During a recent viewing of Twilight Zone: The Movie I came to the realization that my biggest problem with this movie is that it's not the original Twilight Zone. And while this compilation of four mysterious tales doesn't exactly fit with the series that preceded it - there are a few issues we'll get to as we discuss this compilation - there's an incredible charm to this loving tribute to Rod Serling's TV classic.
A dream team of Hollywood directors came together to lead each segment of this anthology, setting the expectations for the film unreasonably high for many viewers. The producers, each of whom directed a segment, are no less than John Landis and Steven Spielberg, who team up with Joe Dante and George Miller for the film. Three of the directors worked up remakes of classic Zone episodes, while Landis wrote his own prologue and initial segment to get the film going. If you're familiar with these four directors you probably know that there are some differing styles at work here, which means they each bring something different to the table - and also means that the film has a little bit of a flow problem too.
Landis opens the film with a catchy, self-referential prologue featuring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks as two men on a dark highway who sing some CCR and then start to discuss their favorite TV shows, including - you guessed it - The Twilight Zone. This leads to an abrupt surprise reveal that would be at home on the show (though it would need fleshed out a bit), and one of the film's most iconic moments. Landis then follows up with an ill-fated original story of a racist/bigoted man played by Vic Morrow who finds himself facing the injustices that those he opposes once faced. It's an idea that has a lot of power and some of the imagery of Nazis and Klansmen that Landis provides are incredible, but unfortunately things didn't work out for this story. In a tragic accident, Morrow and two child extras were killed in a helicopter crash due to a pyrotechnics error. Landis salvaged what he could with the film - and with his career, which was sidetracked severely by the ensuing lawsuits - but the end result is an abrupt story that leaves a bad aftertaste for obvious reasons.
The second episode is Spielberg's version of an old episode entitled Kick the Can. Though Spielberg was one of the driving forces behind this movie, I've always felt that his segment - while good on its own - misses the mark as a throwback to the series. It's a fun story, in which a group of retirement home residents are reminded of their youth by the fantastic Scatman Crothers and the titular kids game, but it seems like Spielberg brought a little too much of his E.T. mojo over from that production. He retains only part of the original episode's twist, and lessens its blow considerably with a change in focus to Crothers' character. The story is still well made - it's certainly the film's most polished piece - but it just doesn't feel like it belongs with the series with Spielberg's tone.
At this point you might be wondering why I'm bothering to even talk about this movie, but this is the part where business picks up. The final two segments, directed by Dante and Miller - both of whom were much lesser known than their cohorts at this time - both hit as good adaptations of two of Serling's show's best episodes. The late genius Roger Ebert famously noted this fact in a backhanded insult toward genre films, stating that "the two superstar directors are thoroughly routed by two less-known
directors whose previous credits have been horror and action pictures" in his review of the film. I agree with his assessment of the film, at least.
The first is Dante's update of It's a Good Life, originally made famous when young Billy Mumy starred as a six-year old with unnatural control over his environment in the show's initial run. The plot is updated a bit here, introducing a teacher (Kathleen Quinlan) who is invited into the child's home and experiences his wrath. Dante, who would go on to direct cartoonish fare like Gremlins and even a Looney Tunes film, takes plenty of stylistic cues from violent childrens' cartoons, and hammy performances from the cast - including the always welcome Kevin McCarthy - add to the fun. The tone shift from the original series is noticeable, but it's not really problematic. Dante has a lot of fun with this story, little Jeremy Licht is good as the child (and Mumy cameos alongside Dick Miller in one scene), and the re-write around Quinlan's character is a nice supplement to the original episode. You could almost look at this one as a sequel to that episode, and it works either way you look at it.
George Miller brings up the tail end of the film as he directs the grand finale, a remake of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which is one of the most famous episodes of the series. This tale of a frightened airline passenger who sees a creature on the wing of the plane originally starred William Shatner in one of his early roles, and his shoes are filled admirably here by John Lithgow. The performance is wild, even in comparison to Shatner, but Lithgow's ability to show fear really pushes this segment to great heights. Miller was fresh off his first two Mad Max films when he directed this segment, and there's a little bit of the same chaotic energy running through this segment. Miller swoops the camera around the confined airplane and Lithgow frantically tries to survive at the same time, resulting in an unsettling sequence that still gives me the creeps. Is it better than the original episode? No, probably not. But it's a different vision and a very fun one at that.
When you take all of these parts and put them together into a 101 minute package, the results are admittedly mixed. But, if you took four random episodes of The Twilight Zone and packaged them together they might not flow as one entity either. That's part of the beauty of the series in which - despite some recurring themes - no two episodes are alike. If nothing else, Twilight Zone: The Movie manages to capture four different moods from The Twilight Zone, showing off both dark and sinister and light and playful themes in one package. On that alone, the final product is a tribute that seems to be endlessly watchable, filled to the brim with enough good ideas and excellent performances to make Zone fans like me smile.