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” and Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” 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. Nevertheless, as with 1989’s New York Stories (a non-horror anthology piece), only one segment can be singled out as the absolute best (i.e. debatably Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons”) and worst (Francis Ford Coppola’s “Life Without Zoe”). Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” and Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” deserve to be placed in the former category whereas Malle’s “William Wilson” and Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” arguably belong in the latter group.
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 in quality to its 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 * * * *)