John Charet’s Take On: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Aside from frequently tackling the horror genre and directing episodes of Showtime’s anthology series Masters of Horror from a decade ago, what do directors Larry Cohen, Joe Dante and John Landis all have in common? The answer (at least for me) lies in the fact that all of them had directed three of the absolute greatest werewolf movies of 1981. Cohen directed Full Moon High, Dante directed The Howling and Landis directed An American Werewolf in London. Even Michael Wadleigh’s The Wolfen (released that same year) was pretty good. The first three also offered plenty of dark humor and social commentary on the side. Since I love the first three titles equally, I feel that it would be wise for me to focus on what makes An American Werewolf in London a classic of its sub-genre.

While backpacking in Yorkshire (a county of England), two visiting American college students from the East Coast (I think New York) named David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) get attacked by a vicious werewolf after walking from the road onto the moors. Though Jack gets mauled to death, David survives, but not before being bitten by the wolf, who gets shot with silver bullets by pubgoers of “The Slaughtered Lamb”, which was the name of the bar he and his (then alive) friend entered earlier in the film.

During his stay at a hospital recovering from his wounds, David starts having weird nightmares. One of them involves a now reanimated Jack (in the first of three appearances) telling him that he must commit suicide before the next full moon occurs, which is when David will turn into a werewolf. Jack warns David, that once he is a wolf, he will go on a killing rampage. After ignoring Jack’s warnings twice (he even insults his presence), the night of the full moon eventually and inevitably comes resulting in David’s transformation into a vicious werewolf. Waking up the next day, David learns the awful truth from a front page newspaper that an animal (which was him) killed quite a few people and that Jack was not crazy after all. Now, David must stop himself before the next full moon.

With the exception of The Howling (which was released four months prior to this film), no other werewolf transformation sequence in cinema had been as truly amazing as the one in An American Werewolf in London. Once the full moon appears, David slowly and painfully begins his transformation into a werewolf. After that, all of these tiny pieces of hair start growing out of every single area of his body with his arms, hands, legs and feet stretching out completely. To put the icing on the cake, his head and face begin morphing into something monstrous looking with demon-like eyes. Makeup artist Rick Baker was responsible for these impressive effects and deservedly won an Oscar for Best Makeup (the first year, the category became available too). Personally, I feel that Rob Bottin should have taken one home for The Howling as well, which would have resulted in a tied win, but that is a whole different story for a whole different blog post. Also worth mentioning (though frequently ignored) is the particularly effective buildup to this scene which comes off as terrifyingly funny in retrospect. Before David goes into the house he is staying at, a dog (belonging to two giggling little girls) viciously barks at him and a cat hisses at him in an equally vicious way. In a bit of comic relief, David looks in the mirror and roars once or twice. As David starts anxiously pacing around, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” starts playing in the background subsequently leading up to David turning into a werewolf with Sam Cooke’s rendition of “Blue Moon” taking over.

Along with The Blues Brothers from a year earlier, An American Werewolf in London ranks as one of director John Landis two most fully realized films. Whereas the former was a commercial comedy distributed by Universal and made for $30 million dollars, the latter is a darkly humorous independent horror movie distributed by that same studio and made for $10 million dollars. Regardless of cost, both of them finish up as the purest expressions of Landis wonderfully over the top style of filmmaking. Coincidentally, I read somewhere that Landis considered this one to be his most personal film.

Interestingly enough, director John Landis has reportedly stated that his screenplay for An American Werewolf in London had originated from an experience he had back in 1969, while working as a production assistant in Yugoslavia on the set of the war comedy Kelly’s Heroes (1970). During his time there, he had witnessed a ritual being performed on a dead man at a Gypsy funeral, who was buried in a way that would supposedly make it impossible for him to come alive ever again. If anything else, this actual incident may have uniquely shaped the film as a whole.

Even though it starts off, continues and finishes as a darkly humorous horror film, An American Werewolf in London is sprinkled with a touch of surrealism during its second and third act. The first example involves David having a series of nightmares while recovering in the hospital. In this Bunuel-ish dream within a dream sequence, David dreams that he is running completely naked in the woods and in the next frame, he is graphically eating a (still fresh in this case) deer. Soon after, he sees his hospital bed there and his nurse (and later girlfriend) Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) is standing on the left side. Suddenly, David wakes up and mischievously smiles with yellow demon-like eyes and teeth. Next up is a nightmarish dream that involves a group of grotesque mutant Nazis coming into his house mowing down his parents and two younger siblings with machine guns while another one slits David’s throat. Initially, it seems as If the nightmare is over when nurse Price comes in, but after opening the drapes, a mutant Nazi suddenly appears and stabs her to death. Afterwards, David wakes up and this time, the nightmare is actually over with nurse Price keeping her eye on him. Equally surrealistic is the three times David’s dead friend Jack appears. During his first appearance, Jack is all bloodied up, in the next one, his skin is now green and begins to rot and in the final one, he looks all skeletal. The overall result is bizarre, scary and hilarious all at once.

On the outside, An American Werewolf in London comes off as a wildly entertaining monster movie/homage, but on the inside, it also openly and subtly touches upon (briefly or frequently) various themes relating to America’s relationship with Britain (historically, pop culturally or otherwise), religion, genocide, sex and ultimately, life and death. With the exception of the third one, all of these themes are tackled in a wickedly funny manner. For example, when David and Jack are in the tavern during the first act, David asks the patrons If they “Remember the Alamo”, but all of them think he is referring to the 1960 John Wayne film The Alamo as opposed to the historical event. Shortly afterwards, Jack adds “Right. With Lawrence Harvey Everyone dies in it. Very bloody.” David and Jack’s bafflement with England sparks amusement as well. The response they have to the howl of a werewolf hilariously results in them making references to The Hound of the Baskervilles, Pecos Bill (certainly not a wolf) and finally Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights (who “didn’t howl!”). This trait also occurs in other trivial matters such as when David discusses to Alex (the nurse) that he feels like Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941’s The Wolf Man and she mistakenly believes that he is referring to 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf with Oliver Reed. The former was distributed by Universal Pictures in California (The U.S.) and the latter was distributed by Hammer Film Productions in London, England (The UK). Both studios are iconic for their classic horror films. Ironically enough, Alex’s London flat is decorated with American pop culture. Aside from owning two figurines of Walt Disney cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck), she also has film posters of Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942) which are two celebrated American films. Maybe she just prefers Hammer’s catalogue of horror. I also love how after turning back into his human form the morning after the night he turned into a werewolf, David is running around London nude trying to find clothes and bribes a little boy with two pounds (British currency) to buy his balloons to cover himself. This results in the little boy’s priceless reply of “a naked American man stole my balloons.” What makes it amusing is that the little boy says it in such a casual way as If he did not really care. Equally amusing is when David steals a lady’s red coat without any trouble and shortly after putting it on, he comments about something random with a guy, who like the kid and many around him, do not seem bothered by his appearance. Sheer hilarity is also on display when David tries to get himself arrested for the werewolf murders mouthing obscenities or stuff that would be offensive to British sensibilities. “Shakespeare’s French” comes off as the funniest of his backfired insults. Interestingly enough, the end credits features a word of congratulations to The Prince of Wales (Charles) and Lady Diana Spencer for their wedding that occurred on July 29th 1981. Sadly, their marriage proved to be a highly publicized disaster eventually and inevitably leading to them divorcing each other in 1996. A year later, Princess Diana would die in a fatal car crash.

Upon the many times I have watched An American Werewolf in London, I have become more and more fascinated by how it insightfully explores both the darker and lighter side of human sexuality (as dubious as it might initially sound). During the aforementioned dream within a dream sequence where David awakes with that scary face I just described earlier, we are sure that as a werewolf, he would maul Alex to death, but what about as a human being? Since being bitten by a werewolf, does David lust for sex in his human form the way a vampire lusts for blood? For the most part though, David’s ideal vision of romantic love can be defined as one of warmth. One perfect example is when David and Alex are making out in the shower and fittingly enough, Van Morrison’s Moondance is playing during part of the scene. Contrary to the explicit way David and Jack talk about a woman’s body near the beginning, Alex’s revelry in it comes off as more subtle. This comes when another female nurse playfully tells Alex that David is Jewish because she “had a look.” This is obviously a reference to male circumcision via Brit Milah.

Semi-autobiographically or not, with An American Werewolf in London, director John Landis may have also tapped deeply into what amuses, perplexes and scares him as an individual. Since Landis was born and raised in a Jewish family (though he identifies himself as an atheist), it only makes sense that Nazis (in this case, mutant ones) would terrify him (and lots of other viewers) the most. The stranger aspects of David’s nightmares (i.e. running naked in the woods and eating an animal) is something that any person can identify with since we have all had different yet equally weird dreams in our lifetimes. The scenes involving David’s dead friend Jack talking to him can be strangely funny: “can I have a piece of toast” or “have you tried talking to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely!” Another one is when David is in a porn theater and is trying to figure out ways to commit suicide before the next full moon appears. In it, David’s six victims (along with Jack) join in to give him advice and David facetiously says “thank you, you’re all so thoughtful.” Guilt is also explored in the scene where after dismissing Jack’s words twice, David finally admits that (when turning into a werewolf) he didn’t mean to call Jack a meatloaf. Similar to some of Landis other films (most notably The Blues Brothers, Into the Night and Innocent Blood), this one climaxes with a showstopper within its actual filming location (in this case, it would be Piccadilly Circus).

Rumor has it that the roles of David Kessler and Jack Goodman were originally for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, but in the end, I am glad that director John Landis went with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Since both of them were low-profile at the time, it was easier for them to act naturally in portraying their characters. On the surface, Kessler (Naughton) and Goodman (Dunne) may be little more than stereotypical frat house types, which only gives more ammunition to the opinion summed up by American Embassy representative Mr. Collins (Frank Oz of The Muppets fame). In this case, it was “These dumb ass kids. They never appreciate what you do for them.” Nevertheless, as the film progresses, we learn that Kessler and Goodman are fairly grateful, likable and normal at heart. In Goodman’s first appearance as a talking corpse, he says these following words to Kessler: “life mocks me even in death.” To a small or considerable extent, we all wish that Goodman could have lived a life free of cynicism. We also learn to love Kessler more and more that we hope that he survives this werewolf curse brought upon him. Long before playing Sister Julienne on BBC’s (PBS here in the States) Call the Midwife, British actress Jenny Agutter began her career playing one of the title characters in The Railway Children in 1970 before graduating to more daring roles with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976), Sidney Lumen’s Equus (1977), and Monte Hellman’s China 9, Liberty 37 (1978). Jenny Agutter may be playing the “typical” girlfriend role, but at the same time, she manages to make it interesting. As the regular working class woman who lets Kessler stay with her, Agutter is able to make Alex Price attractive on the outside (especially in a nurse’s uniform) and tender on the inside. Her love of old-fashioned Americana, which I briefly touched upon earlier, coincides perfectly with her persona.

No doubt, their has probably been a good number of werewolf films released since 1981, but neither of them (at least in my opinion) can top the triple punch delivered during that aforementioned year by The Howling, Full Moon High and this one, which is An American Werwolf in London. With the possible exceptions of Into the Night and Innocent Blood, An American Werewolf in London was the second (the first being The Blues Brothers) and last time that Landis would allow his imagination to run delightfully and uncompromisingly hog wild. Be that as it may, at least it happened on a film that is often considered by dyed in the wood horror fans like myself to be one of (If not) the finest werewolf movie of all time.

I would love to end this review with a quote for my dear readers. The quote comes from the truck driver, whose advice to David and Jack should apply here as well:

“keep off the moors, stick to the roads. The best to ya…”

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)


John Charet’s Take On: Into the Night (1985)

32 years ago in 1985 during its initial theatrical run, audiences and critics alike seemed to be under the wrongheaded notion that Into the Night marked the beginning of the end for its director John Landis. Truth be told, that would happen 9 years later with the lousy Beverly Hills Cop III in 1994. As for Into the Night; this one (along with Innocent Blood 7 years later in 1992) is actually one of Landis few director-for-hire assignments (post-The Twilight Zone tragedy) in which he is able to find a personal connection with the material while having fun with it as well.

The plot is straightforward yet complicated at the same time. A Los Angeles yuppie Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) leads a drab life with a boring job, has an unfaithful wife and is prone to insomnia. Based on advice given to him by his best friend at work (Dan Aykroyd), Ed drives to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to pick up an attractive woman so he can take her for a ride. Why an airport? I do not know or care as long as it entertains, which it does.

While Ed is waiting in the downstairs garage parking lot, a lovely girl named Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) is being chased by Iranian gangsters and while running, she jumps on top of Ed’s car and frantically asks him for a ride. After saving her life and driving her around, Diana reveals that she is a smuggler (or as she says “one of the bad guys”), who stole prestigious diamonds that belonged to the Shah of Iran and this is why she is being endlessly pursued by this criminal Iranian enterprise and a few others. One memorable example of the latter is a creepy hitman played fantastically here by iconic British singer David Bowie.

If I can single out at least one notable aspect of Into the Night, it would undoubtedly be the large number of cameo appearances made here by various directors within and out of the Hollywood industry (American or otherwise) that pop up throughout the film. According to several different sources regarding Landis idea to overstuff it with as many cameos as possible, this arguably may have been an attempt by him to prove that he still had tons of both high-and-low profile support in the wake of the controversy surrounding his involvement in the accidental deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children during the 1982 filming of his segment for Twilight Zone: The Movie released the following year. Into the Night was the first of his theatrical releases to be shot while being ordered to stand trial (along with four others) for involuntary manslaughter in a court case that eventually ended in a not guilty verdict for all of them in the May of 1987.

Regardless of quality, I have always enjoyed director John Landis penchant for populating his later films with cameo appearances made by numerous directors or other industry people even when it can’t save his absolute worst movies (Beverly Hills Cop III, The Stupids and Blues Brothers 2000). Nevertheless, with Into the Night, Landis may have (intentionally or not) elevated this trait into something expressive. Though born in Chicago, Illinois, Landis actually spent most of his childhood and personal/professional career living in L.A. (California). I read somewhere that because he had the advantage of living there, he got to meet a lot of big name filmmakers as well. Taking into account how this coincides perfectly with the huge number of director cameos on display here and the location shooting, the result (openly and subtly) works as a visual homage to the city of Los Angeles (and some other parts of California) and a genre hybrid that surprisingly offers more than meets the eye.

As a genre piece, Into the Night partly comes off as a darkly comedic romantic crime thriller that pays tribute to the various films of legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. While it is true that director John Landis indulges here in the kind of dark humor and tension that characterized “The Master of Suspense”, the results are purely his own and unlike his other exercises in self-proclaimed cinematic homage (Spies Like Us and Oscar), he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself here. After damaging tons of cars in Chicago throughout The Blues Brothers and in Piccadilly Circus during the climax of An American Werewolf in London, Landis decides to make a chase movie with a debatably ample body count. Speaking of which, Landis actually casts himself here as one of the Iranian henchmen and (spoiler alert), gets murdered later on (i.e. shot repeatedly). One wonders If Landis came up with the idea to cast himself in that role as penance for his involvement in The Twilight Zone accident or as a way of summing up how some members of the press now viewed him (implicitly or otherwise) as a “murderer” in the wake of the aforementioned tragedy.

Even If the large number of director cameos had only existed to show off, Into the Night would still be a highly entertaining entry within John Landis filmography as a director. Unexpectedly, Landis is able to use this to his advantage this time around. Working from a screenplay by Ron Kuslow, Landis directly (or indirectly) manages to touch upon  themes (superficially though interestingly) relating to Hollywood, the crack epidemic, American/European relations and xenophobia within a 1980’s setting. One example is a scene that captures a typical day of Hollywood filmmaking where a director (Daniel Petrie) is filming a hostage scene for his film and the actor (Colin Higgins) wonders If he could do a few more takes. In fact, the hotel scene where Ed finds an empty room and the TV set is showing Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein could be Landis clever way of telling viewers that the whole film should not be taken too seriously. Another one is when a wealthy drug dealer (Paul Mazursky) is being questioned by authorities. Crack cocaine use was reportedly high in popularity during the Reagan era. As far as the view Europeans have of Americans can best be summed up in a scene involving a French criminal (Roger Vadim) and a Federal agent I believe. After being outsmarted by one of the two main characters, the latter asks the former “If he is enjoying the United States so far” (I believe that is what he says) and the look on the Frenchman’s face looks like a mixture of confusion and annoyance. On the surface, the film’s portrayal of Iranians as murderous yet somewhat buffoonish criminals is initially problematic, but considering that the leader of the henchmen is portrayed by a Greek actress (Irene Papas) and the mute gunman is played by Landis himself (a Caucasian-American), it is possible to see it as a subtle jab at Hollywood’s (at the time) constant demonization of foreigners, which has now become rare (If not obsolete) when watching Hollywood films from the 21st century. Even a car commercial that Ed (Goldblum) watches (sung to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”) can be viewed as either a riff on the blatant consumerism that dominated the 1980’s as a whole or as the answer to remedy his boredom. In this case, he made his yuppie lifestyle less boring by going out with somebody, who gets him involved with more danger and intrigue than he had bargained for.

Similar to the level of enthusiasm he displayed when filming on location in Chicago with The Blues Brothers, director John Landis expresses adoration in capturing as much of Los Angeles on film as he possibly can with Into the Night. Starting with the film’s very first scene, Landis bedazzles us with the beautiful atmosphere of Los Angeles, which coincides perfectly here with blues singing legend B.B. King’s equally atmospheric title song (composed by Ira Newborn) that plays in certain spots throughout the film.

Last, but not least, Into the Night’s biggest strength comes primarily from our film’s two lead stars, which in this case would be Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer. As Ed Okin, Goldblum believably conveys all of the emotions required to play a bored out of his mind insomniac starved for adventure. Once he gets a taste of that, his character gets more interesting. He can do some physical comedy (he trips and falls in one scene for comedic effect) and can be humorous in his interactions with other characters. Even in the climactic hostage situation, he outwits a baddie with shockingly unexpected results. In the role of Diana, the femme fatale with a heart and soul, Pfeiffer turns what could have been a stereotypical character into one that comes off as a (refreshingly) real person. Beautiful on the outside and kind hearted on the inside, Pfeiffer’s Diana is the kind of woman you not only want to give a hug and a kiss to, but also one to root for at the same time. Aside from her criminal actions, we learn from her Elvis impersonator brother (a hilarious Bruce McGill) that she can’t keep a steady job, but she does seem to genuinely care about her flaws. Diana’s exchange with a dying man (Richard Farnsworth) that she knows is especially touching. When Ed tells Diana at a restaurant that his wife cheated on him, she (subtly yet sincerely) expresses sympathy for him. Diana is even polite enough to offer Ed cash for driving her all over the place, but he politely declines.

Released close to six months prior to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and a year before Jonathan Demme’s Something WildInto the Night was the first and by far, the glossiest of three films centering around the misadventures of a yuppie with darkly comedic results. Nevertheless, I absolutely adore this one every bit as the other two.

Out of all the films John Landis had directed in his career during and after the Twilight Zone scandal, I single out Into the Night and Innocent Blood as the only two that come off as immensely satisfying. For me, Into the Night and Innocent Blood (like The Kentucky Fried Movie and National Lampoon’s Animal House) can be described as very good.

-Star Rating-
* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

-Notable Cameos-
Jack Arnold
Rick Baker
Paul Bartel
David Cronenberg
Jonathan Demme
Richard Franklin
Carl Gottlieb
Amy Heckerling
Jim Henson
Colin Higgins
Lawrence Kasdan
Jonathan Lynn
Paul Mazursky
Carl Perkins
Daniel Petrie
Dedee Pfeiffer
Waldo Salt
Don Siegel
Roger Vadim

John Charet’s Take On: Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Creator/writer Rod Serling’s iconic 1960’s science-fiction anthology series The Twilight Zone easily ranks as one of the best TV shows of all-time, but what made it so timeless lied in its ability to give us stories that could freak us out, scare us or make us think philosophically and politically all in equal measures. On the contrary, Twilight Zone: The Movie comes off as a hit and miss affair that is typical of at least half the number of anthology films out there. The finished result consists of four different segments (one original story and three adaptations of already existing episodes) by four different directors which in this case were John Landis, Steven Spielberg (both of whom served as co-producers), Joe Dante and George Miller. As others have noted elsewhere, the high and low points actually do come from where you least expect them to in terms of quality. Unfortunately, the film’s reputation has been partly tainted due to an infamous offscreen tragedy that occurred during filming on one of the segments and because of this, it is hard to talk about the movie without bringing up aspects of it on occasions.

The film opens with an entertaining prologue and it stars Dan Aykroyd as a hitchhiker and Albert Brooks as the driver. During the drive on the highway, the two begin a conversation regarding their favorite Twilight Zone episodes and climaxes with Aykroyd playfully telling Brooks “you wanna see something really scary” and the result is terrifying in a rather darkly humorous way. This tongue-in-cheek approach to the four segments we are about to see is a refreshing way to start the movie. Filling in for the late Rod Serling to perform voice-over duties for the title introduction and the subsequent four episodes is the late Oscar-nominated actor Burgess Meredith (Rocky), who had also guest starred on a few episodes of The Twilight Zone as well.

As with the opening prologue, segment number one entitled “Time Out” was directed and written by John Landis. Unlike the succeeding three segments of the film, this one is an original story. This morality tale is basically about a repulsive bigot forced to experience what it is like to be a victim of racial hatred. During the course of it all, he is mistaken as a Jewish citizen by the Nazis during the Holocaust circa the 1940’s in Nazi-occupied France or Germany, an African-American by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the Rural South during the 1950’s and a Vietnamese person by US soldiers during the 1960’s conflict between the United States and Vietnam. This segment is perhaps the most notorious due to the highly publicized freak helicopter accident that killed the segment’s lead actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese-American children during the filming of what was supposed to be a massive special effects sequence involving a ton of explosions. Either way, the result still comes off to me as a heavy-handed and largely uninspired episode that can’t help but feel tasteless and unpleasant in the wake of the aforementioned tragedy.

Director Steven Spielberg’s remake of “Kick the Can” concerns a gentle elderly magical stranger (Scatman Crothers) offering a group of retirement home residents the chance to feel like little kids again (both physically and emotionally). Not much can be said about this surprisingly dull entry other than being appallingly sappy and lazily directed. In terms of direction, it looks as If Spielberg sleepwalked his way through it and yelled action at the beginning of a scene and yelled cut when the scene was over remaining uninterested in getting a satisfactory result. In addition, the overall tone suffers from an inability to connect to the moods of the other three segments. In other words, it feels as If their is no good reason for this segment to exist at all here. Aside from being the worst episode of the film, it also goes down as the ultimate low-point in Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker.

Beginning with Director Joe Dante’s remake of “It’s a Good Life”, Twilight Zone: The Movie starts to pick up a considerable amount of steam. Dante is not so much interested in remaking it as he is in re-inventing it here as a wildly imaginative live-action cartoon. As in the original episode, an unintentionally evil little boy named Anthony (played this time by Jeremy Licht) uses his telekinetic powers to enslave his family into a constant state of happiness (phoned in or not) and If you try standing up to him, he will banish you away. One of the two big differences in this version is that Anthony is depicted here as a child obsessed with cartoons and his love of them is clearly evident in how the house is designed and decorated (for example, every room has a TV set with a cartoon showing 24/7). Also unlike the other one, we are introduced to an out-of-town school teacher named Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan), who Anthony decides to treat (or trap) as a guest (or surrogate mother) in his home. I really enjoyed this segment’s clever in-joke references to cartoons (Warner Bros. or otherwise) as well as the delightfully demented sense of dark humor that is on display throughout via the cartoon-like special effects. The tacked on happy ending (which was more downbeat in the 1961 version) serves as the only drawback to an otherwise satisfying tale.

I do not know If every anthology film believes in this rule, but Twilight Zone: The Movie has wisely decided to save the best episode for last. Director George Miller’s remake of the classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” not only stands out as the absolute greatest segment of the whole film, but it also happens to be the only one of the four entries that truly measures up in quality to its source while improving upon it at the same time. As with William Shatner’s performance in the original TV episode, John Lithgow is perfectly casted here as an easily frightened airline passenger, who sees a gremlin outside his window, but is unable to convince everyone else on board of it’s existence. Unlike the 1963 version, this one is made even scarier not only due to the gremlin’s truly menacing appearance, but also because this creature actually intends to wreck havoc whereas any harm caused by the monster in the original could debatably be seen as unintentional. Similar to how George Miller directed his (as of today) four Mad Max movies (all of which I absolutely adore), the result moves at such an exhilarating pace, that If you blink, you might miss something that is awesomely bizarre. A prime example here is when the eyes of our protagonist bulges for a split second after seeing the gremlin (for the very first time) leaning on his glass window from the outside. If anything else, this entry arguably serves as the perfect reason to watch Twilight Zone: The Movie as a whole.

If I were to be asked what are the greatest horror anthology movies ever made, my answer would be Ealing Studios Dead of Night (1945), Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), George A. Romero’s Creepshow (1982), Romero and Dario Argento’s Two Evil Eyes (1990) and John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper’s Body Bags (1993). As a whole, Twilight Zone: The Movie is uneven and in terms of overall quality, it has more in common with 1968’s Spirits of the Dead than those first five titles I mentioned. Similar to Roger Vadim’s “Metzengerstein” (very good) and Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” (great) from that previously mentioned adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe tales, Joe Dante’s remake of “It’s a Good Life” and George Miller’s remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” both serve as the strongest of the film’s four segments. As to where the segments of John Landis and Steven Spielberg fit in, let me just say that those episodes do here what Louis Malle’s adaptation of “William Wilson” did for Spirits of the Dead. To put it in other words, Landis original tale “Time Out” and Spielberg’s remake of “Kick the Can” come off as the two weakest entries within the film’s four episode format.

Echoing the popular opinion shaped by many (It not all) viewers of this film, the most surprising thing about Twilight Zone: The Movie is that the most satisfying episodes come from two fairly low-profile directors of the day (Joe Dante and George Miller) while the biggest disappointments were delivered by the more well-known ones of the time, which in this case were John Landis and Steven Spielberg. The comedic horror aspects (visual or otherwise) of director Joe Dante’s three previous low-budget films (1976’s Hollywood Boulevard, 1978’s Piranha and 1981’s The Howling) is on display here in his remake of “It’s a Good Life”, which serves as Dante’s first assignment for a major Hollywood studio. One of the many fun things to watch here is the appearances of actors Kevin McCarthy, a pre-Simpsons Nancy Cartwright and cameos by Billy Mumy (who played Anthony in the original) and Dante and Roger Corman regular Dick Miller. A year later, Dante would score box-office gold for the same studio with the horror comedy Gremlins (1984). Australian filmmaker George Miller’s Mad Max films easily ranks for me as four of the countless numbers of masterpieces within the action genre and I similarly view his remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” as one of the many finest examples of short cinematic horror within an anthology format. If anything else, Dante and Miller seemed to have more enthusiasm for the project compared to Landis and Spielberg. Speaking of Landis, the prologue he directed and wrote is superior to his actual segment.

As I implied earlier, “Time Out” (The segment John Landis directed and wrote exclusively for the film) would have still came off as shockingly uninteresting with or without the offscreen freak accident that killed its lead actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese-American children. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding it still bothers me and for me, this is what lowers the overall quality of Twilight Zone: The Movie as a whole to that of a mixed bag as opposed to something good If not great. In the wake of this tragic incident, director Steven Spielberg ended his friendship with Landis as a result. Rumor has it that prior to the tragedy, Spielberg was going to remake “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” but because it was a dark tale involving paranoia and children out late at night with potentially dangerous special effects, Spielberg axed that idea. I can’t confirm with 100 percent certainty that it is true, but If it was, their is no denying that it would have been infinitely better than his remake of “Kick the Can.” Spielberg is usually a master at generating sentiment, but here it just comes off as an insulting parody. Nevertheless, it has been reported that when he directed this segment, Spielberg’s enthusiasm for the project had dimmed to zero due to what had happened on the Landis segment.

One fascinating aspect of Twilight Zone: The Movie is that the late Richard Matheson (who had wrote some episodes of The Twilight Zone) serves as the screenwriter for the three adapted segments. He was famous for writing stories that dabbled in the fantasy, horror and science-fiction genre. Spielberg’s version of “Kick the Can” was written by Matheson with fellow sci-fi writer George Clayton Johnson (who wrote the 1962 story) and Melissa Mathison (both recently departed). In fact, Mathison is credited here as “Josh Rogan.” Matheson adapted “It’s a Good Life” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by himself. The former was based on Jerome Bixby’s 1961 Twilight Zone story and the only flaw of the 1983 version is the out-of-place happy ending that prevents it from remaining equal to the original. As far as the latter is concerned, he not only adapted one of his own episodes, but he also expanded upon his 1963 Twilight Zone story in interesting ways.

All in all, the question that arises lies into whether or not Twilight Zone: The Movie equals, uniquely interprets or surpasses Rod Serling’s 1960’s television series of the same name in terms of quality? As far as the individual segments are concerned, the answer is yes and no. Joe Dante’s episode succeeded only in the first two areas, but mostly the second thing. George Miller was able to accomplish all three of those tasks with his segment. On the other hand, John Landis and Steven Spielberg failed miserably to do any of those things with their entries. Taken as a whole however, Twilight Zone: The Movie (unsurprisingly) can not hold a candle to the original TV show.  No doubt, the tragic accident that occurred during the filming of the Landis segment did play a role, but for me, that was a disappointment to start out with. Shocking considering that “Time Out” was the only story of the four that was not adapted from an existing episode. With the exception of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, the two other adapted segments is either a hugely entertaining re-imagination that come close to measuring up (“It’s a Good Life”) or a half-hearted remake that remains inferior to its earlier source (“Kick the Can”). Nevertheless, the good does help outweigh the bad (If only slightly) thanks to the prologue I mentioned earlier. In summing up Twilight Zone: The Movie altogether, I would say that it satisfies and disappoints in equal measures.

-Star Ratings for the Individual Segments-

Prologue (Director: John Landis)-
(Cast: Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks)
* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)
-Segment #1: Time Out (Director: John Landis)-
(Cast: Vic Morrow)
* 1/2 (Out of * * * *)
-Segment #2: Kick the Can (Director: Steven Spielberg)-
(Cast: Scatman Crothers)
* (Out of * * * *)
-Segment #3: It’s a Good Life (Director: Joe Dante)-
(Cast: Kathleen Quinlan)
* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)
-Segment #4: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Director: George Miller)-
(Cast: John Lithgow)
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

-Star Rating for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) as a Whole-
* * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)