No. 25: Twilight Zone: The Movie

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

On paper, Twilight Zone: The Movie sounds like a tremendously exciting proposition: four directors, including Stephen Spielberg, each take a classic episode of Rod Serling’s sci-fi/fantasy television series and put their own unique spin on it with a modern cast and modern special effects, all set to a Jerry Goldsmith score. Unfortunately, as is often the case with these multi-director anthology projects, the segments are vastly inconsistent in quality. But when you examine which segments shine and which fail, the results are a little surprising.

Twilight Zone‘s relatively underwhelming success (considering it features “directed by Stephen Spielberg” on the poster) probably has more to do with this lack of consistency than anything else but the film also faced a particularly large PR nightmare upon its release in the summer of 1983. The film’s first segment, “Time Out” directed by John Landis, suffered a tragedy during its production when star Vic Morrow along with two child actors were killed during the filming of a stunt. It was undoubtedly one of the biggest entertainment scandals of the year and when you read the full details of exactly what happened (Tru TV’s crime library has an excellent summary of the incident) it’s hard not to feel pretty disgusted by the whole project.

Scandal aside, Landis’ opening segment stands on its own as a dreadful piece of filmmaking. “Time Out”, not coincidentally the only one of the segments not directly inspired by one of Serling’s stories, follows a horribly racist man who is taught a lesson by the universe when he walks out of a bar and inexplicably finds himself in Nazi Germany being chased through the streets by soldiers who think he’s Jewish. He finds himself jumping around the timeline into the bodies of other persecuted peoples (Quantum Leap style) including becoming a black man surrounded by a KKK lynch mob and becoming a Vietnamese man hiding from American troops in a swamp.

This segment has so many problems they aren’t even all worth mentioning (most of it resulting from insultingly bad writing) but I found it particularly amazing that Spielberg and the rest of the producers thought it was a good idea to draw parallels between American troops in Vietnam and Nazis and Klansmen. For the record, I know they weren’t intending to do that but it’s one of the many oversights in this segment that shows that Landis just wasn’t being held accountable during this production, both on the creative side and on the production side. The segment’s original ending involved Morrow’s character learning his lesson and promising to protect two small Vietnamese children after their families are killed in an explosion. Sadly, it was that very explosion that led to the tragic accident that killed Morrow and the two child actors and the segment was altered to end with Morrow’s character being carted away to a Nazi death camp, a grim ending to a joyless and thoroughly uninspired story.

Spielberg takes the helm for the second segment, entitled “Kick the Can”, and while the segment suffers from a messy screenplay, there are at least momentary glimpses of Spielberg’s unmistakeable magic. The segment centers around a nursing home filled with a variety of colorful elderly characters. When a new resident arrives, played by Scatman Crothers (who we saw earlier as an angel in Two of a Kind), he offers to help them all become young again, an offer the old folks gladly accept. The story ends up being more of a lesson about the grass always being greener but the segment is at its best when we get to see the elderly residents cavorting around the yard as children. The scene will immediately make anything Spielberg fan think of Hook, particularly the classic food fight scene. Spielberg’s ability to channel that magical sense of childish wonder that made that those scenes in Hook so memorable are all right here in this segment. While the story feels rushed and never really grabs us, even a little unstructured Spielberg, especially ’80s Spielberg, is always a treat.

The third segment, Joe Dante’s “It’s a Good Life”, is by far the highlight of the film and not because it does a better job of fleshing out its characters or telling a complete story (because it doesn’t). It’s just a ton of fun. Dante entered the project with perhaps the most to prove of any of the four directors, having moved quickly out of the B-movie horror scene into the limelight after the surprising critical and commercial success of The Howling in 1981. My research has failed to reveal whether Dante’s work here in Twilight Zone was something that came before Spielberg decided to hire him to direct Gremlins or after but either way, the seeds for Gremlins are evident through this segment.

We follow the journey of a random woman into the increasingly bizarre and insane world of a child who has the power to make his wishes come true, usually with horrifying results. The cast of people living in the child’s cartoonish house are all tremendously entertaining and bizarre, particularly Nancy Cartwright (a.k.a. the voice of Bart Simpson) as Ethel, and Dante wisely allows the premise to slowly reveal itself only after exposing us to a variety of bizarre and unexplainable scenes, my favorite being the horrifying reveal of the boy’s actual sister (played by lead singer of The Runaways Cherie Currie)

Dante’s use of grotesque and horrifying puppets is also fun to watch here, particularly his real-world version of the Tasmanian Devil. I always felt a big part of the appeal of Gremlins was the very tactile (if pretty obviously fake) look of the puppets, which even in their awkward movements feel ten times as real as any CGI creation you’ll see in 2010.

The final segment is a remake of perhaps the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, which originally starred a then-unknown William Shatner and was directed by then-unknown director Richard Donner. In the 1983 version, the always great John Lithgow replaces Shatner and Mad Max director George Miller takes over behind the camera. If you’ve seen the original television episode (or one of its hundreds of parodies) you know already how the story goes: a man with a fear of flying is tortured by the recurring sight of a monster on the wing of his plane and despite his warnings, no one on the plane believes him. Lithgow certainly outdoes Shatner when it comes to the intensity of his performance and while there’s nothing innovative about the story itself here, the special effects technology of 1983 allows Miller to turn what was once a silly man in a suit into a genuinely creepy creature. It’s a fun segment and does the best job out of the four at actually providing a satisfying ending to the story.

The little prologue and epilogue segments featuring Dan Akroyd are nice enough (particularly the opening segment with Albert Brooks) but don’t really serve to tie the film together at all. People often complain about anthology projects like this not adding up to something “more than the sum of the parts” but I think that’s an unfair expectation. I have no problem with a series of loosely affiliated short films released together as a single theatrical experience. In my opinion, the short film can be a real venue for great filmmaking and it’s a shame there aren’t more opportunities for the best filmmakers in the business to create shorter works.

What we get here is one atrociously bad film, one mediocre but still worthwhile film, one fantastically bizarre and creative film, and one tight, superbly made thriller. Considering some of the other garbage I’ve seen over the course of this project, I think what Twilight Zone: The Movie offers in terms of entertainment value is on par with almost anything we’ve seen so far in our 1983 journey.

Next Up: The Disney-produced nature drama Never Cry Wolf.