Well, stick around, because Dan Aykroyd’s about to eat a motherfucker, and shit’s about to get real. Yes, it’s a bait-and-switch prologue, directed by John Landis (only two years removed from directing An American Werewolf in London), designed to catch you off guard, and it’s one of the moments of pure joy in this film, which, much like all anthology films, is inherently a mixed bag. You have some of the greatest minds of the post-New Hollywood era coming together — John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller — and somehow you only wind up with a movie that has two truly solid segments and a hell of a lot of baggage; some seriously fucked-up stuff that happened behind the scenes of this film. Still, 1983’s Twilight Zone: the Movie is an important film for a number of reasons, and this adaptation of the classic Rod Serling-produced show is well worth staying up late for. And hey, it’s narrated by Burgess Meredith, who seems to have found a new pair of glasses since we saw him last on the original series.
To start, it would be remiss of me not to mention the tragedy that happened during the filming of Twilight Zone’s first segment, “Time Out,” the only original short of the bunch, before mentioning anything about the rest of it. In a truly horrible fashion, lead actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed on set in 1982 when a helicopter crashed into them during a nighttime shoot for the segment’s final sequence, and because of the dubious circumstances surrounding their deaths, Landis and four others from the production were charged with manslaughter.
They were ultimately acquitted, but the facts of the case don’t look good from any angle (including Landis’ own shouts of “Get lower!” to the helicopter pilot over the radio or the numerous child labor laws that were broken by the production or the attempts by the crew to conceal from the parents that they were doing a dangerous stunt involving a helicopter and explosions). You can imagine the effect that this had on Hollywood, though it sadly seems that we’ll have stories like this as long as people keep making movies (just look to the tragedy of Sarah Jones for a more recent horror story). It’s a hard segment to watch with that context, and I honestly don’t blame you for sitting this one out, even if the film was altered enough to prevent any glimpse of the tragedy from making it into the final cut. Still, for those alright with watching this segment, “Time Out” is not that terrible and it’s also sadly relevant to our current political environment.
I keep seeing assertions online that it was based off of an episode that aired back in 1961 called “A Quality of Mercy,” but aside from sharing a somewhat central conceit (a racist is forced to experience the horrors of being the very kind of person they’re prejudiced against), they couldn’t be more different. For one, that episode was about a G.I. experiencing life in the Pacific theater from the perspective of a Japanese Soldier, and here, well, we have Morrow’s character, an angry white salaryman in the then-present day of 1983, who’s been passed over for a promotion by his bosses in favor of a longer-tenured colleague.
That man happens to be Jewish, and Morrow blows up at some co-workers when they hit a bar together after work about how much better he is than “that Jew bastard.” He then unleashes every single bit of his hatred to the two men he’s seated with — about African-Americans, Asians, Jews and others- and eventually storms out of the bar in a fit of rage after being admonished by some other patrons. When he walks outside, he discovers he’s been transported to Nazi Germany, and so begins his odyssey through time, to the Jim Crow South to the jungles of Vietnam, suffering at the hands of the powerful that he so desperately thought he was a part of. It’s a fine little short, and probably the closest of the bunch to an actual original episode of the show given the intense downer of ending (which was chosen simply because the rest of the film wasn’t shot) but it’s hard to claim that it was worth the tremendous cost that it came at.
Moving on, the second segment, directed by executive producer Steven Spielberg, is nearly unanimously reviled by critics and viewers alike, and it is by far the worst segment of the bunch. It was a dubious choice from the start for Spielberg to direct an adaptation of “Kick the Can,” a bittersweet and pathos-filled story of aging and regret whose magic is tempered by Serling’s writing, but it’s easy to see why the story would have appealed to him. In short, it’s about the old becoming young again, literally, where a group of seniors from a retirement home, led by a dissatisfied old man, discover the secret to being young again, despite the objections and doubts of a concerned friend and the home’s administrator.
It is a magical realist fable where little is explained (the transformation simply coming from the old folks’ belief), one assisted by the light touch of its creator, and it’s subtly great half-hour of television. Spielberg throws all of that out of the window and replaces it with heaps and heaps of smarm, and it’s probably the only time in his illustrious career that the master would be outdone by Ron Howard, whose own take on the old-getting-young story, Cocoon, was only a few years away and is significantly better than this short.
His greatest mistake is perhaps the most obvious: The casting of Scatman Crothers as the mystical source of the age-reversal, which opens up the story to an uncomfortable line of “Magical Negro” criticism that wasn’t there in the first place (it’s a bit ironic that the episode from the ’60s is the more politically forward of the two), and also Spielberg can’t tell exactly when his story is drifting off into uncomfortable territory. There are some aspects from this update that do make sense: The addition of a whole host of characters as opposed to the conflict between the main two, and the changed ending, in which most of the residents, as children, choose to turn back into adults so that their families would recognize them, but all in all, it’s a bit of a wash.
“Kick the Can” is pretty much an embodiment of everything that Spielberg haters unfairly claim about the director, but it has occasional moments of brilliance, usually glanced in small details- the transformation of the nursing home’s orange tabby cat into a kitten alongside the rest of the children is a small touch that went a long way for this cat owner; and Crothers’ joyous performance is honestly good enough to stave off any complaints until the short itself is over.
The third feature, an adaptation of the truly classic episode “It’s a Good Life,” written by original series staple Richard Matheson and directed by Joe Dante, is when the movie starts to pick up and is perhaps the most important of the bunch from the perspective of its director’s evolution as a filmmaker, even if it isn’t the best among them. The original version of “It’s a Good Life” tells the story of a six-year-old child named Anthony (Bill Mumy) with some extraordinary powers — basically the ability to alter reality as he see fit — and the small Ohio town that he keeps under his thumb.
He’s whisked the town outside of the known universe so that people can’t come and go, and forces all of the inhabitants to have fun and good attitudes about it or else he’ll transform you into a jack-in-the-box or send you to some unknown cornfield outside of the town limits, never to be seen again. And as such, none of the adults in the town, including his own parents, have the ability to speak truth to his power or to rein him in, Anthony’s behavior grows worse and worse, and it’s in the townspeople’s inability to express their pain and hurt that the episode retains a lot of its horror. It is a particularly dark and cruel episode of an already bleak television show, only rivaling perhaps “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” in terms of its downer ending. So, no matter what, it’s a hard act to follow, but Dante and Matheson do a pretty good job with it.
Matheson, working with both the original episode and the short story by Jerome Bixby, it was based on, strips much of the original detail out of the story (gone is the Ohio town and all of the characters within it, including Anthony’s parents, the alternate reality and the “cornfield”) adds a new protagonist in the form of a kindly Kathleen Quinlan, who happens upon young Anthony playing a video game at a nearby diner and, after witnessing his bullying at the hands of some residents, offers him a ride home, and alters its central character in a huge way by removing much of his malevolence.
Serling’s Anthony is most definitely a little shit, but the remake’s take on the character puts him in a much more benevolent light — he just wants to make people happy (specifically the people who he’s kidnapped in order to fill his new surrogate family after accidentally killing his parents and maiming his sister), in the ways that only a kid can think of. Candy-filled dinners at the end of lazy days filled with watching cartoons can, of course, grow boring, and prisons are prisons even if they are exact replicas of the house from a Warner Bros. cartoon. That Looney Tunes look that Dante explores and cultivates proves to be the most tantalizing of the segments simply from an aesthetic perspective, and it would mark the first time he was able to really experiment with that side of himself as a filmmaker, given that most of his prior work came from the Z-grade Roger Corman horror films he’d done in the past (Piranha, The Howling).
He draws so much humor and horror from the feel and look of your average Tex Avery short, though it’s made most effective when made manifest, through some incredible VFX work, the style of which will be extremely familiar to viewers of Dante’s later work, like the underseen and supremely-odd children’s film, Explorers. The softening of the rough edges of the original as done by Matheson (who ultimately makes the whole thing feel like a superhero origin story) is a necessary evil in order to do what Dante does in his aesthetic exploration, and it’s a huge step forward on the road to his piece de resistance, Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
It’s tempting to chalk up the flaws in Dante’s segment to Matheson’s writing, especially given how tremendously he succeeds in improving upon his own work in the next segment — an adaptation of the truly classic and widely-known episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which, in turn, was based on his own short story. Even if you’ve never seen a single moment of the show, you probably know the plot of this one from all sorts of cultural osmosis: A man sees something monstrous on the wing of the passenger plane that he’s flying on. The monster beings to mess with the engines, and he’s the only person on said plane that can see said monster — the other passengers and the crew think he’s crazy — or do anything about it before it takes down the plane. You probably know that the original episode also starred William Shatner in a pre-Captain Kirk role, but that’s about where the details end.
There are a number of odd things about this first take on the story — for one, Shatner’s character can’t simply be afraid of flying, as his character’s had some sort of prior “nervous breakdown” on an airplane that causes the crew to take him suspiciously — and it’s also slightly hampered by a need to connect it to a real-life phenomenon, the “gremlins on the wing” that World War II pilots observed in the middle of combat. Of course, it still makes for an excellent 22 minutes of television, but there’s only so much you can do with the limitations of ’60s television, and it’s not a concept undeserving of modernization, especially when you give the directorial reins to a guy like George Miller.
Miller, fresh from creating the first true masterpiece of his storied career, The Road Warrior, is on top of his game here and he doesn’t so much as create tension as much as he creates utter chaos. The segment almost happens in real time, and doesn’t end with, say, Shatner just dangling out the window for a few hours until they’re able to get to their destination. It’s nightmarish and claustrophobic in ways that the earlier short just couldn’t be, given the size of the camera, and contains some of the most metal imagery to ever be put in an ’80s film meant for children — the redesigned gremlin, here looking like a sleek howler monkey, literally rides the damn lightning when he’s atop the first engine and in the process of destroying it.
His casting is key to the success of this, as replacing Shatner’s chiseled jaw and calm demeanor with the sweaty and wild-eyed anxiety of John Lithgow, who’s utterly believable as a man with a severe fear of flying, and the script doubts him significantly less, especially in a short scene where he confronts the co-pilot about the engines failing. Matheson’s script also expands the ensemble, adding more flight attendants and passengers (including a spectacularly annoying little girl), and Miller weaves this tapestry of air travel about as well as one can, jumping from character to character as efficiently as possible.
There’s humor as well, adding some much-needed breaks in the action (say, the snoozing mother of the little girl, who upon hearing all the chaos in the cabin, wakes up and asks “Oh god, what has she done now?”) The writer also ups the stakes: The Air Marshal is actually a threat here as opposed to being the source for a handy handgun for Shatner’s character, the gremlin causes two of the engines to fail, and the explosive decompression at the climax is, well, significantly more explosive. “Nightmare” is absolutely the best segment thanks to the efforts of Miller, Matheson, and Lithgow, and is the only one to perhaps eclipse its predecessor.
Again, given all of the horrible shit that happened in the process of making this movie, it’s a significantly difficult film to endorse, but it’s one definitely worth revisiting, at least for Miller and Dante’s segments. And now, with Jordan Peele’s own take on the show primed to hit CBS at some point in the near future, it’s a great opportunity to see where some modern directors went wrong and others went right.
So, Twilight Zone: The Movie never really manages to be more than a tribute to a significantly more interesting show, but it’s got its own distinct pleasures and charms, and is an important milestone in Dante’s career, at least. It’s still hard to argue that any movie is every worth a human life, no matter its qualities.
‘TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE’ :: Saturday, December 9 at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St. in Brookline, MA :: 11:59 p.m., all ages, $13 :: Advance tickets :: Featured image provided by MoviestillsDB