I’m a critic who grew up with anthology shows, whether it was Tales From the Crypt (aka that show I was never supposed to watch, but that always happened to be on) or The Twilight Zone (a discovery I appreciated more as an adult). I didn’t see Twilight Zone: The Movie in theaters – I wouldn’t be born for another five years – but it’s one of the earlier movie memories I have with regards to its creepy content, and thus a lifelong interest in its history was born. So I was fairly disappointed in myself that I let the recent anniversary of the film’s release pass me by, which I’m rectifying now. Prepare to entire a dimension of sight, a dimension of sound, a dimension of mind…you’re entering The Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Much like the Twilight Zone series, the film version tells four short stories. The first, “Time Out” (directed by John Landis) tells of a bigot (Vic Morrow) who gets his just desserts by ending up in a series of situations where others see him as a different race. Steven Spielberg’s “Kick the Can,” follows a group of nursing home residents who turn back into children during a game of kick the can. “It’s a Good Life” (directed by Joe Dante) introduces us to Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) and her encounter with a young boy who makes wishes come true with dangerous results. Finally, George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” sees an anxious flyer (John Lithgow) even more disturbed after witnessing a strange creature on the plane’s wing.
It’s amazing looking at the talent involved in this film, a feat that’s still unrivaled today. Spielberg, Dante, Landis, and Miller would work in the anthology medium after this – particularly the aforementioned Tales From the Crypt – but by 1983 all of them were on a hot streak or right at the cusp; Spielberg had the one-two punch of Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. under his belt, with another Indy film coming out by 1984; Landis had achieved success in the horror genre with An American Werewolf in London and Trading Places; Miller had both Mad Max films, and Dante would put out Gremlins the next year. All four came together for the love of the Twilight Zone series (and I’m sure the latter three hopped at the chance to work with Spielberg).
Spielberg, Dante, and Miller – who didn’t write their segments – all worked with established episodes from the series, while Landis evoked more of the series’ overall social commentary with his segment as well as the opening prologue. Each one is self-contained outside of a reference to the prologue during film’s end, leaving audiences able to pick and choose which segment they enjoyed the most, and there are pros and cons to each segment. Burgess Meredith, long-time Twilight Zone guest star narrates the various installations, one of several cameos pleasing to long-term fans of the series.
Landis’ opening prologue sets the tone for the majority of the segments – Spielberg’s is a painful outlier – with two men (played wonderfully by Albert Brooks and Dan Akroyd) introducing the world of the Twilight Zone. Anyone who’s watched An American Werewolf in London feels Landis’ touches, starting with the opening strains of Creedence Clearwater’s “Midnight Special.” The segment doesn’t feel rushed, patiently setting up the payoff from the first minute, and we learn just enough about the men to know they’re strangers before Akroyd’s fateful question, “Do you want to see something really scary?” It’s a bit disheartening that Akroyd’s character doesn’t factor into the rest of the segments outside of giving us the final line, because he’s fantastic, just unassuming enough to put the audience off their guard before sending us into the Twilight Zone proper.
It’s bizarre that “Time Out” starts the series off, considering its very existence ruined the film’s reputation and almost scrapped the entire project. Considered one of the worst on-set tragedies ever – up until the recent fatal accident on the set of Midnight Rider, of which this was used as precedent during the case – star Vic Morrow, as well as two child extras, were killed during a stunt gone wrong. (If you’re interested in the subsequent criminal case, a story both bewildering and fascinating, I recommend Stephen Farber’s book, Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case.) When the film was released in 1983, audiences knew about the tragedy, and the film would remain on people’s lips during the trial that went on throughout the 1980s.
Starting the film off with that segment casts an unsightly pallor over the entire thing. Spielberg thought about cutting the segment completely, and while that would have prevented Morrow’s final appearance, it also seems in poor taste letting it start the film. Removed of the on-set horrors, “Time Out” is a standard tables are turned story about a bigot getting his comeuppance by being placed in Nazi Germany, the KKK South, and Vietnam. (Watching this in light of the recent Confederate flag drama makes it seem timely today.) Morrow shows gumption as an unrepentant racist, although he seems pretty slow on the uptake once he leaves the bar and ends up in Germany. I understand he wouldn’t immediately think of time travel, but the German men dressed like Gestapo and swastikas didn’t give him a clue? It becomes almost comical later, after two previous instances where people have tried to kill him, he still thinks walking towards US soldiers in the jungle is a good idea. Since the segments involving his redemption were cut, for obvious reasons, the ending puts a rather bleak end on things, with Morrow’s Bill being loaded up into a cattle car for Nazi extermination. It’s a rather standard short, and certainly situates us in an already bleak situation….
So why not jump into a sickeningly sweet story next? Because the tragedy had colored the film experience, Spielberg, who filmed his segment last, was forced to make changes. Originally planning an adaptation of the amazing TZ episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” Spielberg scrapped the idea to avoid what had damned the first production – i.e. night filming and child extras. Instead, we have a very Spielbergian tale that plays like a predecessor to 1985’s Cocoon, with a series of elderly people turned young. You’d think you were watching E.T., with the peppy Spielberg-esque score, the happy elderly people, and Scatman Crothers as the mysterious Mr. Bloom. Bloom himself is one element that plays a bit too on-the-nose, like the rest of the short. The moral is evident – you can keep your youth despite your age, so long as you maintain a “fresh, young mind” – and it feels completely incongruous to the episodes preceding and following. You can’t really say this is a horror anthology with such a happy story right in the middle. This one, more than the other, reeks of unexpected interference. It’s a cute short….but that’s it. Fingers crossed Spielberg decides to adapt “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” sometime in his life.
The latter two are pure Twilight Zone and the best shorts of the movie. “It’s a Good Life” was originally about a small-town terrorized by a freckle-faced Bill Mumy as Anthony. Dante changes the formula up, introducing Quinlan’s Helen Foley (herself named after a character in another TZ episode) who meets Anthony (Jeremy Licht) and drives him home. Once there, she realizes his family is a bit too eager to please him. Although lacking the childhood whimsy/responsibility angle of the original episode, Dante runs with the premise. Anthony creates a living cartoon for his family to live in, playing on the fears (at least mine) of the horrors of original cartoons. The various people Anthony’s brought to live in his house are all desperate for a taste of the outside – watch how they tear Helen’s bag apart, smoke her cigarettes, and spray her perfume – and include TZ regular Kevin McCarthy as the slovenly Uncle Walt. The practical creature effects of Anthony’s creations blend the zany with the grotesque, and this is an episode that would have benefited from a dark ending regarding the fickle nature of children. Instead, it turns into a “great power comes great responsibility” parable, with Helen as the “teach and student” of Anthony’s. However, everything leading up to the ending is insane fun.
The coup de grace is George Miller’s reinterpretation of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Miller is a chameleon, going from the likes of Mad Max to Babe, but his segment here terrifies in top form. This one is my favorite, although that might be because, like Lithgow’s John Valentine character, I despise flying. The original gremlin from the TV series was a bit hokey, but the gremlin here actively antagonizes Valentine. Lithgow looks practically unhinged by the end.
Twilight Zone: The Movie was a grand experiment that allowed some great directors a chance to stretch their wings in collaboration and honor a fantastic television show. Had the tragic events its known for not happens, who knows whether they would have collaborated again, or if the film would have inspired subsequent sequels. Regardless, this is a well-made film with some amazing segments worth watching.