directors John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller
The Twilight Zone was one of my formative favorite television shows. I caught it on PBS on Saturdays as a kid and developed a number of favorite episodes. I’ve come to think that it has led to my penchant for outdated science fiction. Not to say that the show didn’t have its relevance in the 1980’s, just that it was a great image of its time and its creator Rod Serling.
When Twilight Zone: the Movie came out in 1983, I was well-aware of the tragedy that happened on-set with the crash of the helicopter and the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two young children. That sad fact still haunts the film. And worse yet, it haunts the film’s worst segment, and is in a sense what pulls the film down from any potential greatness. I felt it at the time when I first saw it, and I’d say that it’s still true now, three decades later.
The anthology film has moments as a type of film, perhaps, but is almost inevitably challenged by the variance in quality of its segments. Directors John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller each imparted something to the film, but it has to play as a whole, or at least it was meant to play as a whole, with far less narration opening and closing each sequence. The film’s heart is in the right place, trying for the spirit of the show, but somehow only Dante and Miller deliver on it and Miller delivers the only sequence of greatness. It’s arguable that Spielberg’s segment is among the worst of his career.
Focusing on the positive, Joe Dante’s redo of “It’s a Good Life” channels Serling and Richard Matheson via Looney Tunes. After watching his Gremlins 2 (1988) recently, his taste for the anarchic antics of early animation seems deeply embedded if not beautifully realized. It’s about a creepy boy with the power to make anything happen and the people who absolutely fear him. Billy Mumy played the boy in the original and it’s one of the true classics of the show. It’s pretty good here, too.
But Miller’s version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, also originally from Richard Matheson actually maybe improves upon the classic episode that starred a young William Shatner. It’s a acrophobic guy on the plane who is losing his mind, thinking the engines are being sabotaged by a gremlin. The Shatner version is pretty great, though the gremlin left a bit to be desired. The Miller version has an amazing John Lithgow in the Shatner role, a much creepier, cooler gremlin, and a perfectly paced and executed paranoia thrill ride of a run. It’s the film’s most redeeming sequence. The highlight without a doubt. It’s been speculated that Spielberg realized the quality of the episodes and put them in order to improve.
It still doesn’t rescue the film.
The kids weren’t too into it. The opening sequence with Vic Morrow as a racist facing being in Nazi Germany as a Jew, the deep South as an African American, in Vietnam as a VC, who knows what it would have been had nothing happened. It’s weak and a bit of a cluster.
They liked the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” part. But they weren’t overly impressed. Oddly enough, of the 3 episodes of the show that they’d seen,”Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was one of them. This was the biggest flop I’ve played for them in a long while.