Few television shows have been as influential as Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone, which from 1959-1964 tantalized audiences with a weekly, heady cocktail of speculative fiction, social commentary and stark morality plays heavy on tidy, weighted irony. Twilight Zone ushered in an era of adult sci-fi and fantasy that audiences are still enjoying, and occasionally films try to slip into the large shoes that Serling left behind. Here are ten movies that would probably have been better off as dispatches from the dimension of sight and sound.
10. The Village (2004)
Director M. Night Shyamalan was always not a million miles removed from Serling in his early work, embracing outrageous, ironic twists but still earning them through carefully modulated performances and strong storytelling. The Village, however, signaled the beginning of the end for M. Night, as it doubles down on super irony, particularly in a final “twist” that everyone saw coming. The overall story, of a small 18th-century village surrounded by a monster-infested woodland, has scares and also a pointed message about how societies can’t escape violence, but it’s padded, switches protagonists Psycho-style, and feels so drawn out that it’s relevancy isn’t allowed to land. Trimming it into an entry for the Zone would have retained the thoughtfulness and lost the filler.
9. Final Destination 1-5 (2000-2011)
The Final Destination movies were slasher movies without a visible slasher, as in one film after another teenagers escape the finger of death at the last minute…revealing the Grim Reaper, usually so relaxed, to be quite the sore loser. The nihilism and violence wouldn’t make this an exactly perfect fit for the Zone, but there’s one key component that would work: revealing death to be the equivalent of a distempered book-keeper concocting Rube Goldberg scenarios is the kind of playful speculation that Serling excelled in, and he would have delighted in a conventional narrative about death losing his patience with people who ended up cheating him. And plus, if this had been restricted to a single Twilight Zone, a lot of teenagers would lived.
8. Identity (2003)
Ten strangers meet in a deserted motel in the middle of nowhere. Ten rooms, ten vacancies, all presided over by an unsettling manager. The Psycho connections are clear, but in Identity everyone is a suspect when people start disappearing and/or dying. So far, so very Agatha Christie. But then these strangers learn they have a lot of striking things in common. And that they literally cannot escape from this motel (space itself seems to circle back to this place over and over). Turns out (SPOILER!), these people are actually alternate personalities of the same man, a person who has been convicted of murder and is being subjected to a psychological treatment where the various identities can confront one another until the evil is purged. Identity is twisty and clever, but would have been cleverer at a shorter running time, and while the nasty ending would have been too bleak for Serling, the notion of a dusty motel being a dreamscape battleground for our own internal demons is one he would have cherished.
7. Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)
Vanishing on 7th Street would have tickled both Serling the writer and Serling the producer. The writer would have liked the notion of a mass disappearance in New York City, leaving only a handful of survivors, perhaps linked to the legendary disappearance of the Roanoke colony. The producer would have liked the idea of filming a small cast of characters on the backlot, where disappearances are signified simply by sudden darkness (whatever is stalking these people strikes when they remove themselves from a light source). Vanishing actually has a lot of good things going for it, including a typically fine performance from John Leguizamo. But it would have been leaner if had been done in…The Twilight Zone.
6. Click (2006)
Now hear me out. I’m serious. One of the themes of Twilight Zone was flawed people getting their just deserts, and in the modern age who could resist the idea of a couch potato being given a remote for his own life so he can “skip over the boring parts” and ends up missing everything? In Serling’s universe, the salesman who gives our hero the remote would have been a Satan proxy, granting a man his wish and watching gleefully as it turns into a nightmare, setting the table for a large-scale, ironic morality tale that could still be told in half an hour. Sadly, Adam Sandler got ahold of this idea and turned it into a low-brow vulgar comedy that takes a U-turn into a Capra-esque sentimentality, as if it earned it. What a waste.
5. Knowing (2009)
Knowing is one of the most ludicrous big-budget sci-fi films ever made, and certainly one of the craziest Hollywood movies to have been produced in the past ten years. Dealing with notions of numerology, biblical prophecy, alien interference and apocalyptic visions, Knowing piles on the silly elements like there’s no tomorrow (and it turns out there isn’t), but in its core is an interesting idea of a man who is convinced he’s cracked the code for when the apocalypse will come, and no one believes him. Serling would have brought the idea to an ambigious note (was he crazy? Or was he right?), and that’s the better arena to play this material in.
4. Unknown (2011)
Liam Neeson plays a doctor with a case of mistaken identity—his own—in Unknown. Trading off his globe-trotting asskicking turn in Taken, Neeson arrives in Berlin one day with his life, has a series of misadventures while retrieving a forgotten briefcase, and soon arrives at a hotel to see another man with his wife, who has no memory of him. Unknown is an action-thriller first and foremost but it dances with reality shifts that Serling would have enjoyed, as he delighted in taking people suddenly and shockingly out of their comfort zones, thereby questioning their sanity. The premise of Unknown, reminiscent of the brilliant old UPN series Nowhere Man, is ultimately explained in completely human terms, but that’s not a deal-breaker, as Serling, like his contemporary Alfred Hitchcock, loved a good psychological maze.
3. The Dark Half (1993)
Based on a novel by Stephen King and directed by the legendary George Romero, The Dark Half is about an author who uses a pseudonym to pen grisly fiction, and then when he retires his alter ego, the other man becomes flesh and goes on a killing spree. Like many great writers (including King, for that matter), Serling was a man unafraid to write about what he knew, and so one could easily see this story slipping into the Twilight Zone canon, working as a meditation on writers’ dark impulses and the outlets they use to remain sane, while also raising the question of what responsibility authors have to the things they create, especially when those things won’t go away (see Secret Window, another film based on a King story, for a variation on a theme). The Dark Half doesn’t work as a movie, but it would work as a mind-screw episode of Twilight Zone, one that essentially would comment on itself in a way that Serling would have appreciated.
2. The Forgotten (2004)
Julianne Moore plays a woman who sees her son disappear, and no one around her can remember she ever had a son. The beauty of The Twilight Zone was that its abbreviated run time per episode meant it could enter and exit a story fast, bypassing any head-scratching that one might have over some of the more outlandish twists. Twilight Zone certainly had some cheap endings strewn about the series’ five-year-run, but a benefit of the format was that they weren’t dwelled upon, so they didn’t sour the proceedings like the bad ending of a movie can. And boy, does Forgotten squander its premise and then top it with a horrible ending. There’s such a neat story buried in here of feeling the creep of insanity yet knowing you’re right, but The Forgotten ends up being the exact opposite of Twilight Zone: slick, empty, badly acted nonsense.
1. Devil (2010)
Billed as the first entry in the “Night Chronicles,” a three-part series of films produced by M. Night Shyamalan that we were promised (threatened?) but never came to fruition, Devil was based on a simple idea: six people are trapped in an elevator, and one of them is Satan in human form. Oooh, scary! Thus follows a tedious, lazy exercise where these folks try to explain to each other why it’s not me—it’s him! ad nauseum, while the police try to get them out of the sealed elevator and run into their own supernatural problems. Devil is a fine idea for short-form storytelling, especially where the black-and-white world of The Twilight Zone would bestow a creepy pall over everything, and also walk the line better between unsettling parable and urban legend. As a confident color movie in 2010, Devil is a forgettable, cheap throwback. Despite the distance of years, it seems that many filmmakers can never escape the invisible confines of…The Twilight Zone.