Saturday, June 10, 2017

Off Script: The Twilight Zone: The Movie

Film: The Twilight Zone: The Movie
Format: DVD from Byron Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

If you’re older than about 30, you watched The Twilight Zone on television at some point. This was the television version of M. Night Shyamalan’s career, except that the twists almost always worked on the television show. Weird, creepy little stories that sometimes packed a moral lesson and sometimes just wanted to give people the shivering willies made for good television. Seriously, when I was younger, it was probably the only show I knew of where people my age would voluntarily watch a black-and-white television show because the stories were frequently that good. So, it’s only natural that eventually The Twilight Zone: The Movie was conceived of and released.

What I remember most about it from 1983 (it’s release date falls squarely between my sophomore and junior years in high school) is the controversy that surrounded it. Specifically, that controversy was the rather horrifying deaths of actors Vic Morrow, Renee Chen, and My-ca Dinh Le (the latter two being 6- and 7-years-old respectively), who were killed when a helicopter crashed on them while filming the first segment. This accident led to multiple court cases and almost led to the cancellation of the entire project. What I remember most was people being more than a little outraged that the film itself seemed to take no notice of this tragedy, not following the typical pattern of dedicating the film to someone close to the production who had died.

Anyway, The Twilight Zone: The Movie takes its cue directly from the television show, presenting us with a quartet of short films anthology-style with a framing story that covers the beginning and end. In the opening two men (Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd) drive down a deserted highway and play a very strange game of chicken. The rest of the films proceed almost as episodes of the television show itself. Since Rod Serling had long since died before this movie appeared, the segments are narrated not by him, but by Twilight Zone veteran Burgess Meredith. The four segments are:

Time Out (with the prologue, directed by John Landis): a racist (Vic Morrow) goes through something like a portal in time, discovering in multiple ways what it is like to be on the receiving end of racist hatred. This is the only one of the four segments not based on an episode of the original show.

Kick the Can (directed by Steven Spielberg): an elderly gentleman (Scatman Crothers) attempts to bring a new life and vitality to the residents of a retirement home.

It’s a Good Life (directed by Joe Dante): a schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan) meets a young boy (Jeremy Licht) who has a strange and terrible relationship with his family and who is possessed of strange and horrible powers.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (directed by George Miller): an airline passenger (John Lithgow) who is already suffering from near-crippling fear of flying sees something terrible on the wing of a plane flying through a thunderstorm.

Like most anthology films, The Twilight Zone: The Movie is uneven in terms of the various stories it tells. The first story is probably the most unsatisfying despite having in many ways the most interesting message. It feels very clipped and short, almost certainly due to the deaths of Morrow and the two young Vietnamese actors. The film builds to the exceptional Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which was one of the classic episodes of the original series and is honestly just as good in this version.

It’s the other two that were the most interesting to me on this watch. In 1983, I would have told you that Kick the Can was by far the weakest of the four segments and It’s a Good Life was arguably the best. Now, I’m not so sure I see them that way. Kick the Can is pure Spielberg and it’s really well made. It simply feels out of place as the only one of the four segments without a strong (or any) horror element. It’s sweet, though, and rather charming. On the other hand, this version of It’s a Good Life is the only one of the last three that I don’t think is stronger than the original television show. There are choices made in the script that I think damage the story. That said, I like the fact that Bill Mumy, who played the boy in the original episode, shows up here at the beginning.

It’s fun to see some of the actors here. Keven McCarthy makes an appearance, as does Nancy Cartwright, for instance. The first segment also includes a great reference to Animal House that I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say that if you pay attention to the short bios of the characters at the end, there’s a little bit of payoff here. The big question is, of course, whether or not it’s any good. It is, but I think it has suffered some in the last 30+ years since it was released. I don’t think it’s nearly as good as I thought it was when I first saw it all those decades ago. It’s still worth seeing, but it was far better in my memory.

Why to watch The Twilight Zone: Like most anthologies, it has some strong stories.
Why not to watch: Like virtually all anthologies, it’s really uneven.


  1. I used to watch the TV show all the time. I also remember when that tragic crash happened. My mom was also a big fan of the show, but she never took me to see it. I'm not sure if that was the reason, or not. It's possible. Strangely, I still haven't seen it. I keep telling myself I am going to. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. It's worth seeing if only for the history.

      You should also know that all five seasons of the television show are currently streaming on NetFlix.

  2. By my hazy reckoning, Creepshow was a bit better than The Twilight Zone: The Movie retread. I just hope Christine and Leo don't screw up the new The Twilight Zone: The Movie reboot with its one single movie-long story.

    Luckily, for all of us The Twilight Zone TV show lovers, the British series, Black Mirror, may even be better, albeit with far, far, far fewer episodes each season/series/year in which to focus on (a whopping 13 episodes).

    1. I think that's a fair assessment. Aside from the first, very short story in Creepshow, all of them are pretty good, and the first one is only weak because it's too short.

      I don't know if you have a way to access the American version of NetFlix, but if you do, the entire original television series is streaming.

  3. I thought the weakest part of "Creepshow" was casting King the writer as King the actor.

    As for "The Twilight Zone," my mom got me hooked on the original (1959–64) as a kid thanks to syndication, and now I even own the lesser quality (1985–89) and (2002–03) series as well. While most of the latter series episodes were sub-par to the original, "A Matter of Minutes" by Harlan Ellison and Rockne S. O'Bannon and "It's Still a Good Life's" update from Peaksville, Ohio with an older Bill Mumy and his daughter, Liliana, were definite stand outs. It's just a shame that most of the last few generations have no clue as to Rod Serling, "The Twilight Zone," or "The Outer Limits." And speaking of Netflix, I just hope it doesn't screw up its Lost in Space series revival though it has done some great things with the likes of "Narcos," "Stranger Things," and "Marvel's Jessica Jones."

    1. I can see that, even if I don't agree completely. That story (the second one, if memory serves), is meant to be the closest thing to comic relief of the five, so in that respect, King's performance is less important in terms of taking it seriously.

      NetFlix has done some very good work. My wife is a big fan of Kimmy Schmidt, and I loved Stranger Things. So, fingers crossed. I'd say they're due for a bad one, but Iron Fist was routinely panned. If you liked Jessica Jones, I'd recommend Daredevil (the second season isn't bad; the first season is fantastic) and Luke Cage.