Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

You’re travelling through another dimension. A dimension, not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. Next stop, the Twilight Zone!

An anthology of stories direct from the Twilight Zone: a racist man finds himself travelling through periods in history noted for their persecution of minority races; the resident s of a retirement home find new life when a visitor encourages them to play ‘kick the can’ with him; a woman gives a young boy a lift home but finds out that his family live in total fear of what may happen to them if he isn’t happy; and a nervous passenger on a plane believes that there is a gremlin on the wing attempting to sabotage the flight.

 

The Twilight Zone is one of the most landmark series in television history. For anyone who has never seen it, the series was basically an anthology of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories rolled out into weekly standalone episodes. Hosted by it’s creator, Rod Serling, the stories usually featured some twist ending, sometimes shocking, sometimes poignant, but always full of thoughtful moralising and sentiment. Throughout it’s ninety-two episodes run, the show featured infamous episodes which have become part of modern culture, mostly due to The Simpsons and their spoofing of them in some of their Halloween specials. So when Steven Spielberg, riding on the coattails of his early success, acquired the rights to make this anthology in 1983, everything looked promising for a barnstorming return to form for the series. With the assistance of John Landis, hot on the heels from An American Werewolf in LondonMad Max director George Miller and future Gremlins director Joe Dante, Twilight Zone: The Movie remakes three of the most popular episodes from it’s original run and features an original story of it’s own. On paper the idea may have looked good, so it’s unfortunate that the final piece ends up of more of a homage than an outright attempt to recreate what made the original series tick.

Perhaps the main problem with Twilight Zone: The Movie is that it tries to cram too much in by including four stories plus a short prologue. This has the effect of providing an uneven, often jarring, link between stories as if they would have simply worked better as part of a revamped TV version. The fact that all of the segments different so wildly in content, tone and quality means there’s not really a common theme running throughout and no sense of overall unity. I guess that was the disadvantage of having four separate directors take charge of their own little bit instead of having one overall director like the old Amicus horror anthologies from the 60s and 70s. That said, the stories on their own are all solid enough timewasters. The short prologue, featuring Dan Aykroyd and directed by John Landis, sets the tone going right from the start, with some witty banter between the two characters in the car and coming complete with a twist ending. It’s straight to the point, not overly long and will either provide a laugh or a scream by the end. The first proper story, Time Out, is about the racist man who leaves a bar after a drunken rant to find himself stranded back in Nazi Germany and being persecuted as a Jew. Soon after, he finds himself thrust forward in time, suffering a near-lynching as the hands of some Ku Klux Klan who believe him to be a black man. The saga is complete when he finds himself stuck in Vietnam during the war and is on the receiving end of some harsh treatment from the American soldiers he comes across. The story is saddled with something of a tainted history as lead actor Vic Morrow and a pair of Vietnamese children were killed in a helicopter accident during filming, adding further sadness to the final twist ending. The story feels incomplete and the way it was heading pointed towards the character being eternity persecuted. Alas, with Morrow’s death, the story ends rather abruptly and at odds to how it probably should have ended. Morrow does a good job as the bigot who slowly comes to realise his mistakes but all of the moral preaching and giving the character a dose of his own medicine is clouded over by the real tragedy surrounding it.

Spielberg’s story, Kick the Can, is up next and it is full of the saccharine nonsense that has a tendency to fill his family films with. You know that sickly, warm-hearted, feel-good glow that the likes of E.T. have. There’s nothing wrong with it in children’s films but it’s a bit out of place here especially considering the tone of the other three entries. Scatman Crothers stars and shines as the new resident of a retirement home whose arrival prompts some of the other residents to quite literally start behaving like children. The story sticks out like a sore thumb without any shred of horror or science fiction and though it will leave you feeling fuzzy and a little better about yourself afterwards, it’s not the time or place to be feeling such a thing! It’s typical Spielberg, when he’s not playing around with sharks, dinosaurs or trawling through the Second World War for material. Leave it to Joe Dante to present the most bizarre of the stories with It’s a Good Life, the story of a traveling schoolteacher who has a chance encounter with a mysterious young boy. He invites her home to meet his family but it’s soon apparent that they live in fear of the boy and his frightening mental powers. After a straightforward start, the story soon turns crazy as Dante turns up the black comedy and throws in some twisted cartoon character-like monstrosities. Kathleen Quinlan looks drop-dead gorgeous in this one and keeps a straight face whilst the supporting cast nervously break down around her, including Kevin McCarthy and Nancy Cartwright. Cartwright is most famously known as the voice of Bart Simpson so it’s a little ironic that years later, The Simpsons would spoof the episode of the Twilight Zone to which this was a remake and have Bart use strange mental powers. Also of note is that the little boy from the original episode, Bill Mumy, makes a cameo appearance in the bar at the beginning. But this is Dante’s story from the start, featuring wacky animatronic monsters and giving the latter part of the story the look of some warped cartoon.

The final story is where the punch lies. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is one of the series’ most infamous episodes so it was a no-brainer that it was going to be included. Starring John Lithgow in the role originally played by William Shatner, the segment is easily the best of the entire film because it’s simply there to provide thrills and shocks – there’s no moral message to be had here. This is all about scares, paranoia and claustrophobia and it’s all delivered in abundance here. Lithgow is brilliant in this story, chewing the scenery up as he tries to convince the other passengers that there is something on the wing. He’s ably assisted by the camera shooting him from weird angles to give him that extra element of paranoia and madness – has the character just gone crazy out of the fear of flying or is there really a monster on the wing? Well those who have seen the original episode will know the outcome but it’s a lot of fun to get to that point. One close-up shot will give anyone the creeps after watching. After this story, there’s a brief scene to tie everything back up to the prologue and that’s your lot.

 

Twilight Zone: The Movie would have worked better under the supervision of one director. As it stands, the individual stories clash wildly with each other and there’s little sense that you’re watching a feature film – more like a couple of episodes back-to-back. Still, all of the stories do what they set out to do and that’s provide shocks, sentiment and a bit of preaching. It’s just that you’d expect a lot more from the likes of Spielberg, Dante and Landis in their prime.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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