Steven Spielberg produced and co-directed this entertaining updating of Rod Serling’s immortal television classic. Although his segment is decidedly the weakest of the lot, we should be thankful to the ‘Berg for getting such a great bunch of directors together for this minor classic. I’m a sucker for anthology movies anyway, so it doesn’t really matter to me that this thing is uneven as all get out. What matters is that I grew up watching this flick and despite it’s major flaws (again, Spielberg’s sappy ass segment); watching it now as an adult, it’s still a lot of fun.
The Prologue (****) stars Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks driving in a car along a deserted stretch of road in the middle of the night. Bored, they start to play road games to pass the time. First they try to scare each other; then they hum themes to TV shows and try to guess them. This inevitably leads to a discussion of The Twilight Zone and how scary it was. Aykroyd then decides to show Brooks something “REALLY scary” and turns into a blue faced zombie that howls like a jaguar in heat.
This segment written and directed by John (An American Werewolf in London) Landis is a great way to start things off. He keeps the audience off balance and effectively sets the mood for what’s to come. (Landis also makes great use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Midnight Special”.) Aykroyd and Brooks have great chemistry together and it’s a shame they never starred in anything else together as this scene is easily the most memorable thing in the entire movie (if not one of the best opening scenes of any movie ever). Too bad things get pretty spotty after Aykroyd turns into a monster. Watch this segment with the lights out for maximum effect.
Landis also directed the first installment, Time Out (***) starring Vic Morrow as a racist who walks into a bar and insults every minority known to man. When he steps out of the pub, he finds himself in WWII Germany and all the Nazis think he’s a Jew so they round him up and try to haul him off to the concentration camp. He then winds up in the south where a bunch of KKK members (led by John Larroquette of all people) thinks he’s black and try to hang him. Next, Morrow ends up in Vietnam where a platoon of soldiers mistakes him for VC and tries to blow him away.
There’s an undeniable pall that hangs over this entire story. Everyone knows that Vic Morrow and two little kids died in a helicopter crash while filming this. Morrow’s death (and the subsequent legal fallout) forced Landis to end the segment abruptly, which makes things even more depressing. Still the story is quite captivating and even though it’s as predictable as a junkie hooker, it has an overall good “message” to it. Landis films things in his usual matter of fact manner that is well suited to the subject matter (he even tosses out a sly reference to Animal House in there for good measure). But it’s Morrow’s performance that is the centerpiece of the story. Throughout the character’s journey, you actually begin to sympathize with him. I’m not quite sure if that’s because of his acting ability, or the fact that you know the dude ended up taking a helicopter to the face while filming this flick, but you certainly can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.
Next comes Kick the Can (**) and it’s easily one of the worst cinematic atrocities director Spielberg has ever committed. (It’s worse than Hook, if that gives you any indication.) It’s all about a happy old man (Scatman Crothers) who comes to a retirement home where he teaches the residents to become youthful by playing a simple game of Kick the Can. But his can possesses magical powers and turns the old farts into annoying youngsters and Crothers offers them all a second chance at their youth. If you couldn’t guess what happens next, the old timers eventually decide to stay ancient while still retaining “fresh young minds”.
Kick the Can? You’ll be hoping these old fuckers Kick the Bucket. I’ll admit the set-up of the story works and Spielberg really knows how to pull you in, but once the old fogeys turn into little brats, all bets are off. Spielberg has always been able to balance whimsy with syrupy melodramatics, but here, he completely goes overboard with the sappiness as the story is schmaltzy enough to put you into a goddamned diabetic coma.
It’s a Good Life (****), the third story was helmed by Joe (Piranha) Dante, and features Kathleen Quinlan as a schoolteacher who gives a young boy a ride home where she meets his very peculiar “family” who all live in constant fear of him. She soon learns that the tyke has bizarre powers that include (but are not limited to) wishing people into cartoons, personifying the Tasmanian Devil and making it come out of the television, and removing the mouth of his sister. Quinlan finally realizes that all the boy needed was a little TLC and agrees to mother him and help him hone his powers.
Dante really lets loose on this segment and shows a lot of visual pizzazz, especially during the scenes involving the crazed animated characters coming to life. The scene where the kid’s sister (Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson) gets sucked into the cartoon and is murdered is kinda freaky (“That’s all, Ethel!”) and the reveal of the mouthless sister (The Runaways’ lead singer Cherie Currie) gave me freaking nightmares as a kid. This story is also anchored by great performances by a host of Dante regulars such as Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert who all shine in their supporting roles. Look also for a cameo by Billy Mumy, who played the kid role on the original show.
But they saved the best for last on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (****). Directed by George (The Road Warrior) Miller, this episode does not stop for a second and will particularly freak out people who hate to fly. John Lithgow stars as a paranoid airplane passenger who sees a slimy green faced man on the wing of the plane. He tries to warn everyone that the monster is trying to sabotage the plane, but of course, no one believes him. He decides to take matters into his own hands, which brings him face to face with the booger faced beast.
This one is a doozy. From the breakneck pacing and lightning fast editing (this sucker is almost as intense as Road Warrior was and that’s saying a lot), Miller really ratchets up the suspense and keeps you as jumpy as Lithgow is; which is quite a feat. Speaking of Lithgow, his performance is easily the best work he’s ever done and his pill-popping, wide-eyed manic behavior is something to behold. (Look fast for the split second Mad Max reference when Lithgow’s eyes bulge out cartoonishly just like Toecutter’s.) The ending also benefits from another appearance by Aykroyd, which really ties everything together.
Despite the depressing aspect of the Landis lensed segment and the woefully whimsical Spielberg story, Twilight Zone: The Movie still remains one of the best anthologies of the 80’s. What makes the movie work is an obvious respect for the material (three of the four stories are remakes of episodes from the original series) along with a handful of stellar performances that really sell the more fantastic elements of the film. One could only imagine if Spielberg had delivered as Dante and Miller did what the film COULD have been. It’s obvious that they both were very hungry and had something to prove and the ‘Berg could’ve really taken a page out of their books. The narration by Burgess Meredith (a vet of the old series) is fine, but it can’t hold a candle to Serling’s sardonic introductions. At least the old theme music is enough to still give you goose bumps.
Though not the blockbuster hit Spielberg might have been anticipating (probably from all the negative publicity stemming from the Morrow incident), Twilight Zone: The Movie was popular enough to spawn a new weekly series. Spielberg later created the similarly themed Amazing Stories series for television.
(Special Note: Warner Bros. REMOVED the old opening studio logo and replaced it with the newer flashier one for the DVD release. Not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it kinda ruined the nostalgia of watching the opening scene for me as I love that old school pudgy looking Warners logo.)