On paper the idea of two of the most successful directors (at the time) cherry picking two up and coming directors and the four of them revisiting their childhood memories of TV’s The Twilight Zone must have seemed like a great idea. Especially when those two directors were John Landis, having just made An American Werewolf In London and Trading Places, and Steven Spielberg who was coming off the most successful of all time, E.T. Yet somehow both of these mega talents fluffed it. Well Spielberg fluffed it, Landis sowed the seeds that would ultimately destroy his career in the most awful way. Thank god the two directors they picked for the other two segments of the Twilight Zone movie where Joe Dante and George Miller.
It is, it has to be said, a relief that the first story in the film is the John Landis one. Not only because it is easily the weakest one of the lot (that things can only get better after this) but because of the tragedy that happened whilst making this story. It hangs over the production like a ghost. The story concerns a loud mouth racist, bitter about having been passed over for promotion for a fellow, Jewish worker. He finds himself flipping through time to various racial atrocities in recent history, from being lynched by KKK members to being rounded up as a Jew in Nazi occupied France. If you did miss what happened behind the scenes, Landis made some ill advised judgements about safety whilst filming the story which resulted in the lead actor and two child actors being killed by an out of control helicopter (you can look up the footage up on Youtube but I would NOT recommend it). Vic Morrow was the lead actor and is the highlight of this story, playing the bigoted protagonist with wild-eyed conviction. Of course the story doesn’t have the ending which was indented for it as Morrow was not there to film it. It just kind of stops, the downbeat ending has him shut away in a train and shipped off to the gas chambers (the original ending which was meant to involve him rescuing two Vietnamese child prisoners). However even if things hadn’t gone so awfully wrong you have to wonder why on earth Landis chose this story in the first place. Its not to say it isn’t an interesting idea, or that it couldn’t have something to say about bigotry, but its simplistic, sledge hammer stuff – a racist learns how to not to be one. And whilst it does have time travel (for no explained reason) it just doesn’t feel particularly Twilight-Zoney. Plus if you’re going to start a big budget scifi anthology movie is this really the tone you want to start it with? With some white dude making racist slurs to half the audience and then the best they can come up with is a denouement where he is executed along with millions of Jews? Plus, and I’m not sorry to repeat myself, three people died making this.
Steven Spielberg’s story is up next and obviously fares much better in that everyone survives, but we’re still stuck with the same question – why would you choose something as bland as “Kick The Can” to represent you in the Twilight Zone movie. The story involves some wise old black man who visits old people’s homes and gives pensioners their wishes by turning them back into children. Actually you can see EXACTLY why Spielberg chose this. It plays into the man-child Peter Pan ideas that Spielberg was supposedly crazy about back in the day, until he was able to fully plummet this trope with his Hook movie – THAT sure put him off. Here though he is in full saccharine mode. Everything is so sweet and twee it makes you want to throw up. Its all so inoffensive it actually goes right round the other way and becomes offensive. Worst of all it is all so trivial and pointless. It doesn’t have any real insight into ageing – old people yearn for their youth, no shit Sherlock – and the acting is muggy and over the top. I’ll admit it is hard not to love Helen Shaw as Mrs. Dempsey who might be the cutest old person their has ever been, apart from my mum. At least this story is beautifully and cinematically shot, unlike Landis’s one which looked like a poor TV movie.
Things finally turn around at the half way mark when Joe Dante gets to take up the director reigns and deliver one of the classic Twilight Zone stories “It’s a Good Life”. When you think of the Twilight Zone there are certain stories that you know, and the one about the boy who can wish for anything is one of those. How did Landis and Spielberg not KNOW that if people were wanting anything from their cinematic version of this anthology show it was to have the great stories retold in a big, beautiful way? I get the feeling that after all the stories were in the can, Spielberg must have sat down and had a look and realised he and Landis had fucked up. The last two stories are SO much better than the first two it is like Dante and Miller had been given totally different briefs. Its surely why the last two stories are the best – save the best til last huh?
Joe Dante was apparently picked by Spielberg because he thought Dante’s Jaws rip-off Piranha was the best of all the Jaws rip-offs (he’s right) and this was a good move. The story of Michael, a ten year old who’s relatives all live in terror of him and his whims, is told with demented cartoon-like energy as the adults stagger about in fear of what the boy will do to them next. Its particularly good to see Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in there as Uncle Walt, having to perform dreadful magic tricks involving giant mutant rabbits being pulled out of his top hat. The weird live action cartoon creatures which appear here are pretty revolutionary and they, along with the child-like (but not childish) macabre tone, are something Dante would revisit and refine over his career. Maybe this story is a little bit of a case of style over content but it’s a lot of fun all the same. Why couldn’t Landis and Spielberg have this sense of glee in their stories is beyond me. Any fun at all would have been nice.
They say save the best til last, and maybe by having the all-time classic Twilight Zone story Nightmare at 20, 000 feet George Miller had it easy, but the final story really is so much better than all of the ones that came before it. The original television episode had William Shatner ripping apart the scenery as a demented passenger convinced there is a gremlin on his plane, tearing apart the engines in a storm whilst everyone else thinks Shatner is a loon. Even watching that crusty old black and white story now has the power to thrill. Miller takes the same story and cranks it up to eleven. This time it is a perfectly cast John Lithgow who starts of paranoid and ends in an insane, mouth-frothing frenzy. Miller whips the tension up so masterfully and with so much dynamism that you can feel Lithgow’s deranged horror, as only he can see what is about to happen to the plane and all its passengers. It is a supremely exciting roller coaster of pure cinema boiled down to twenty minutes. There’s a small and annoying pig-tailed brat who perfectly reflects poor Lithgow’s mind: the more convinced they are going to die the more annoying she gets, needling away at him like an irritating inch. At the same time the gremlin on the plane wing torments Lithgow by pulling apart the engines whilst laughing in his face/ Lithgow´s fragile state is being attacked from inside and out. It’s a fantastically thrilling climax.
Twilight Zone The Movie is definitely a mixed bag. Its the more established directors who let the thing down. The new guys they brought in were clearly hungrier and more willing to let their imaginations and technical skills run riot. Thank god Spielberg recognised this enough to finish the film on a high note.