TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE
In 1983, Steven Spielberg, then riding high on the successes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), purchased the rights to the series and made this anthology film. Spielberg employed Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnston, who scripted many episodes of the original tv series, to deliver the films script. Three of the films four stories (all but the first) are remakes of episodes from the tv series. Steven Spielberg has also brought in various contemporary fantasy directors John Landis, who had just made An American Werewolf in London (1981); Joe Dante, who was having success with his quirky B-budget genre homages Piranha (1978), which spoofs Spielbergs own Jaws (1975) in no small part, and The Howling (1980); and Australian director George Miller who had just had a big hit with Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior (1981).
John Landis directs the prologue and the first episode. The prologue with its quick-fire banter and short-sharp twist ending works better than the episode that follows. The episode itself buys into the just desserts moralistic tub-beating that typified the worst parts about the tv series where Rod Serling liked to create straw characters to moralistically pontificate about. While calling someone racial names is certainly intolerable, throwing someone through some of the worst racial persecutions in history seems somewhat of an overreaction in terms of punishment. John Landis nevertheless directs the episode with slick and exciting camerawork and there is one good final image of Vic Morrow crying out through the slats of a train on its way to the Nazi gas chambers as his buddies are seen emerging from the bar on the other side. Much controversy surrounds the segment when Vic Morrow and two children were killed when pyrotechnics caused a helicopter to crash during shooting in 1982. John Landis and four others of the crew were placed on involuntarily manslaughter charges, although were later acquitted.
Surprisingly, Steven Spielbergs episode Kick the Can is the weakest of the segments. It is Spielbergs childhood obsessions perhaps at their most literally personified. The slimness of the premise never gives Spielberg much opportunity to open up. The sentiments engendered are corny and sentimental and the wistful tone aimed for shallow.
Joe Dante has clear fun with the It's a Good Life segment. Both the piece and the original tv episode are adapted from Jerome Bixbys popular 1953 short story of the same name. The episode emerges as a version of The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937) as directed by Steven Spielberg. All of Joe Dantes films are overrun with genre in-jokes and references here Dick Miller makes his customary appearance (as he does in all of Dantes films) and most of the characters are named after characters that appeared in various Twilight Zone episodes (Kathleen Quinlans Helen Foley is even named after the high school teacher that Rod Serling acknowledged as one of the influences on his writing hows that for trivia?). As with any Joe Dante film, it is the ability to have fun with the genre that has drawn Dantes attention. What clearly interests Dante here is being able to bring cartoon characters to life and characters thrown into a cartoon universe an aspect completely added over the story or the tv version of the story. The film predates Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) in this regard although unlike Roger Rabbit, Dante crafts cartoon characters as three-dimensional rather than drawn objects. [Dante later got to make his own feature-length toon film with Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)]. Rob Bottins creation of a huge sinister cartoon rabbit is wonderfully scary and inventive. There is also the marvellously ick image of a girl imprisoned without any mouth. The episode works well enough, although the maudlin happily ever after ending with Jeremy Licht causing flowers to sprout along the roadside as he and Kathleen Quinlan drive off into the sunset is terribly trite.
George Millers Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is the gem among the four episodes. It is a wonderful exercise in jokey-scary claustrophobia. Miller whips his camera about, shooting John Lithgows quivering face in wide, distorted angles and depicting the other passengers with a paranoid weirdness. Using exactly the same running time that all the other episodes do, George Miller manages to run a rollercoaster ride between scares, pulling back to make us think the character imagined it, paranoia and humour. This is one episode that should have been made as a feature film.
Overall, Twilight Zone The Movie is a disappointment. Only the Nightmare at 20,000 Feet segment stands out, while the other stories seem to miss the essence of the original tv Twilight Zone and never inhabit that same haunted psychological space that Rod Serlings tales did. Only the prologue and epilogue come with the Twilight Zone-esque sting in the tale. The film was only a modest success, not the blockbuster that many other Steven Spielberg films had been. It did however pave the way for a major revival of horror/fantasy tv anthology series. There have been not only two revivals of the tv series, The Twilight Zone (1985-9) and The Twilight Zone (2002-3), which both proved disappointingly bland shadows of their eminent predecessor, but also of classic other anthology series of the 1950s and 60s Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-9) and The Outer Limits (1995-2002), as well as various original anthology series such as Tales from the Darkside (1983-8), The Hitch-Hiker (1983-91), The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-92), Monsters (1988-90) and Tales from the Crypt (1989-96).
Original theatrical trailer here:-