Remaking old movies that worked better the first time around is a pointless waste of time. It makes even less sense to dig up old TV shows.
Twilight Zone – The Movie is one of the few films that borrow old ideas from dead TV shows in such an uninspired way that it makes the old days of a black & white Magnavox seem attractive. For a big, splashy, colour movie with ear-splitting Dolby stereo, that isn’t much of an accomplishment.
This four-part semi-anthology is the not-so-bright idea of Steven Spielberg and John Landis, who produced the movie and directed two of the segments.
The reason is obvious. Look at Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) or Landis’ American Werewolf in London (1981), and you know automatically that they must have been fans of the old TV show and its creator, Rod Serling.
This movie is an affectionate “tribute” to the original series which ran for five years. (and still remains popular in re-runs.) All of which might satisfy fans, just as the Star Trek movies thrilled Trekkies, but for anyone with more demanding tastes, it’s pretty insipid stuff.
On the big screen, with every flaw magnified, the Twilight Zone material seems flat, the writing and direction mediocre, and the fantasy forced. It all adds up to an expensive but not very satisfying experiment on the Creepshow (1982) level.
The movie remains faithful in dramatic structure and style to Serling’s concept of mood-drenched thirty-minute flights of fancy. There is even a prologue, in which two grown-up kids of the 1960s (played by Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks) ride through the night singing TV theme songs and talking about old Twilight Zone episodes.
The first segment of the film that follows (‘Time Out’) is the tragic, controversial one directed by Landis, during which actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese child actors (Renee Chen and My-ca Le) were killed in a helicopter accident during a night shoot on 23 July 1982.
During shooting, the helicopter got too close to Morrow and the blades decapitated him. After his death, Spielberg, pilot Dorset Wingo, and director John Landis were all put on trial for involuntary manslaughter. However, the filmmakers and Morrow’s daughters ended up settling outside of court.
William Connor (Morrow) is a bitter old racist who has been looked over for a promotion and has taken to blaming his misfortune on anyone who isn’t white. We first meet him a bar where he is outspokenly complaining about black people and Asians.
He eventually leaves but once outside suddenly finds himself in Vichy France where to the SS he is Jewish. Catapulted through time Quantum Leap style, Connor will experience life as a persecuted minority – from the deep South of America in the fifties to Vietnam, taking on the form of the groups he has complained about the most.
The idea of a bigot forced to inhabit the bodies of victims of injustice who he has been prejudiced about is a mildly interesting one and Vic Morrow gives a strong performance but this is a pretty grim segment and rather difficult to watch in light of what happened during the production of it.
The second segment (‘Kick the Can’), directed by Spielberg, uses syrupy music and a mushy, sentimental style to tell the flaccid tale of a group of senior citizens in a rest home who recapture their youth through a magic game of Kick the Can.
Mr Bloom (Scatman Crothers) is a kind old man who turns up at the Sunnyvale Retirement Home with a message that age is just a number and one’s attitude is the most important thing. To prove his point to the old folks, he says he will wake them later and they will find a game of “Kick the Can” with him a most invigorating experience.
The weakest segment in the film, ‘Kick the Can’ never really attains the magical and poignant quality it strives for, instead coming across as too syrupy and predictable. Despite Spielberg’s use of children, it has none of the charms of E.T.
Segment three (‘It’s a Good Life’) features Kathleen Quinlan as Helen Foley – a schoolteacher drawn into the bizarre world of a child with magic powers who tortures adults by forcing them to watch kiddie cartoons and eat hamburgers drenched in peanut butter.
After backing her car accidentally into a young boy called Anthony (Jeremy Licht) on his bike, she offers him a lift home. At Anthony’s huge country house, Helen meets his family who include Uncle Walt (Kevin McCarthy) and sister Ethel (Nancy Cartwright) in addition to his parents.
Helen soon realises that something is seriously not right about Anthony and his family. Everyone seems terrified of him and anxious to do anything he says – and why does his “other sister” sit alone watching television in her room without ever saying a word?
The animated special effects are like Walt Disney on acid, but the routine direction by Joe (The Howling) Dante is as dull as the story is pointless.
When the television series was in full swing, the three aforementioned directors were American teens devouring each weekly instalment with glee. The real irony, then, is that the fourth, final and best segment in the film (‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’) is the work of an Australian director – George Miller, who also made the futuristic Mad Max movies.
This segment also works splendidly because it is based on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, an original episode that was actually broadcast to great acclaim on the old Twilight Zone show.
John Lithgow is wonderful as a hysterical passenger on a jet plane that is crashing through a turbulent storm, unable to convince anyone that he sees a hideous monster crawling on the wing.
Miller has charged the story with maximum terror and unbearable tension. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t meet the same standards.
One out of four makes for poor odds. You’d be better off watching the old TV series.
Kick The Can
Mr Leo Conroy
Young Mr Weinstein
Young Mrs Weinstein
Young Mr Agee
Young Mrs Dempsey
Young Mr Mute
Mr Gray Panther
Mr Conroy’s Son
Mr Conroy’s Daughter-in-Law
It’s a Good Life
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
John Dennis Johnston
Steven Spielberg (“Kick the Can”)
John Landis (“Time Out”)
Joe Dante (“It’s a Good Life”)
George Miller (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”)