Written by: Rod Serling (series creator), Alan Brennert (teleplay), Harlan Ellison (short story)/James Crocker (written by)
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Bruce Willis, Melinda Dillon, and Greg Mullavey
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Some push for what they need; some push for what they want. Some people, like Peter Jay Novins, just push. If they do it hard enough, and long enough, something might just push back... from the Twilight Zone."
Despite being a nearly lifelong fan of The Twilight Zone, I am largely unfamiliar with its 1980s resurrection series. Only the haziest memories—most of them involving the trippy opening sequence—have lingered all of these years, mostly because this run hardly ever seems to pop up in syndication (whereas the original has continued to air for decades after its cancellation). In fact, I’m fairly certain I watched more episodes of the more recent revival in 2002 back when it aired. So what better way to gear up for October this year than by finally diving into this iteration, especially when its pilot was directed by none other than Wes Craven himself?
It’s an auspicious start, too, as the first segment finds Craven tackling “Shatterday,” a Harlan Ellison’s short story where overextended businessman Peter J. Novins (Bruce Willis) accidentally dials own phone number, only to hear himself pick up on the other end. Thus begins a brooding, unnerving little Kafka-esque bout of existential horror as Novins begins to reckon with the implications of communicating with what may be his conscience in corporeal form. Anchored by a terrific double performance by Willis—who is alternately pitiful or quietly sinister depending on which alter-ego he’s portraying—“Shatterday” feels like the ideal for this series: a tale that could have easily been part of the original run, only it’s been updated with contemporary aesthetics. (An aside: I have such an affinity for this very specific 80s TV look, where they’d apparently shoot on film and transfer to video—something about it recaptures the exact feeling of staying up too late to watch late-night shows). In true Twilight Zone fashion, it culminates in a nebulous place, one that sees Novins wrestle with his guilt and atone for his sins, even if it means being replaced by his own double.
Existential horror is taken to an even grander scale in “A Little Peace and Quiet,” a seemingly innocuous tale about the hectic life of modern suburbia. All beleaguered housewife Penny (Melinda Dillon) wants from life is a few minutes away from the constant cacophony surrounding her. Between four kids, a helpless husband, and malfunctioning appliances, she has little to no time for herself until she digs up a mysterious amulet that allows her to stop time and silence the world around her by uttering a simple, potent phrase: “shut up.” Astonished, she continues to explore ways to manipulate her power: perhaps she can have breakfast in peace or maybe even shop for groceries without having to deal with obnoxious customers. (Another nostalgic aside: 80s grocery stores are also glorious—so much wood-paneling and vintage cereal boxes to be found here.)
Eventually, however, she grows reckless and lets her newfound power over time dismiss the disturbing omens of nuclear war rumbling in the distance, leading to a haunting climax that distills Cold War anxieties into the eerie, unsettling image of Anytown U.S.A. silently frozen on the brink of nuclear annihilation, caught very much in the Twilight Zone. It’s a good thing I never did actually see this as a child because I can only imagine it would have left me completely traumatized, much like many episodes of the original series did.
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