The Summer of '83: Twilight Zone the Movie -

The Summer of '83

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  • Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Vic Morrow, Scatman Crothers, Kathleen Quinlan and John Lithgow
  • Written by: John Landis, George Clayton Johnson, Josh Rogen, Jerome Bixby, and Richard Matheson
  • Directed by: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller
  • Studio: Warner Bros.
  • Rating: PG
  • Run Time: 101 minutes
  • Series:

The Summer of '83: Twilight Zone the Movie

"You wanna see something really scary?"

By Rob Vaux     June 24, 2013

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.


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mike10 6/24/2013 7:31:26 AM

I agree with your review, the last half was the best part of this movie. Now we need someone to do a Night Gallery movie.

redhairs99 6/24/2013 7:45:43 AM

Anyone on here ever watch 3rd Rock from the Sun?  I think my absolute favorite moment from that series was Shatner's first appearance.  The family picks him up from the airport and they asked how his flight was.  He said it was fine but "There...was...some...thing...on the...wing."  And Lithgow exclaims "I saw that same thing!"  Or something to that effect.

DarkXid 6/24/2013 8:47:07 AM

 Rob, when you're a kid watching this movie for the first time (I was 6 when it came out), this movie has no baggage and was excellent.

I'd heard of and only seen a couple of Twilight Zone episodes by the time the movie came out. For me this movie was my first real introduction to the Twilight Zone, and it was a a good. one.

Being a six year old kid, this movie opening was scary, but not horribly so, the darn thing worked. The first segment was pretty weak, even as a kid I knew that, as far as any deaths being connected to it, I was clueless, Vic Morrow? Who?? Although thanks to my Dad's wonderful skills in parenting, I understood the Lt. Nedermeyer reference at an early age. I'd probably seen Animal House five or six time before I saw Twilight Zone.

The movie just got better and scarier as far as I was concerned. I loved the movie, and when it came time later in life to watch the original Twilight Zone...I came to appreciate the movie more. Except when I took a plane trip that was. At nine an eighteen hour trip across the Pacific is very long indeed when you're thinking of John Lithgow's turn as Mr. Valentine.

Davewriter 6/24/2013 9:19:31 AM

I just remember sitting in the theatre watching this movie(s) and wishing for more.  I mean, they came so close... but having most of it based on old episodes... they couldn't think of something new? 

Of course I knew of the problems with the first piece - and at the time there was a rumor that - if you watched close - the "death" scene was actually used, which it was not.  But if you did not have enough footage to finish the piece, why include it?  Other than the studio didn't want to lose any more $.

For me the only piece that I really liked was Dante's.  But then, for me anyway, the ending just sort of dropped off.  All I know is that I left the theatre feeling let down.

mellowdoux 6/24/2013 10:21:09 AM

 I with this review mostly, though it's tragic what happened on the set of the first story. Also, when you see some of the footage that was released regarding the accident, Vic Morrow's character is saving to vietnamese children from an attacking gunship. So it seems that there was some form of redemption planned for his character at the end of the story (classic Twilight Zone). This would explain why the cobbled together ending we were served just doesn't work.

However... I couldn't disagree more about Spielberg's "Kick the Can". I thought this was a beautiful story and the performance by the late Scatman Crothers never ceases to put a lump in my throat.

DarthoftheDead 6/24/2013 10:59:47 AM

 Maybe the Lump in mellowdoux's throat is all the crow he had to eat in claiming that Nolan's "The Outside Man" was going to "Trounce" the Avenger's....


mellowdoux 6/24/2013 1:57:12 PM


Psst... You do know that Nolan never actually made a remake of "The Outside Man" (which was an old Elliot Gould movie) and was never slated to. That was my crack at the remake trend based on a comment Nolan made in an interview.

Sorry that the joke went over your head, mate.

Always a pleasure! :)

DarthoftheDead 6/24/2013 4:17:16 PM

 So your admitting your Post's are just falsehood's that shouldnt be taken serious at all by anyone, not new's to me.

Don't worry, mellowdoux, we all know what a Joke you are, all we have to do is read........

mellowdoux 6/25/2013 7:04:32 AM

 Cheers Guv'ner.

Love to the wife and kids.

See you down the pub on Friday (after the next boycott of course!)

Always a pleasure! :)

DarthoftheDead 6/25/2013 9:45:59 AM

 All I, and everyone else on this site, See's is a Naive, Desperate, Wanna-be movie buff, Simpleton who obviously spends more time with Alcohol at "The Pub"....why else would mellowdoux think that if the Xmen movie's bomb that it would be the "Death Knell" for CBM's in Hollywood???? 

Yes, it's ALWAY'S a Pleasure Laughing at you, mellowdoux, you Silly Rabbit........ 




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