Judge Ike Oden lives in a fifth dimension of sight and sound.
"Hey…you wanna see something really scary?"
1959. Every Friday night, Americans tune into their television sets to see ordinary people just like themselves transported into fantastic, often horrific situations that "lied between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge." It was a show whose dimension of sheer imagination earned its title—The Twilight Zone. Created by Rod Serling (Night Gallery), Zone changed the landscape of televised horror, science fiction, and fantasy forever, utilizing some of the finest science fiction and horror writers of the fifties and sixties, whose moralist stories featured some of the most eclectic casts you could find.
1983. Childhood Zone enthusiasts turned high powered film directors, Steven Spielberg (Jaws) and John Landis (An American Werewolf In London), are flooding multiplexes around the globe with iconic, genre themed films that bring in audiences by the droves. When talks of adapting Twilight Zone into a film began, the duo was a natural fit. Who better to usher Twilight Zone: The Movie into theaters than the two filmmakers whose works were so deeply rooted in the style of Rod Serling's classic series? Along for the ride came up-and-comers Joe Dante and George Miller, two lesser known filmmakers who's previous, lower budgeted endeavors (which included The Howling and Mad Max) showed great flair for the macabre.
Unfortunately, the recipe for success didn't exactly coalesce the way the filmmakers, critics, or audiences hoped it would. While the film performed modestly, it was considered a failure by Spielberg-ian standards. Perhaps the sting of financial failure would have been lessened if the making Twilight Zone: The Movie didn't come at the high cost of actor Vic Morrow's life, which was tragically taken, along with two child actors, in an accident during Landis' filming. Tragedy aside, the film came and went from theaters as a footnote in the careers of all involved, as well as a controversial blight on Landis' resume.
2011. Warner Bros. re-releases Twilight Zone: The Movie on Blu-ray just in time for Halloween. The disc is bare bones, budgeted, and destined for Blu-ray delete bins in superstores across America, which is a shame as the movie is substantially better than its history of hype would have you believe.
Facts of the Case
Each filmmaker is given one full segment, with Landis also helming the prologue.
The Prologue, as directed by John Landis, sees road-faring friends Dan Akroyd (Ghostbusters) and Albert Brooks (Defending Your Life) ruminate on old TV shows, driving games, and something really scary.
Time Out, also directed by Landis, follows a bigoted businessman (Vic Morrow, Blackboard Jungle) whose racist, barroom ranting leaves him cosmically bounced into a fragmented loop of time where he must suffer the horrors of his own racist ideals—from the conflict in Vietnam to the Holocaust to a KKK lynching.
Kick The Can, Spielberg's entry, focuses on a mysterious stranger (Scatman Cruthers, The Shining) whose arrival at a nursing implores its aging residents to start acting like kids again, yielding very literal results.
It's A Good Life, Joe Dante's episode, is the simple story of a traveling schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan, American Graffiti) whose accidental encounter with a strange young boy (Jeremy Licht, The Next One) culminates in a visit to his home—a house of horrors crafted by his terrifying psychic powers.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, George Miller's remake of perhaps the most famous Twilight Zone of all time, has a neurotic airplane passenger (John Lithgow, Blow Out) seeing a monster on one of the wings. Is it simply a hallucination brought on by a fear of flying or something far more sinister?
It wasn't just the consistency of quality (for those first few seasons, anyway) that made the original Twilight Zone iconic. It was the idea of the Twilight Zone itself, one communicated perfectly by the iconic opening which promised anything possible and sampled enough weird imagery and sounds to back it up. The greatness of Twilight Zone wasn't just the great writing, acting, and directing—it was the entire package.
Twilight Zone: The Movie lacks this sense of unity the show maintained from episode to episode, resulting in a wildly uneven, overblown, and tonally mixed up anthology movie. If judged individually, each episode performs decently, if not in some cases, spectacularly; if judged together, the wheels just about fall off the wagon.
Landis' Prologue sets things up nicely. Though the concept is cliché by any standard, actors Brooks and Akroyd sell the material naturally, playing up the comedic clashing of their personalities. This is all misdirection, of course, leading to a rather unsettling punch line that evokes Rod Serling's knack for twist endings beautifully. The segment ingeniously simple and sums up Twilight Zone for audiences new and old like as a spine tingling statement of purpose, giving way to your classic Zone intro and voice over narration by alumnus Burgess Meredith (whose episode "All The Time In The World" is referenced early on).
Then we get to Landis' actual episode and things are immediately thrown askew due to the fact that the episode is incomplete. The lack of completion is for obvious reasons, but that doesn't change the fact it never goes anywhere. Vic Morrow's vitriolic character is being taught a lesson very in keeping with the Zone. The smattering of race-based torments sync up well with the conceit of the prologue, moralistically giving the character a dose of his own medicine only for the episode to abruptly end. One assumes Morrow's character will be stuck in the hellish limbo of the Holocaust, Vietnam, etc. for all eternity, though if this is the case it defeats the entire purpose of the lesson the Zone is striving to impart. I'd question why Landis didn't scrap the entire story, but the answer is simple: Morrow's final performance deserves to be seen. He salvages what's left of the storyline with a mesmerizing balance of pathos and pathetic desperation.
Spielberg's entry, on the other hand, isn't as easy to tolerate. While there is nothing particularly wrong with his episode in terms of cinematic quality, the episode sticks out like a sore thumb in the anthology, threatening to jettison the entire film with it saccharine tone. Kick The Can is a feel good fantasy piece without a shred of horror or science fiction in it, rejecting the irony and horror of the prologue and Time Out entirely. Imagine if someone dropped a warm and fuzzy episode of Touched By An Angel into the middle of Creepshow—that's how frustrating Spielberg's sappy episode is. I understand that it is based off a classic episode of the series, making it appropriate enough for the brand. However, within the anthology as a whole, it feels very out of place—heartwarming and solidly acted (especially by Cruthers), but compared to the sequences that follow it, inappropriate, unimaginative, and generic. At best, I'd liken it to a decent episode of Spielberg's own anthology series, Amazing Stories.
Leave it to Joe Dante and George Miller to take two beloved episodes and remake them into wonderful, utterly surreal slices of grade-A horror, saving the sinking ship that is Twilight Zone: The Movie half way through.
In terms of scope and visuals, Nightmare impresses the most. Miller takes the source material and amps it full of hellish imagery and aural intensity. A manic tone and hilarious sense of gallows humor makes the episode live up to the title Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in every way. It's heavier on action than the original and far wackier, allowing John Lithgow off his leash to chew scenery and hit every crazed note he aims for to hilarious and disturbing results. The only thing more frightening than his descent into madness is the damn Gremlin on the side of the plane (that close-up reveal still creeps me out).
Joe Dante's Good Life stretches black humor even farther; taking the director's obsession with Tex Avery cartoons and crafting them into monstrosities within the confines of a candy colored, expressionistic suburban tract home. Dante's warping of innocuous childhood obsessions combine with a natural feel for comedy, making It's A Good Life's domestic house of horrors an energetic and hugely entertaining short. While Kathleen Quinlan turns in an understated performance, special note must be made of supporting actors Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Nancy Cartwright (The Simpsons Movie), who milk their cannon fodder roles for big (albeit nervous) laughs.
Warner Bros. re-delivers Twilight Zone: The Movie onto Blu-ray (originally released in 2007) with a solid transfer that compliments the film's ever-changing color palettes, production designs and practical effects with clarity and detail. The image has instances of grain to be expected and textures are a bit inconsistent, but these criticisms are easily forgivable given the stock and age of the film. It is easily the best the film has ever looked on home video.
The PCM: 5.1 audio track is even more impressive, garnering a nice balance between clear dialogue, ambient noises, and incredibly detailed effects. While not every episode blows the viewer out of the water, the consistent quality and clarity of the track, especially when it comes to the Jerry Goldsmith score, makes the Blu-ray recommendable for anyone looking to give their home theater an audible workout this October.
Unfortunately, extras only include a trailer, which sells the Twilight Zone name brand as well as the directors, but little more. Isn't it about time we had a documentary on the making of this film?
Twilight Zone: The Movie is a little over half of a good movie. The shorts stand up well on their own, but when you get them together, watch out. Their clashing tones, messages, and overall styles rival any barroom bout you've ever seen.
But hey, tone isn't everything in anthology movies. If you're looking for a fun set short films by A-list directors strung together behind the Twilight Zone franchise namesake, this will do it for you. Watch them out of sequence, or make your own sequence for them, and enjoy them for what they are individually, not what they're attempting to be collectively.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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