I only saw the Fright Zone once as a kid, in the late 80’s. I was immediately filled with regret for never having owned such a creepy-looking playset, a situation that was not rectified until a quarter of a century later.
Of the three major playsets depicted in the Filmation He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, the Fright Zone toy was the least like its animated counterpart. What I believe happened is that Filmation came up with its design on its own (an HR Giger-esque monstrosity), and then Mattel decided to use an older concept to represent the hideout of the Evil Horde in toy form. The animated Fright Zone would have been immense and complicated to produce, to say the least, although I suppose they could have replicated a portion of it.
The playset version of the Fright Zone begins with a December 5, 1983 piece of concept art called “Masters Villain Playset.” The concept, illustrated by Ed Watts, was no doubt intended for the Evil Warriors. It has the tree (this version has hands) down next to the jail cell, and it has some kind of man-eating plant on the right side, but otherwise it’s very close to the look of the final toy.
It’s not clear if the rock monster trap was included in this early concept, but there was a somewhat similar concept floating around Mattel:
A couple of separate patents were filed connected with the development of the Fright Zone playset. One (filed October 4, 1985) is connected with the tree and rock monster traps, and the other (filed April 5, 1985) is connected with the mold process for the rubber dragon puppet. Mattel applied for a trademark claim on the Fright Zone on January 27, 1984.
The playset has four main play features. There is the rubber dragon puppet that can be manipulated through the hole to its den on the right side of the playset. There is the haunted tree that can be made to grab hold of figures. There is the prison, which can be unlached with the flick of a switch, and there is the rock monster trap near the entrance to the dragon’s den, that can grab on to a figure’s foot:
The packaging artwork was painted by William George. In the fearsome Fright Zone, Battle Armor He-Man fights the dreadful dragon, while Hordak snares Battle Armor Skeletor with his tree trap. Buzz-Off is held captive in Hordak’s prison. Dead trees and craggy mountains surround the lair of the Evil Horde, and twin moons hang in the sky.
The Fright Zone also appears on the box art for Hordak/Grizzlor:
The 1987 Style Guide (illustrated by Errol McCarthy) described the Fright Zone this way:
Power: Ability to capture and consume enemies of The Horde.
Character profile: Located in Etheria, the Fright Zone is the dreaded domain of The Evil Horde. Exploreres are loath to enter the region, for few who travel into the Fright Zone ever return – and those who do are haunted forever after. It is the Fright Zone through which Hordak and his horde pass to enter the realm of Eternia.
As you might expect, the Fright Zone appears most frequently in the minicomics in 1985, the year it was released. It’s showcased most effectively in The Power of the Evil Horde, illustrated by Bruce Timm:
A Filmation version of the Fright Zone appeared in issue four of the US Masters of the Universe Magazine:
However, the same issue has this activity page depicting a playset-influenced version of Hordak‘s lair:
This version of the Fright Zone, in poster form appears in the same issue. It’s a much more realistic depiction, but still based on the playset:
Several other posters featured the Fright Zone as a backdrop. It was rendered at times just like the toy, and sometimes like the Filmation She-Ra cartoon version:
In the Masters Mail for the UK Masters of the Universe Magazine, issue 13, we get some clarification on why the different looks for the Filmation and toy/comic Fright Zones (you can read a bit more about this at James Eatock’s He-Man and She-Ra Blog). As retcons go, it’s pretty elegant and it works well enough for me:
Apart from miniature playsets like the Slime Pit and Point Dread, the Fright Zone was by far the smallest, but it was also the creepiest, and in my opinion, one of the most fun to actually play with.
Snake Mountain was a toy I only ever saw twice as a kid. I never owned one, but I certainly admired it from afar. Up close it was perhaps not as exciting to play with as it looked (and certainly not as instantly memorable as Castle Grayskull), but as Skeletor’s evil hideout, it had undeniable evil charm.
The first known mention of Snake Mountain seems to come in the December 1, 1982 Masters of the Universe Bible by Michael Halperin. (Note: there is one episode of the Filmation cartoon (“Diamond Ray of Disappearance”) that was written a bit before that (November 30, 1982), but it was revised months later, and I don’t know if Snake Mountain was included in the original script.)
Skeletor led them to his lair beneath the twin peaks of SNAKE MOUNTAIN. Around one of the crags twisted a terrible carved snake. A portal along the snake’s back until it reached the fanged mouth. Entrance here entrapped the incautious stranger for once a person stepped into the snake’s jaws they snapped shut thrusting the trespasser into almost inescapable dungeon.
A footbridge connected one mountain with the other where a blood red waterfall cascaded over crags, past blasted trees and murky swamps. Skeletor’s chamber hid behind BLOOD FALLS and only he knew its entrance, its traps and snares. The lair itself was a dark cavern dripping with venom. In one corner, its eyes blazing red, its tail twitching, sat Skeletor’s pet and charger, the giant cat PANTHOR. Its purple fur glistened as its muscles rippled when it stretched out iron claws from the mighty paws.
In other media, Skeletor’s stronghold was being called Point Dread. The 1983 Filmation Series Guide described it this way:
Point Dread is a craggy peak emerging from the Eternian Ocean. It is an extinct volcano with a tunnel leading down to a fantastic ruined, Atlantis-like city hidden beneath the ocean floor. Inside Point Dread, Skeletor keeps all the treasure he has plundered from a thousand worlds. There are also mines and construction sites waiting for the slaves Skeletor plans to take once he has seized control of Eternia.
But the heart of Point Dread is the great council chamber where Skeletor summons the sinister Masters of the Universe. Here Skeletor sits on a raised platform above the round table where are gathered the likes of…
This idea was echoed in the 1985 UK MOTU Annual (the UK annuals seemed to consistently draw on older source material):
In the end, Point Dread became the magical/technological moving perch of the Talon Fighter, which could relocate from the top of a mountain to the top of Castle Grayskull. Snake Mountain became the fortress of Skeletor.
In September of 1983, when the He-Man cartoon debuted, kids were introduced to Snake Mountain for the first time. It was an imposing structure – a large pointed peak punctuated with jagged “teeth” and a giant snake carving wrapped around it. Nearby was another, smaller peak, and Blood Falls flowed in between them:
The interior of the mountain featured a bone throne and a table with a magical globe for spying on enemies, a docking bay for Skeletor’s fleet of vehicles, various creepy creatures, and myriad twisting passageways. The snake carving was also hollow, and Skeletor could stand in the open mouth and overlook his dark domain:
Snake Mountain was trademarked by Mattel on August 15 of 1983. At some point in 1983 Mattel started working on the playset design. Rather than basing the toy off of Filmation’s fortress, they elected to come up with a completely different look, based off of a previous jungle playset design that had been abandoned:
Mattel wasn’t saving any tooling by reusing the idea, but perhaps it was a way to quickly re-sculpt a previous effort into a viable product.
Colin Bailey did some of the preliminary design work on the toy, as is visible in this design drawing from The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog:
His drawing is simply called “Skeletor Playset” and shows the goblin-like face and manacles that would be built into the right half of the design.
The main attractions of of the playset are clustered on the exterior – the shackles, the “talking” goblin face, the wolf echo microphone, the bridge (a fragile piece even in the 80s, and too narrow for figures to cross any way but sideways), numerous semi-hidden sculpted faces and claw-like root structures, the stairway, the gate and trap door, and the “striking” snake. There was also a scaling ladder, reused from the original Castle Grayskull playset.
The interior was pretty bare bones by comparison. There was a net to catch warriors who fell through the trap door, there was a volume control/switch for the echo microphone, and a couple of stickers on the floor. The goblin mouth could be articulated from the rear.
The box art was painted by William George. Early versions of the art, dated 1983, show Man-E-Faces in shackles, but the final artwork replaced him with Man-At-Arms. For more on that read this interview with Bob Nall, by Jukka Issakainen.
There were a couple of variations on the packaging. In some versions, the mountain is quoted as saying “I am the spirit of Snake Mountain” and in others it says “I am the voice of Snake Mountain.” I don’t know the reason for the change, but if I had to guess it would be because some parents might have objected to the “spirit” of Snake Mountain for religious reasons.
As a playset, Snake Mountain felt a bit undersized compared to Castle Grayskull. It was technically taller, but only because of the archway. The rest of the playset was about 25% shorter, and the stairs were out of scale with the chunky He-Man figures. It was still an impressive and coveted item, but it paled in comparison to Grayskull.
According to the 1987 Style Guide, Snake Mountain was the “talking mountain of evil.” The style guide gives the mountain several characteristics that were never used in any canonical materials, to my knowledge:
Power: Ultimate evil power center, which commands and controls Skeletor and his minions.
Character Profile: Snake Mountain is the home base for the Evil Warriors. Within it resides the horrible spirits of the Lords of Destruction. It is from these wicked spirits that Skeletor and his henchmen draw their evil power. A baffling series of catacombs are built beneath Snake Mountain. Exploration there has been limited; even Skeletor is fearful of what may reside there.
Errol McCarthy did the artwork for the Style Guide, and depicted Snake Mountain in several other illustrations as well:
Snake Mountain’s first several appearances in the minicomics follows the toy design. You can see that here in Siege of Avion and The Obelisk, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala:
In The Clash of Arms, illustrated by Larry Houston, a simplified version of Filmation’s Snake Mountain makes its minicomic debut:
With the advent of the Snake Men in 1986, Snake Mountain was reimagined as having been the fortress of King Hiss and his minions thousands of years in the past, before they were locked away in a pool of energy (the “Pool of Power”) in the caverns under the mountain:
In the 1986 Kid Stuff story book/record, Battle Under Snake Mountain, the fortress seems to be under the control of King Hiss, with no mention of Skeletor at all:
When Snake Mountain appears in the Golden Books stories, it is typically modeled after the toy:
The UK Masters of the Universe comic series (issue 22, 1987) tried to harmonize the toy and Filmation designs, although the reasoning used (Skeletor needed more protection, and so rebuilt the mountain) seems to require more explanation – I don’t quite follow the logic here:
Snake Mountain, in its toy form, makes an appearance in all of the posters illustrated by William George for the toyline:
The fortress also appears in posters by Esteban Maroto and Earl Norem:
Skeletor’s stronghold was also used to sell other Masters-related merchandise, including games, puzzles, and even a themed Hot Wheels stunt set:
Snake Mountain had a lot to live up to, following Castle Grayskull. It could never quite measure up to it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The design itself was certainly creepy, although perhaps in a more childish kind of way compared to Grayskull. It gave you a lot to look at and a lot to play with, but lacked the depth and archetypal pull of its predecessor.
Here are the original assembly instructions for Castle Grayskull. I’m presenting these without much in the way of commentary. I’ll just note a couple of items of interest. First, the illustration of He-Man on the front page is an edited version of the original, which featured a boot knife (the original version appears in advertising copy). This spear-holding He-Man hearkens back to the character’s more savage origins. I’ll also note that the picture on the last page is traced from a photo that first appeared in Mattel’s 1982 Toy Fair dealer catalog, based on some early and late stage prototype figures.
I believe I was five or six when I got my original Castle Grayskull. Getting it as a Christmas present was probably the most exciting thing that had happened to little me. I remember shaking with excitement just a little as I popped the little gray weapons out of their frames. My dad helped me put it together, but he left me to put the labels on myself, and of course they ended up a bit crooked. Isn’t that always the way with stickers?
The earliest Castle Grayskull prototype for which we have extant images is the one sculpted by Mark Taylor, with some assistance from Ted Mayer. Earlier models had been made by Mattel’s in-house team, but they kept making it too “architectural” and squared off, so Mark set out to do it himself.
If you look closely at the mouth area, you can see there is apparently no locking mechanism built in. That doesn’t mean that one wasn’t intended to be there. Mark might have wanted to leave details like that to Mattel’s engineers.
And indeed, this early minicomic (King of Castle Grayskull) shows Skeletor unlocking the castle jaw bridge using the combined halves of the Power Sword. As I understand it, the Power Sword (designed by Mark Taylor) got its distinctive shape specifically because it was supposed to be a kind of key. In this comic and in the Golden Books stories The Trap and The Sword of Skeletor, the lock is located to the right of the jaw bridge:
However, Mark Taylor’s prototype was modified for mass production, and the side-mounted keyhole was never implemented as far as we know. In this image of an updated (nearly final) prototype, you can see that the door itself was fitted with a latch-type locking mechanism. However, there is no place to insert the sword. Instead, the door was locked and unlocked using a simple sliding handle:
This may have been a simple oversight. In the final mass-produced toy, the mechanism was changed so that the Power Sword (or, indeed, a pencil, a crayon, or a pinky finger) could be used to unlock the door. Note there is a sculpted, simulated locking mechanism where the real one used to be:
Strangely, this play feature is never mentioned on the Castle Grayskull box, and I don’t believe it’s ever mentioned in any of the television commercials. It is, at least, explained in the instruction sheet that came with the castle: