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Writer/Director Alex Zamm On Bringing “Under Wraps” To A New Generation of Fright Fans

Monday, September 27, 2021 | Interviews


The made-for-TV movie Under Wraps is notable not just for capturing the imaginations of millennial horror fans in in the late ’90s, but also for being the first film released under a banner that would become a family entertainment staple: the Disney Channel Original movie. Debuting just before Halloween in 1997, Under Wraps became an instant fave among fright-inclined youngsters and launched an ongoing series of small-screen flicks for families that continues to this day. For this spooky season, the House of Mouse has gone back to the roots of this popular series, remaking its first ever DCOM for a new generation of burgeoning horror fans and their parents. UNDER WRAPS (2021) follows three middle-school friends, Marshall (Malachi Barton), Gilbert (Christian J. Simon), and Amy (Sophia Hammonsas they happen upon and awaken a mummy (played by choreographer Phil Wright), who they affectionately name Harold. With Halloween fast approaching, they must rush to return him to his eternal resting place before a nefarious group of criminals can catch up to them and sell the mummy to the highest bidder.

Helmed by Alex Zamm (R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2), UNDER WRAPS pays tribute to the original film while bringing Harold and his pals into the 21st century. We sat down with Zamm to discuss his career in children’s entertainment, how he goes about crafting scares that aren’t too scary, and the fright flicks that made him a lifelong horror fan.

This is the first ever remake of a Disney Channel original movie. What was the decision-making process behind choosing this one specifically?

To be honest, I was not part of the decision-making process to make it. I knew that it was a beloved film, and I grew up with it, too. I really loved and it’s an enormous responsibility to bring a beloved title to a new generation and to honor it, while at same time riffing on it the way you might riff on a song or play to make it its own thing. Disney made that decision. I’m sure they saw an enormous fan base, and we live in an age of remakes or reboots. It just seemed like a wonderful opportunity, and I felt really honored that they trusted me with it. I’ve done a lot of comedy, and I love horror; for me, it was the perfect blend of horror, comedy, heart, and a little bit of Scooby-Doo mystery.

I think millennial horror fans especially will be thrilled to know that he was pretty close to the original. How did you decide what to keep and what needed to be updated or changed?

That’s always an interesting process, [differentiating] what things are of their period, and what things are opportunities or what things are just personal interests. For instance, [in] the first one, Kubat [played by the late Ed Lauter], was great. He was a terrific actor, terrific approach, but they decided, for their movie, that it was good to have him fake his own death. He disappears for a long time, and then he pops up again. For me, I was interested in how to ramp up pressure on the protagonist by keeping him alive and active [to] find out who stole his mummy. I made him an active pursuer throughout and that ratcheted up tension in ways that I was interested in. In other ways, we had an actor like Phil Wright, who’s just a gifted, incredible choreographer and dancer. That made sense to embrace what he does and to make dance an important part of the movie.

 He definitely brings a different physical comedy to the role. Did he have room to improvise?

Well, I used to be in the Groundlings [and] directed Upright Citizens Brigade. I’m also coming from a cartoonist background, so I’m used to very structured storyboards and shotlists with improv within it. I always work with people in a way that, we have to hit the script, but we look for moments within to riff. As long as it’s emotionally true to the scene, good ideas are gifts and they come from everywhere. You have to embrace them, otherwise, you don’t get a film that feels alive and spontaneous. That was a lot of fun, and really building the camaraderie with the actors so that we had that genuine friendship and made them feel like we were “Team Mummy.” Every day, we put our hands in the ring and we were Team Mummy, to build up that sense of camaraderie so that they could be conversational and in improvisation with each other in places.

You’ve worked on spooky family projects before like R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour. How do work to keep things scary, but not too scary?

I think it’s just an internal barometer. I was somebody who loved watching horror movies growing up, but if my mom asked me to go to the basement to get something, I was terrified. It’s always this balance between wanting to be in a spooky situation, but not being a terrifying situation. I think that’s what my meter with the audience was, to say, “Listen, I hope you snuggle up next to your mom and dad in a few places, but you don’t end up sleeping in their beds again.” That was a constant calibration. The other thing was the realization that in order to service the theme, I wanted people to gain a new perspective that, sometimes, if you see a monster or something that’s different or scary or unusual, [it’s okay] to have that genuine first reaction, but then to re-examine it and say, “Oh, I thought he was scary, but he’s actually vulnerable, and he’s kind.” I thought if we pulled our punches and made [the mummy] too nice too soon, we wouldn’t let the audience and the characters go through that feeling.

The film obviously contains some nods to Lon Chaney’s mummy movies, but what else did you want to reference here that you love?

I loved it all growing up. I mean, all the classic Hammer horror films. I loved all the Dracula and Frankenstein movies, but I really loved Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. All those monster movies, [they] enabled you to experience scariness and laughter at the same time, and that’s a rare breed. I love that rare breed. I count ET, The Iron Giant, Ghostbusters, in that realm, even Shaun of the Dead. They’re just rare breeds, you get to laugh and be spooked out at the same time. That, to me, is the sweet spot for my sensibility.

UNDER WRAPS premieres October 1st on Disney Channel and October 8th on Disney+.


Rocco T. Thompson
Rocco is a Rondo-nominated film journalist and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous. He penned the cover story for Rue Morgue's landmark July/Aug 2019 "Queer Fear" Special Issue, and is an associate producer on In Search of Darkness: Part III, the latest installment in CreatorVC's popular 1980s horror documentary series.