(1983) Directed by: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller; Written by: John Landis (Prologue & Segment I), Richard Matheson (Segments II, III & IV), Josh Rogan (Segment II), and George Clayton Johnson (Segment II); Based on stories by George Clayton Johnson (Segment II), Jerome Bixby (Segment III), and Richard Matheson (Segment IV) ; Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Scatman Crothers, John Lithgow, Vic Morrow, and Kathleen Quinlan
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Hey, you wanna see something really scary?” – Dan Aykroyd (Passenger)
Twilight Zone: The Movie and director/co-producer/co-writer John Landis are inextricably linked to the tragic accident that occurred during filming, resulting in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors. The incident cast a pall on the rest of the production, and was fresh in the minds of audiences and critics when the film was released. In the ensuing trial, Landis was eventually acquitted of manslaughter charges, but the controversy about his culpability remains. Was he careless? It would seem so. Did he act out of malice? I doubt it. While the passage of time has not diminished the facts, it’s not too soon to separate the art from the artist, and re-examine this cinematic adaptation of Rod Serling’s seminal long-running Sci-fi/horror series.
The film’s prologue is classic Landis, featuring witty banter between Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks as passenger and driver, respectively, on a long road trip in the middle of nowhere. It’s fun to watch them trade quips about old television shows, with a repartee that appears natural and unforced. As in An American Werewolf in London, Landis employs Creedence Clearwater Revival (“The Midnight Special”) to help drive the story. The short opening scene starts things on an amusing and disturbing note, setting the tone for the stories that follow (particularly the final two). In place of the late Rod Serling, the subsequent segments are introduced by Burgess Meredith, who appeared in several episodes of the original series.
It’s unsurprising that the first segment (the only one not based on a TV episode), directed by Landis and starring Vic Morrow, is the most problematic. Morrow appears as Bill Connor, a bigot who blames all of his misfortunes on other people. After a drunken rant in a bar, he finds himself jumping through time (not unlike Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim), winding up on the receiving end of racial and ethnic hatred. Sadly, 30-plus years later, the themes are just as relevant. One can draw many parallels with the current political climate, as history continues to repeat. Probably on account of the untimely death of Morrow and the two young actors, the whole segment seems unfinished and choppy, and the conclusion is underwhelming and unsatisfying. In light of the disastrous circumstances behind the scenes, it was a dubious choice to leave this story in at all. A planned scene would have depicted Connor rescuing two Vietnamese orphans, which would have lent the story more irony. Instead, we’re left with something that looks rushed and unfinished.
“Segment II,” based on the classic episode “Kick the Can” is little more than an exercise in sentimentality, with director Spielberg on cruise control. Scatman Crothers is the high point, as the ever-cheerful Mr. Bloom, who encourages the residents of a retirement home to reconnect with some of their youth. The message about keeping a youthful mind is obvious, reinforced by cloying scenes of little kids acting like old people. Spielberg was taken to task for his saccharine interpretation, but it’s unfair to blame him entirely, considering the source material was middle-of-the-road at best. With a wealth of terrific episodes to call upon, it’s disappointing that the filmmakers chose to retread this story (never one of my favorites).
Director Joe Dante’s effort is much more effective, with his darkly humorous re-imagining of one of the most beloved episodes, “It’s a Good Life.” Dante regulars Dick Miller (Who else?), Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert appear, along with a cameo by the original episode’s star, Bill Mumy. This time around, Jeremy Licht stars as Anthony, a boy who can manipulate matter at will and make people disappear. Dante and writer Richard Matheson (working from an original story by Jerome Bixby), don’t just regurgitate, as in the previous segment, but take a bold new spin on the material. Although I’m not entirely thrilled with the choice to make Anthony less of a monster and more sympathetic, it enables the story to go in a different direction.
The fourth segment, based on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is a nail-biter from beginning to end. As much as I adore the original with William Shatner, the new version ratchets up the tension further, anchored by John Lithgow’s performance as neurotic airplane passenger John Valentine. As in the original episode, only he seems to notice a malevolent creature wreaking havoc outside his window. Borrowing a page from Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Miller’s masterful use of lighting, sound and skewed camera angles create an almost unbearable, claustrophobic atmosphere. We’re complicit in Valentine’s paranoia, as his sanity hangs by the flimsiest of threads. Much like the original version, the fourth segment takes a more literal interpretation of Matheson’s original short story, but as it’s interpreted here, it’s a mini classic.
Producers Landis and Spielberg’s attempt to bring The Twilight Zone to the big screen was met with mixed success. Partially because of its troubled production history, but also due to some questionable choices by the filmmakers, some of the components are greater than the whole. The finished result is a clunky assortment of bits and pieces, ultimately redeemed by moments of brilliance. Even if Twilight Zone: The Movie is less than the classic it should have been, it deserves to be regarded as more than a curiosity or footnote in the respective filmmakers’ careers. Maybe under other circumstances it would have spawned a sequel with a combination of new stories and new interpretations of old episodes. Instead, the film remains an intriguing mixed bag, inseparable with its checkered past.