Twilight Zone: The Movie is the definitive tale of two films. Or rather, the tale of four films, each of them an homage to the classic Rod Serling TV series. Four different directors, four different scripts, four different casts. And like a lot of remakes, some of them feel entirely unnecessary. Serling’s originals did just fine on their own, and the new ones could, at best, repackage their clever twists rather than developing any of their own. That said, the film still finds ways to grab us… mostly in the second half whose directors expressed their own vision much more than those in the first half do.
It starts out with a dead bang, with cross-country travelers Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks debating the merits of the old show. The piece sets the tone perfectly: funny and nostalgic before taking a hard right turn into one of the scariest boo-gotcha moments in film history. The film takes a second strong foot forward by letting Burgess Meredith fill in for Serling’s voice-over; Meredith starred in some of the original series’ best episodes and his work here symbolizes the filmmakers’ respect for what came before them.
That does the first two segments a huge disservice, since they prove utterly incapable of catching up. The first segment – the only original one in the entire film – suffered from a hell of a lot more than that. An on-set helicopter crash claimed the lives of star Vic Morrow and two child actors… resulting in manslaughter charges pressed against director John Landis and four other members of the crew. All were acquitted, but the film never entirely recovered from the taint.
Even without that cloud lingering over it, the first segment doesn’t have much going for it. Morrow plays a loud bigot forced to relive the evils of humanity from the perspective of the very minorities he loathes. It’s ham-handed and obvious, without any of the director’s signature wit. A sly nod to Animal House constitutes its lone high point, which quickly vanishes beneath a grim reminder of the real lives that were lost.
They get only marginally better in the second segment, helmed by no less a luminary than Steven Spielberg and based on the original episode “Kick the Can.” The director indulges in his most schmaltzy instincts, as Scatman Crothers portrays a cringe-worthy magic black man who gives his fellow senior citizens one fleeting night of their long-gone childhood. Spielberg can’t find the energy to make it more than a terminal bore, especially since the original episode didn’t exactly rank among the classics. (Rumor has it that he originally wanted to do “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” but nixed it after the accident on Landis’s segment, since his concept involved special effects in the dark. I suspect he might have done much better with that one.)
It makes for a grim opening hour, and we have little reason to think that anything better will arise. And then – speaking of hard right turns – Joe Dante arrives with a delicious slice of nightmare to put things back on track. His source was an undisputed classic – “It’s a Good Life” – which he uses far more as inspiration than emulation. A young boy named Anthony (Jeremy Licht) possesses the power of a god, which he uses to terrorize the inhabitants of his own private universe. Dante infects it with his love of cartoon chaos, reinventing the original for the television age, while adding the quiet tragedy of broken homes and latch-key kids to the formerly straightforward narrative.
More importantly, he scares the holy piss out of us. Dante deftly mixed the unspoken with the overt, letting our imaginations fill in the most terrifying details before sucker punching us with his own. He even manages to give it a viable happy ending without diminishing its overall impact. The sight of Anthony’s sister transformed into a skeletal phantom kept me awake for months after I first saw it. She had no mouth – SHE HAD NO FUCKING MOUTH! – and the look in her hollow, dead eyes fills the mind with the most monstrous visions of life in this ADD-addled hell. In another of the film’s many nods to its source, the segment also features a cameo by Bill Mumy, who starred as Anthony in the original. (And Dante wasn’t done with The Twilight Zone, helming a terrific episode of the TV reboot in 1985):
If Dante rescued the movie, then Road Warrior maestro George Miller brought it home… with a little help from John Lithgow. The actor steps into William Shatner’s shoes as the god-king of nervous fliers who spots what everyone least wants to see on the wing of the plane. Dante fell largely on the horror side of the horror-comedy line. Miller dances merrily across that divide, leaving us permanently caught between shrieking in fright and cackling with glee. Lithgow’s bug-eyed performance is brilliant – the living embodiment of every bumpy plane ride we’ve ever taken – and his comic insanity can’t hide the very real terror at his character’s heart. It’s doubly impressive since “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” represents the pinnacle of the original series. Miller updates it without losing a single drop of its sweat-drenched paranoia, a piece that – hard as it is to believe – stands alongside the Serling version as an equal. (It helps that the original writer, Richard Matheson, penned both the third and fourth segments here.)
Nowadays, a project like this would show up on cable TV. (And two reboots of the TV show have graced the small screen since then.) Back then, the movies really were the only option, making Twilight Zone: The Movie an interesting cinematic anomaly. It remains a mixed bag, but it sure knew how to stick the dismount, and if the first half completely lost us, the second effortlessly added a few more sleepless nights to our tally. Even then, the respect and devotion to the original never wavered. Mr. Serling would be proud: only partially by the results perhaps, but unequivocally by the intentions behind them.