Twilight Zone: The Movie
With the odd exception (Band of Brothers), Spielberg and TV don’t mix. Ironically, as that’s where he started out, and given one of his best pictures is a TV movie (Duel). The collection of half-arsed small-screen fare trumpeting (or should that be trumping) his name is extensive, and there’s a raft of beleaguered series that struggled to a couple of seasons based on his name alone. It’s still going on (Falling Skies). His big-screen version of The Twilight Zone happened several years before he had a good scratch at his anthology itch (Amazing Stories), and given the consistency of his future small-screen failures, it’s rather fitting that his segment should be by far the weakest. Indeed, as co-producer with John Landis, there’s some irony that the directors with a vested interest should come up short while the guest spots (Joe Dante and George Miller) save it from being a complete bomb.
I’ll readily admit that I haven’t religiously watched the entirety of the TV series (although I have taken in the first season), but it’s easy to see why the particularly cosy/crazy ’50s morality play sensibility it exudes was so appealing to the ’berg. Yes, episodes often have a harsh sting in the tale, but they also betray a clear point-of-view. It’s as easy to find one clogged up with sentimentality, as it is one that cuts a satirical swathe through the values of the time or constructed on a clever twist rather than an obvious profundity. How well this approach translates to the ’80s (and subsequent attempts to re-do the series) is questionable, particularly in the floundering attempts to make it more contemporary. Even more doubtful is the anthology movie format, which may end up being very good overall (Dead of Night) but rarely garners a huge audience. This may be why the mooted new film version of TZ has been suggested as a single story (which is how this movie was first conceived). All that said, the ’80s reiteration of the series got to three seasons before it was canned, and the rebooted The Outer Limits made it to seven (far exceeding the original’s two). It was the mighty Spielberg, who was least successful, both here and with Amazing Stories (it reached two runs).
The project very nearly didn’t see the light of day at all, following the horrific accident on the set of John Landis’ segment. Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed when a helicopter crashed during the filming of a Vietnam-based set piece in which Morrow carried the kids across a pond; the pilot got too close to explosions being detonated as part of the scene and the vehicle spun out-of-control, decapitating Morrow and one of the children. The other was crushed by one of the helicopter’s skids. Child safety laws had been wilfully circumvented in order to shoot the sequence at night, and there had been voiced and unvoiced safety concerns over the scene. Landis admitted culpability over the employment of the children, but denied negligence in respect of the accident. He, along with four other production personnel (including the pilot), was acquitted of manslaughter in 1987 following a nine-month trial.
The extent to which Landis should be blamed, and should have been pronounced in a court of law, has been widely discussed and I’m not going to do that here. One thing is clear; the event would hang over the rest of his career. He persevered with hit-and-miss comedies for the duration of the ’80s. Eddie Murphy vouched for him and so got him the Coming to America gig (a big success, but not a happy shoot; Murphy and Landis fought hammer and tongs during the production). But since then, his career has shrivelled and all-but dried up. His biggest success over the subsequent two decades turned out to be the ribald TV comedy Dream On. While other contemporaries (Dante, John Carpenter) have also found it difficult to get movies made, in Landis’ case, he has never been able to banish the spectre of the accident. And if you see an Alan Smithee in the credits for Landis’s segment, that’s second AD Andy House, whose misgivings went unheeded.
In the aftermath, Spielberg considered abandoning the project. His reticence probably explains that he filmed his sequence last (ever-practical, why would he want to be associated with the tragedy any more than he needed to be?) and resulted in him picking a different story (changed to a dollop of freshly laid gloop; of which more shortly).*
Besides the first segment, Landis wrote and directed the all-together more successful prologue. It features Landis cohort Dan Aykroyd (they worked together on The Blues Brothers and same year’s Trading Places) on a night-time car journey with the Albert Brooks. Keeping themselves amused (singing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Midnight Special, playing “guess the theme tune”), conversation turns, in a very postmodern manner, to a TV series called The Twilight Zone. Perhaps the best line of the movie has Aykroyd incorrectly mention a plotline, to which Brooks responds, “That was an Outer Limits”. Throughout, it is Brooks who looks a little bit manic until Aykroyd offers, “You wanna see something really scary?” (the idea that TZ was a scary show is only paid off in the final segment) and tells Brooks to pull over.
Even knowing what’s coming, it’s an effective shock. This is the same Landis who expertly judged the mix of laughs and frights in An American Werewolf in London a few years prior. The prologue sets expectations high; that this will be a funny, thrilling, surprising movie. It turns out that Aykroyd and Brooks, despite being only semi-well known, are the biggest names in the cast. There is an easy chemistry between the two performers; an intimacy and immediacy that ensures the terror is all the more potent.
Much less so is the revamped title sequence, with Burgess Meredith’s tones only making you yearn for Rod Serling and slickly upgraded imagery that completely loses the eeriness of the original series.
This is the infamous one. Landis based his script on the original series (TOS) episode A Quality of Mercy, and originally titled it The Bigot. Morrow plays a racist (Bill Connor) who, sat with colleagues in a bar, unleashes a tirade of hate-filled abuse following the promotion of a Jewish colleague over him. Exiting the establishment, he finds himself transported to a series of nightmarish scenarios (Nazi Germany, the Deep South, Vietnam) where he is now on the receiving end of unthinking bigotry.
Landis extolled that he was effectively updating the themes of the series, so it’s ironic that Connor’s outbursts come across as an unsubtle sledgehammering of the subject. In this ’80s setting it feels like too much; Morrow’s character is just there for show. It’s probably indicative that this is one of the director’s few serious scripts; he’s not very good at playing it straight. The result is very obvious and, even at a slim eighteen minutes, comes over as repetitive and laboured. His one gag line is the in-joke “I told you guys we shouldn’t have shot Lieutenant Niedermeyer”, the bully in Animal House whom that film’s epilogue tells us was killed by his own men in Nam. The limited Vietnam scenes lack verisimilitude, as they very much look like they were shot on a backlot in California.
Needless to say, any material featuring the children Connor rescues didn’t make it to the final cut. Strange as it may seem, Landis had added the rescue sequence at the behest of studio execs concerned over the lack of redemption for Morrow’s character. So the final, downbeat ending is much more in line with the director’s original take.
A few appearances to note here; Steven Williams (X in The X-Files) appears as the African American who objects to Connor’s vile language. Charles Hallahan, whose head sprouted legs in The Thing, is Connor’s embarrassed colleague. John Larroquette plays a Klansman.
One might suggest that Landis’ grouping of kill-happy GIs with Nazis and rednecks was quite daring, but there’s no real bite to the sequence. Morrow is fine, but the sequence is far from a fitting epitaph for the actor.
Kick the Can
If Landis’ segment is deficient, Spielberg’s is plain lousy. This is a rare occasion when the ’berg’s resident composer John Williams is absent, but you wouldn’t miss him as Jerry Goldsmith rises to the challenge of coating the director’s vision in the most nauseating saccharine. There were a number of tiresome tales of reinvigorated elderly during the ’80s (Cocoon, *batteries not included). This is the first, and the worst. The director brings the same emotional incontinence to the depiction of the elderly as he would increasingly show with kids; in fact, he has the best (or worst) of both worlds here since they double-up. It’s debatable which is his worst movie (Hook and Crystal Skull spring to mind), but I couldn’t imagine enduring ninety minutes of this; just over twenty nigh-on incapacitated me.
E.T. more than showed us the soggy heart beating within the wunderkind, but it had much else going for it too (although I’m not its biggest fan). This is all sickly sentimental. Spielberg’s chosen script changed, although it’s unclear which idea was to the fore when. Dante has said the director was originally attached to It’s a Good Life, which then fell to him. One idea featured a bully being bullied at Halloween (too close to Landis’?) and another was an adaptation of the classic The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. Reportedly, he nixed the latter following the accident, as it featured kids and night shoots. I doubt he could have equalled the paranoia of the original, but did he have to fall back on something so ineffectual?
Kick the Can is a remake of TOS script by George Clayton Johnson, reworked by Richard Matheson (several handfuls of TOS scripts) and Melissa Mathison (E.T.). “Magical Negro” (Spielberg would return to this trope in Lincoln) Scatman Crowthers arrives at Sunnyvale Rest Home – “Hope just checked in to Sunnyvale disguised as an elderly optimist who carries his magic in a shiny tin can”; it’s very resistible, isn’t it? – and perks up the despondent residents. Except for Leo Conroy (Bill Quinn), a misery-guts who is eternally snubbed by his family. For some reason, he’s so dumb (it’s not like he’s losing his marbles) that every second Saturday he takes his suitcases down to his kid’s car and every second Saturday he brings them back up. You’d have thought he would have twigged by now. I suspect he hasn’t because the scenario makes for a nice turn of phrase.
There’s a variety of caricatures inhabiting the home, none of whom are interesting enough to spell out, and when night falls they are miraculously rejuvenated into children (the sleeping Quinn excepted). Cue seemingly endless “cute” moments of kids playing adults, lazily indulged with no sense of narrative direction. This aimlessness is only alleviated when the kids begin to worry about who will look after them and decide that they’d rather be old with their great friendships and memories (except for one, who remains young; a glimmer of truthfulness there). Yeah, I’m buying that.**
Of course, this is necessary because the alternative would be an admission that being old sucks; Spielberg is much too wet to come out with an even vaguely provocative statement like that. So Scatman has been going on about “The day we stop playing is the day we start to get old” and pronounces that he prefers to be his “own true age and keep a young mind”. All very commendable, but conveyed in a tone that is maudlin in the extreme. Worst of all, there’s no feeling of sincerity. This is a mechanical, calculated exercise, as if the blast of stifling benevolence that Spielberg engulfs the screen with is atonement for the behind-the-scenes horror. Bill is left seeing the world afresh (kicking the can, rather than the bucket) and Scatman, who has been through 68 homes, goes round the corner to the next one.
It’s a Good Life
Fortunately, it’s all uphill from here. Dante’s segment is just shy of half an hour, and doesn’t quite have the tightness in the telling that it needs, or the strength to sustain itself once the scenario is revealed. Typically of Dante, this is an indulgence, filled with his usual referentiality and penchant for Looney Tunes-made-live-action. It’s all a bit thin; enjoyable as you watch it but without ever reaching any high notes (aside from the rabbit).
Richard Matheson adapts this one too (and the last segment) and, while the conclusion is only relatively positive, it lacks the downbeat tone of the original. The boy (Anthony, played by Jeremy Licht) whom Kathleen Quinlan’s teacher (Helen Foley) encounters is possessed of god-like powers, and holds an adopted “family” hostage to his whims while consuming a diet of TV (cartoons especially) and junk food. Anthony’s magical abilities are the dark flipside to sunny Scatman’s, but the message (“You’re supposed to be happy when your wishes come true”) is weakly conveyed; serious morals have never been Dante’s strong point, he’d rather poke fun. Essentially the tale is told for effect, and the weirdness is something Dante excels at. Only the twist of Quinlan embracing the potential for powers refracted from the child comes as a surprise (“Teacher, and student”) but it isn’t compelling enough to make the segment resonate in an other than visual sense.
There are moments, though. The discovery of Anthony’s actual sister, rapt watching the TV but mouthless, is a disturbing sight (one that Doctor Who’s The Idiot’s Lantern appears to have filched), and the house is shown to replicate one in a cartoon that Anthony has been watching. The sounds of cartoon shows are constant background noise, while the exaggerated corridors within might well have fuelled the macabre architecture in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. And then there’s the giant horror-rabbit, Dante’s cartoon-made-real in ultimate form.
Dante casts a mixture of his favourites (Dick Miller as the manager of a diner, William Schallert as “dad”, Kevin McCarthy as the crazy “uncle”) with the usual in-joke approach (the latter two regulars both appeared in TOS episodes, as did “mom” Patricia Barry, while Bill Mumy cameos; he was the kid in the TOS version). Nancy “Bart Simpson” Cartwright plays Anthony’s “sister”. McCarthy probably has the most fun, allowed to goof about and generally not act his age in a Mo from The Three Stooges haircut. Central is Kathleen Quinlan, a fine and underrated actress, who brings a calculated curiosity to Helen.
There’s a lightly satirical swipe at the TV-fed idea of the American family versus its reality, but Dante’s contribution is minor by his standards. This would be a middling episode of Eerie, Indiana. It makes something of a companion piece to his later Explorers, however; both revolve around the impact of movies and TV on impressionable minds. If It’s A Good Life isn’t wholly successful, it is an important as a change of gears for Dante (as he noted, he and Miller “got a lot of street cred out of it”). With Spielberg as a producer, he would go onto the biggest success of his career and, for a brief decade, find projects relatively easy to get underway.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Redeemably for the whole project, the best is saved for last. Both Dante and Miller had two movies proper under their belts when they were ushered aboard TZ, but it’s Miller’s work that represents the biggest departure. From directing stunt-heavy action movies on location, he exponentially reduces his canvas to, for the most part, the width of a pair of seats in an aeroplane.
But Miller has a partner in crime for this white-knuckle ride; his lead actor John Lithgow. They work in tandem to extract every drop of sweaty claustrophobia from the scenario, which is as effective as an update as it was thirty years previously (when William Shatner played the hapless passenger).
That’s probably because the scenario is so simple and timelessly effective (well, you admittedly couldn’t set this in the pre-flight era, but you get the idea). Lithgow’s John Valentine is suffering from a panic attack on a storm-buffeted plane. When he returns to his seat he sees a creature out on the wing, a gremlin, tearing one of the engines to shreds. Which sends the already addled computer boffin further off the deep end. Miller keeps his camera tight on Lithgow’s pallid, stricken face. The only times we escape the cabin are for establishing shots of the aircraft and to follow Valentine’s eye-line along the wing.
Most likely there’s a subtext to be read, of the methodical rationalist beset by the uncanny. We see Valentine’s book, Micro Chip Logic; a testament to his ordered, scientific viewpoint. But even before things turn supernatural his experiences are heightened and disturbed. The threatening fat man sat in front of him, an annoying child with a ventriloquist’s doll (“You big silly. You used to be a normal person”), a newspaper warning “AIRLINE DISASTER WORST EVER!“ His fear of the world around him is spilling out and his attempts to calm down, be it through ordering his mind or medication, are all for nowt (“Can you imagine? A naked man crawling along the wing of an aeroplane at 35,000 feet?”) His manic responses are as terrifying and transfixing as the brief sights of the creature itself.
It’s during this segment that Goldsmith (who worked on TOS) wins back maximum respect. The discordant strings accompanying Valentine’s palpitations reinforce the tension as acutely as the composer’s contribution to Kick the Can dribbled on the treacle. The musical motifs would be embellished for, appropriately, Dante’s Gremlins a year later (this was Dante and Goldsmith’s first collaboration, and they would continue to work together until the composer’s death).
Miller’s career has been a peculiar one. You couldn’t guess his choices in advance, and at times they seem almost random. But there’s a vein of black comedy running through Nightmare that will resurface in both The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City (there’s an example; he doesn’t direct a movie for six years and comes back with a sequel to one he produced, which most people reject for being too distressing and dark). On the strength of his TZ work, you’d have expected a full-blown Hollywood career but, commendably, he has gone his own way.
Miller’s coda sees the return of Dan Aykroyd, this time driving the ambulance that carries away the straightjacketed Lithgow (all the evidence tells us this was not a figment of his mind, though; the mess made of the engine proves him right). And the repeat of “Wanna see something really scary” is the only real nod to modernising the show, making it seem contemporary by appealing to lowest common denominator shocks delivered by hip comedy stars.
Doubtless Warner Bros hoped this would be a big hit, spawning a succession of sequels. The best spin on it is that it didn’t flop, making three times its $10m budget in the States, but the gross was peanuts compared to the biggest successes of its big-name directors. A couple of years later, CBS revived the TV show, obviously convinced there was sufficient interest to make it a viable property. It had a rocky road, cancelled in its second year and then recommissioned to bring up the episode count for syndication. I can’t say I’ve investigated the 2002 version. The movie is rightly seen as an unsuccessful experiment, and now reeks of that early ’80s Midas Touch Spielberg was presumed to have; the hubristic notion that everything he touched turned to dollars. Enough has that he has kept on getting to “present” material on the big and small screens, but it’s probably no coincidence that his inimitability began to diminish about the same time he became a brand.
*Addendum 22/08/22: Julia Phillips had her own thoughts – just thoughts, mind – about Spielberg’s involvement with the movie and the tragedy. They can be found in You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again.
**Addendum 22/08/22: To cast a more jaundiced eye on this segment, it’s another adults as children, children as adults thing from Spielberg (he was attached to Big, he has a Peter Pan complex, and just ask Crispin Glover what he thinks).