho House" followed suit in 1998 for Curious George Goes to Town.

Oscar (1991)

Oscar poster
Image: Disney

“He will come back...or he won’t.”

So hoped the Orlando Sentinel in a piece on surprise visitor John Landis, director of The Blues Brothers.

Ultimately, he did not come back to Orlando, but it wasn’t like he had a choice the first time around. 

Oscar, Landis’s 1991 period farce, was days away from wrapping on the Universal Studios Hollywood lot when a disturbed security guard set fire to a scenic department paint shed. The ensuing blaze claimed just about every facade that could pass for 1930s Chicago, leaving the gangland comedy without a gangland.

Remembering an early construction tour of the site, Landis moved his production to the just-opened Universal Studios Florida and used the New York street sets with little necessary modification. Oscar, it’s worth noting, was a Disney production through Touchstone Pictures, like Ernest Saves Christmas before it. Landis hadn’t even acclimated to the humidity before receiving a panicked phone call from then-CEO Michael Eisner. It didn’t look good that such a high-profile project, starring Sylvester Stallone no less, was filming in broad daylight on the competition’s backlot. Landis, in turn, broke the news to him that the New York street sets at Disney-MGM Studios didn’t look good, either.

In the end, the production split the difference, shooting exteriors at Universal and interiors at Disney. In terms of paid publicity, though, the winner was clear - curtains were kept drawn in the soundstages so tourists on the walking tour never even knew Rocky Balboa was in the building.

Everyone knew he was in town, though. Plenty of ink was already spilled by the time Oscar came to town in mid-December 1990. The tone was simultaneously grateful and skeptical. It was the first A-list Hollywood picture to roll cameras while the parks were open, but even at Universal the director requested a closed set. That meant security and secrecy and absolutely no interaction with people in Woody Woodpecker hats.

Until it didn’t.

Today, you can find home videos uploaded to YouTube catching Stallone winking at the crowds. A smaller crew was allowed to shoot on the Oscar set for the 1991 souvenir video, Universal Studios Florida: Experience the Magic of Movies. Landis even broke a long media silence, since his contentious 1987 acquittal in the deaths of an actor and two children on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, just to promote the film.

“I’m doing press on this movie because I really feel it needs all the help it can get.”

He didn't realize he was telling a bad joke.

Oscar opened to paint-peeling reviews and quickly became late-show shorthand for box office failure. Any intended smile-and-wave rehabilitation didn’t help Landis’s reputation or his career. Stallone took one more swing at comedy in 1992’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! before backing away from the genre entirely.

Though it didn’t kickstart the Hollywood East revolution, Oscar does show off the quality of Universal Studios Florida’s New York streets, most of which remain completely unchanged today. Viewers should keep their eyes open for any shots to the left of Stallone’s false-front estate and an obvious drive-by of Sting Alley.

 
 
 
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