Judge Dennis Prince proclaims it is indeed a wonderful life as the long-awaited release of this 1980s gem proves.
Wanna see something really scary?
To some, the mere mention of Twilight Zone: The Movie signals feelings of dread, outrage, and loss. Yes, it was the production where actor Vic Morrow and two young children, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, were killed during a nighttime shoot. And, yes, it served as the setting for a decade of litigation leveled against filmmaker John Landis, responsible for shooting the segment in which the tragedy occurred. Nearly a quarter-century later, it still exists as a moment of infamy in Hollywood's storied past.
While we're appropriately sorrowful of the situation, there's still an excellent film that was released, one that combined the talents of some of Hollywood's finest directors, producers, actors, and technicians. Sadly, it's a film that has been forever marred by the controversy of the accident and has served as a hub of unresolved acrimony, even to this day. Although it would be disrespectful to not properly acknowledge the untimely loss of Morrow, wouldn't it also be inappropriate to shun the film that served as his final work?
Twilight Zone: The Movie is an excellent film that was produced at a time when the big screen was absolutely explosive with action, adventure, and cinematic innovation.
Facts of the Case
Despite its checkered past, Twilight Zone: The Movie remains the Number One grossing horror anthology film of all time, ahead of Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. It opens with a prologue that finds two friends (Dan Ackroyd and Albert Brooks) driving along a desolate country road, cheerfully playing a game of "TV theme songs" until one asks the other, "do you wanna see something really scary?" The driver pulls the car over and, in a shocking instant, the game is over.
We traverse, then, the uncharted reaches of a place that exists somewhere between outer space and the inner mind, and we meet up with Bill Connor (Vic Morrow, The Night that Panicked America, an angry man and unapologetic bigot. He's made it a habit to lash out at those of non-American decent, pointing his accusatory finger of blame at them for the misfortunes and missed opportunities he has endured. And then, as he storms out of a local pub, he somehow finds himself in the very shoes of those he has incessantly and ignorantly castigated. Stalked by Nazi soldiers, assaulted by Klansmen, and terrified by VC mercenaries, Mr. Connor gets a first-hand experience in being the target of sort of extreme prejudice he dishes out on a daily basis.
At the Sunnyvale Rest Home, cheery Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers, The Shining) thinks it's time for the other tenants to recapture a bit of the magic from their erstwhile youth. He proposes a friendly game of "kick the can" and reveals to the others just how much youthfulness they still have left within. The real question to be answered is how much magic exists within each of us, no matter what our age, and what would we be willing to trade for another go around?
Elsewhere, a young schoolteacher, Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan, Event Horizon), meets up with a lonely young boy, Anthony (Jeremy Licht, Valerie), who leads her back to his remote home. Inside the decidedly cartoonish abode, Helen meets Anthony's very eccentric family, an overly cheery bunch who seem to welcome the teacher in a sense of panicked pleasantry. Apparently, there's more to Anthony than his charming little-boy exterior lets on.
And then we meet John Valentine (John Lithgow, 3rd Rock from the Sun), a terrified air traveler who is clinging to his last shred of composure during a stormy flight. Despite the best efforts of the flight attendants, Mr. Valentine is not a happy traveler. His panic is heightened when he believes he sees someone—or something?—clinging to the wing of the plane. As the aircraft begins to shimmy and shake uncontrollably, Valentine realizes itâs up to him to thwart the odd creature that seems determined to cripple the plane.
Upon being initially announced, audiences of the early 1980s were abuzz with excitement for Twilight Zone: The Movie. In a new decade where the movie screens were filled with incredible high-action adventures and forays into the fantastic the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, The Road Warrior, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, An American Werewolf in London, and The Thing. Audiences set new box-office records attending films like these, their imaginations sparked by the incredible new techniques and innovative new approaches to cinematic storytelling. So when Warner Brothers announced that some of the finest talents around would collaborate on an anthology picture that honored the long-time favorite television program made famous by Rod Serling, anticipation naturally ran high.
Then came the tragedy and suddenly this exciting new motion picture event was to be overshadowed by a gross miscalculation and serious misfortune. The movie opened on June 24, 1983 and garnered a modest weekend tally of $6.6 million (E.T. raised $11.8 million during its opening weekend the year prior). It ranked twenty-fifth in 1983 amid contenders like Return of the Jedi, Flashdance, Octopussy, The Big Chill, and A Christmas Story. Over the course of its run, it earned over $29 million but has remained a sort of black sheep association with those involved; it shouldn't be.
For starters, the film assembles the incredible directorial talents of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, John Landis, and Roger Miller. Successful producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall are on hand as are top film editors Michael Kahn and Malcolm Campbell. The celebrated Jerry Goldsmith contributed the multi-faceted score while effects wizards Craig Reardon (Poltergeist) and Rob Bottin (John Carpenter's The Thing) provided the incredible in-camera creatures and effects. All of this is given purpose by the excellent writing of the legendary Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) and prolific George Clayton Johnson (Logan's Run, 1976).
Although the four different segments are not interconnected or otherwise logically bridged, they maintain an inherent style and quality that never leaves them appearing out of place within the overall context of the picture. The prologue is completely effective in the sucker punch it delivers to start the show, leading into the dour tone of the first segment, an original story loosely based on the series' "A Quality of Mercy." Directed by Landis, this is a difficult tale in that it depicts blatant racism, complete with unbridled slurs, flowing out of Vic Morrow as Bill Connor. The unchecked hatred is certainly difficult to witness in today's hyper-sensitive society and was noticeably uncomfortable in 1983. This suddenly becomes somewhat palatable when the poetic justice begins to play out, as Connor finds himself accused of being a member of any one of the many races he viciously despises. Morrow's performance is pitch-perfect here and is worthy of being the first ! in the spotlight. In a remarkably short amount of time, he is able to bring the character over the entire arc of hateful to humbled with a veteran actor's deftness for emotional detail.
Next up is the unabashedly sentimental "Kick the Can," a tale of our unappreciated and undeservedly forgotten elderly. While it's sad to note that the senior actors here have since left us—Bill Quinn (Mr. Conroy), Martin Garner (Mr. Weinstein), Selma Diamond (Mrs. Weinstein), Murray Matheson (Mr. Agee), Peter Brocco (Mr. Mute), and the irresistibly charming Helen Shaw (Mrs. Dempsey), who lived to enjoy her 100th birthday—all of their performances are genuine. The late Scatman Crothers provides an excellent turn as the friendly yet somewhat mysterious Mr. Bloom. Some have charged this segment as being the weakest of the lot and accuse director Spielberg of wantonly ladling on the syrup. The fact is, the segment is entirely charming and Jerry Goldsmith's swelling string section makes it difficult to not be touched by the tender tale. There's nothing wrong with feeling good, after all.
In Dante's segment, "It's a Good Life," the director offers a surreal setting drawn on the notion of a cartoon world existing on our temporal plane. The eccentricity of the story, as it methodically unveils before us, provides an off-kilter mood similar to that of an animated feature of years gone by. The oddness of Anthony's "family" seems wholly foreign and even inexplicable until we learn how they've come to live in the classically gabled home and why they so "adore" young Anthony. Kathleen Quinlan serves to pace and prompt our gradual awareness of the situation while William Schallert (The Patty Duke Show), Patricia Barry (The Guiding Light) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson of The Simpsons) nervously react, reassure, then recoil again as the truth is revealed. Top praise goes to Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) as the beleaguered Uncle Walt, desperate to please yet destined to perform the mo! st unnerving magic trick caught on screen. Rob Bottin works his own magic to bring the grotesque characters to practical life.
The most acclaimed of the segments is George Miller's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." The unsteadily rotating and twisting image that greets us, that of John Lithgow stricken with fear in the confines of the aircraft restroom, indicates this is no pleasure trip or flight of fancy. The constant jarring of the cabin interior coupled with the wildly rushing cumulus outside the tiny windows gives us an opportunity to confront an almost universal fear. As he peers out his window to try to discern if there really is some creature decimating the outboard engine, the entire flexing and flapping of the airplane wing adds further tension, reminding us how fragile the machination is when in flight. Lithgow is perpetually drained of color and dripping sweat, giving a compelling performance of a man desperately grasping to retain his own sanity under an extreme stress situation. While I wouldn't name this the "best" segment—they're all equally excellent for what they set! out to do—it's certainly as effective as a capper just as was the opening prologue sequence. And whatever that is on the wing of the plane, you can thank Craig Reardon for giving it unnatural life.
So while this unfairly maligned yet magnificent film has evaded an official DVD release for years (the closest it got to the digital medium was the 1984 CAV laserdisc and has been a top-dollar bootleg on the five-inch media for some time), Warner Brothers has finally done justice to this buried treasure by releasing it in standard definition, Blu-ray, and this HD DVD offering. The result: wonderful! The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio (the previous laserdisc and videotape abominations were all pan-and-scan) in a 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer that preserves the film's original luster and allure. The image isn't tremendously textural (although you will see details you never saw before), but it is restored in a way that delivers a welcome feel of the original film stock. The source print is practically pristine, boasting excellent colors and sharp contrasts. Since each director has deliberately placed his thumbprint on their respective segment, yo! u should expect the overall production design to shift from tale to tale (never too wildly, though). If there are any troubles it's that there's some grain visible in a few darker scenes, most visibly in George Miller's final segment. No need to worry, though, since this is the exception, not the norm, and only last but a few moments. Don't expect an eye-popping dimensional image here (the original elements simply don't possess the level of original detail to achieve such a feat) but be ready to be enveloped by an excellent overall image that makes you feel as if you're back in your theater seat in 1983.
Perhaps the greater achievement of this HD DVD release is the impressive audio mix, the best offered being the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that is a marked improvement over any original Dolby Stereo theatrical presentation of the day. As the prologue gets underway, the track is clear and clean though not spectacular, that is until the surprising reveal where a monstrous hiss and growl suddenly explodes from all channels and truthfully sends chills up the spine. The audio in the first segment is good with some ambience achieved but, rightfully, proper attention paid to ensure clear and undistorted dialogue. The second segment focuses on Goldsmith's score of permeating strings, giving an undeniable warmth to the on-screen proceedings. The third segment gets a noticeable boost with recognizable cartoon sound effects literally popping up all around you—it's quite impressive. The final segment maintains a low hum of the airliner bumping through the unstable atmosphere with frequent jar! ring lightning strikes. Honestly, you've never heard Twilight Zone: The Movie like this before, and itâs an experience somewhat reminiscent of the first time you graduated from Dolby Stereo to AC-3.
Unfortunately, there are no extras on the discs save for a rather poor-quality full-frame theatrical trailer. Certainly there was some behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, or outtakes captured, although if those would serve only to attract the morbidly curious, then perhaps it's best the film be presented in this manner, to be appreciated for its final result.
Although the lack of extras diminishes the overall scoring of this disc, you're encouraged to remove that number from the average scoring to see that Twilight Zone: The Movie is a highly-rated HD DVD and comes with a "strong buy" recommendation.
If you've never the film but always wanted to find out more about "that movie where that accident happened," here's your chance. When you get a copy, forget the tabloid-like sensationalism and, instead focus your attention on the fine achievement this represents. Pay proper respects to the late Mr. Morrow by enjoying his performance as well as giving in to the wonderful creativeness of some of Hollywood's finest craftspeople doing what they did best.
While a previous judge and jury has already dealt with the issues and occurrences surrounding the late Vic Morrow's death, that matter will not be brought up for further deliberation here. Rather, based upon the facts presented, this court finds the creative cast, crew, and HD DVD authoring team not guilty in this case of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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