Written by: Rod Serling, John Landis, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Melissa Mathison, and Jerome Bixvy
Directed by: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Vic Morrow, Scatman Crothers, Kathleen Quinlan, and John Lithgow
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into...The Twilight Zone."
The iconic theme music or the mere mention of its title alone are enough to send shivers up an entire generation's spine. For five seasons, Americans invited series creator Rod Serling into their homes on a weekly basis to deliver macabre tales of the paranormal that continue to thrill modern audiences in syndication. Serling's landmark series took audiences to a variety of places in that "fifth dimension...the middle ground between light and shadow": alternate realities, post-apocalyptic nightmares, heaven, hell, among other dark corners of man's imagination. In 1983, Warner Brothers commissioned a theatrical trip back to this area which we call...The Twilight Zone.
Twilight Zone: The Movie is a bit of a mish-mash of new material and recycled episodes from the original series. The film is broken up into four segments (with a prologue and an epilogue) directed by four of the most popular directors of the day: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. Their segments respectively involve a bigot who receives his comeuppance by assuming the role of the minorities he slanders, tenants in a nursing home who magically become children again, a teacher who unwittingly stumbles into the life of a gifted but disturbed young boy, and, finally, an airplane passenger whose flight is terrorized by a gremlin.
I can still vividly remember my first trip into The Twilight Zone in the late 80s. Each year, my family would take a vacation to the beach and chief among the amenities was cable television, which opened up a world of programming that wasn't available at home. Vacation also meant that I was able to stay up much later than usual. One night, an episode of the show happened to be on, and I was entranced by a relatively mild episode called "The Silence" (one of the few episodes without a supernatural slant). The image of the episode's protagonist pulling open his collar to reveal the surgical removal of his vocal cords and Serling's closing narration is still seared into my brain. Imagine my surprise when I would later discover that a Twilight Zone film had been made some years before. It soon became a bit of a childhood favorite.
The film still holds up fairly well to this day and manages to be a decent sampler of the show's wide tonal and story palette. The tones range from being horrific to whimsical, which creates an odd overall feeling for the piece as a whole, as it manages to be equal parts horror and fantasy, with very few science fiction elements appearing. Production values and acting are solid across the board, with the differences in the stories themselves accounting for the wide variety being offered. The main culprit here is Spielberg's segment, which is a remake of an episode entitled "Kick the Can." While it very much belongs in The Twilight Zone, it's really the odd one out in this film, as Spielberg's Peter Pan obsession feels like an interlude amongst the more horrific elements. It's hard to believe that the 80s most popular director actually delivers the weakest segment, but that's the case here, as it's essentially a tepid, sentimental segment with an admittedly decent moral kernel at the center.
Following this second segment is Dante's story, itself a remake of "The Good Life," which remains somewhat whimsical but fares better overall, as there's a hint of menace throughout the proceedings. Interestingly enough, this segment always reminded me a bit of Polgergeist in tone, which Spielberg is alleged to have ghost-directed. While it's a fairly light-hearted affair, there's a few disturbing images strewn in here and there, and the ending is classic Twilight Zone. Little Anthony himself is an interesting antagonist, as his youthful innocence conceals his monstrous, even god-like powers. This segment is notable for starring Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame, as well as containing multiple nods to other Twilight Zone episodes.
Surrounding the Spielberg and Dante segments are the strongest segments of the film. Landis's prologue opens with two friends on a highway accompanied by Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Midnight Special." As the two ride the dark, lonely highway, they begin to discuss their favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, which serves as a perfect opening volley for the film, as the show's best quality was its ability to capture these sort of spooky, unsettling moments that allow us to wander into the dark corners of our imagination. This prologue transitions into the first proper segment, which is technically a new story inspired by two classic episodes: "A Quality of Mercy" and "Death's Head Revisited." While it's not my favorite segment overall, I think Landis's story best captures the spirit of the original show, which was famous for its role reversals, twists, and moralistic quality. Vic Morrow (who was tragically killed during the filming of this segment) delivers one of the strongest performances in the film, and Landis's energetic approach keeps things interesting throughout.
The final segment directed by George Miller is universally hailed as the strongest of the bunch, and it's an assessment I share. A re-telling of the classic episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," this final segment is especially notable for John Lithgow's manic performance as a terrified passenger (a role originally inhabited by William Shatner in the TV episode). Beyond this, the situation itself is simply horrifying; maybe it's just my extreme fear of flying speaking, but the idea of a demonic entity wreaking havoc on a plane 25,000 feet in the air is simply terrifying. Miller's direction, particularly unwillingness to show too much of the demon itself is key here, as shots of the demon are obscured by a raging thunderstorm outside. Effective horror anthologies always leave the most impressive segment last, and The Twilight Zone is no exception in this regard, as the final segment is simultaneously the most bombastic and unsettling of the bunch.
As someone who has remained a fan of the series since that initial viewing of "The Silence" all those years ago, I'm a bit biased towards this particular film. While it never reaches the heights that the series itself reached, it's a solid, faithful adaptation of the original television show, right down to Burgess Meredith (a veteran of the original series) delivering opening monologues for each segment. As the film ends with Serling's classic first season opening narration, I can't help but smile a little bit. Horror fans might find it a bit off-putting when it leans heavier on the fantasy elements, and it's not the least bit gory; however, it is a fun romp, an updated reminder of a bygone era that's never been recaptured by any other television show or film since the show last aired in 1964. The film was first released on DVD and Blu-ray a couple years ago, with neither featuring any special features beyond a teaser trailer. The HD transfer is solid, and the 5.1 soundtrack is more than adequate. While it's hardly a reference disc, the film is done justice. Fans of the show will no doubt already own it; for everyone else, it's a solid little horror anthology that deserves a spot on your shelf. That's the signpost up ahead--your next stop: The Twilight Zone. Buy it!
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