Wanna See Something Really Scary? Revisiting Twilight Zone – The Movie

The first Twilight Zone I ever saw was Twilight Zone – The Movie. Okay, don’t judge; I was born in 1970, before the age of even the domestic video recorder and the three TV channels that existed in Britain at that time were all about embracing their new colour service and avoided showing any black and white content wherever possible (movies excepted, for some reason). It would be the mid-80s before BBC2 decided to start a late night re-run of The Twilight Zone, possibly inspired by the big screen release of Twilight Zone – The Movie in 1983. The movie wasn’t a big box office hit, despite the involvement of some big-name directors and it was a famously very troubled production (more on that later), but it brought The Twilight Zone back into the public eye and inspired the first of many TV comebacks.

Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling spent many of his later years trying to revive his most popular creation. He had a bad experience with Rod Serling’s Night Gallery on television, so a lot of his energy was focussed on turning The Twilight Zone into a movie. Sadly, he passed away in 1975 before any of his plans could come to fruition. One of the creative team on the 1970 pilot film for Night Gallery was a young Universal staff director called Steven Spielberg, who happened to be a Twilight Zone fan. Over the next decade, Spielberg rose to be one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, with a string of blockbuster hits including Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Spielberg was at the height of his powers in 1983 after the phenomenal success of E.T. and his name could get any project green-lit.

The first I knew of Twilight Zone – The Movie was in issue 62 of Marvel UK’s Starburst Magazine. I don’t think I’d actually heard that much of The Twilight Zone at all then, except in passing. The film looked great though, but I was too young to go and see it at the cinema as it was a ‘15’ certificate in the UK, so I had to wait a short while until it was released for video rental (even post-video nasty, the video rental stores were pretty lapse and would hire anything of any certificate to just about anyone). I’d heard of Spielberg, of course; after Raiders and E.T., he was pretty much a god to all cinema-loving kids and I was aware of John Landis from having seen The Blues Brothers on VHS, but though I was aware of George Miller, I’d yet to see any of the Mad Max films and Joe Dante was still a year or two away from appearing on my radar with Gremlins.

Something fascinated me (and still does) about the idea of portmanteau films, those movies that feature several shorter stories joined together. In the following years, I would devour them: Dead of Night, The Illustrated Man, The Monster Club, Tales That Witness Madness… the list goes on, but Twilight Zone – the Movie was the first portmanteau film that I had ever watched – and I loved it! Many portmanteau films have a single director throughout, but Twilight Zone – The Movie used not only four directors, but four very different directors with four very different visions. Although Steven Spielberg produced and his segment is very much a Spielberg film, the overall production is varied in tone, which some people may not care for, but to me that makes it all the more interesting. You never know what is coming next!

The movie starts with a meta-textual opening in which two men driving though the desert in a car (played by Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd) alleviate the boredom by discussing old TV shows. Eventually they get around to The Twilight Zone, discussing various aspects of episodes that they found particularly scary. “Wanna see something really scary?” asks Aykroyd’s character, whereupon he turns into a blue-skinned creature and attacks Brooks… cue spine-tingling mix into the Marius Constant theme, narrated by Burgess Meredith in place of the late Rod Serling.  It’s more of a sketch than a story, but it’s a love letter to The Twilight Zone and it sets out the movie’s intent very early on – this is The Twilight Zone, but not as you know it. This pre-credit sequence was directed by John Landis, who also directed the first segment.

Referred to as ‘Time Out’, but never named as such on screen, John Landis’ opening story is the only one not to be based on a TV episode of The Twilight Zone. It concerns an openly racist loudmouth called William Connor (played by Vic Morrow), who finds himself flitting between different periods in history where he is the subject of extreme racial prejudice – he is taken for a Jew in Nazi-occupied France, an escaped slave in the American deep South of the 1900s and a member of the Vietcong during the Vietnamese War. As a story, it’s quite basic – he’s a racist and he gets to feel what it’s like to be the subject of racism – but Twilight Zone stories often were quite basic and it doesn’t end with a Scrooge-like moment of revelation; the last we see of William Connor is him being carted off to a Nazi concentration camp with a train-load of other unfortunates. It’s hard-hitting stuff and some of the language used, shocking enough in 1983, is even more shocking now, but it continues to make a valid point as there are unfortunately still too many William Connors in today’s world.

I can’t really talk about this segment of the movie without mentioning the unfortunate tragedy that occurred during filming. Whilst shooting the final frames for the Vietnam sequence (which was originally much longer), involving Vic Morrow and two child actors fleeing from an American military helicopter, a pyrotechnic canister misfired and sheared off the tail rotor of the ‘copter. The vehicle spun out of control and crashed on top of all three actors, killing them instantly. The subsequent court case against John Landis for Criminal Negligence (union rules around the use of child actors were not strictly adhered to) went on for over a decade. Warner Brothers considered dropping this segment of the movie altogether, but decided to include an edited version, which works quite well cinematically but still casts an unfortunate pall over the film.

The second segment is directed by Steven Spielberg and is based on the 1962 TV episode Kick the Can by George Clayton Johnson. Supposedly, the three TV episodes adapted for the feature film were chosen from a poll of the best Twilight Zone episodes in Starlog magazine and whereas this is easy to believe of It’s a Good Life (segment three) and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (segment four), I can’t help thinking there are lots of much better episodes than Kick the Can. Nevertheless, this rather twee story of retirement home residents recapturing their long lost youth via the playing of a childhood game is perfect for the just-this-side-of-schmaltz style that Spielberg was developing in the mid-80s and viewed with retrospect, it’s probably one of the most successful parts of Twilight Zone – The Movie.

Veteran jazz singer and star of everything from The Shining to Hong Kong Phooey, Scatman Crothers puts in a fantastic performance as Mr Bloom, the old man who still has a little magic left in him and he’s ably supported by a cast of fabulous old-school actors including Bill Quinn, Selma Diamond and Murray Matheson. This story was at the forefront of the mini-trend of ‘Sprightly Oldies’ movies that sprung up in the 80s and included such films as Cocoon (1985), Tough Guys (1986) and the Spielberg-produced *Batteries Not Included (1987). Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score for Twilight Zone – The Movie is superb throughout, but his lyrical suite for the Kick the Can segment is, in my humble opinion, one of the best pieces of music that he ever wrote for the big screen in a long and very illustrious career.

Joe Dante was probably the oddest choice as a director on Twilight Zone – The Movie. In another couple of years, he’d shoot to fame with Gremlins, but at the time he’d only made schlocky B-movie Piranha (1978) and satirical horror The Howling (1981). His take on Jerome Bixby’s It’s a Good Life is as much a homage to the world of cartoons as it is to The Twilight Zone, taking the original premise of ‘what would happen if a small boy was given God-like powers?’ and updating it to ‘what would happen if a boy with God-like powers thought the world would make more sense if it adhered to the logic of cartoons?’ The child in the original was a pre-Lost in Space Billy Mumy and he crops up in this version in a cameo role, alongside Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Kevin McCarthy and future Bart Simpson Nancy Cartwright.

Kathleen Quinlan puts in an excellent performance as transient schoolteacher Helen Foley (named after a character in the Twilight Zone TV episode Nightmare as a Child) who befriends young Anthony Fremont (Jeremy Licht), the boy with God-like powers. When Anthony’s nightmarish cartoon visions become manifest, they are courtesy of a series of large scale puppets by Rob Bottin, who worked with Dante on The Howling and had delivered a tour de force the previous year on John Carpenter’s The Thing. These days, they could be easily created using CGI, but the fact that they have an actual physical presence makes them all the more disturbing. Ultimately, Anthony is less of a ‘monster’ in this version and his story can be viewed as a treatise on childhood mental illness.

The final segment of Twilight Zone – The Movie is widely regarded as the best and is certainly the best remembered. Mad Max director George Miller tackles Richard Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet with characteristic flair; it’s not easy to do interesting things with the camera within the confines of a passenger aircraft, but Miller zooms back and forth with dizzying speed and establishes a pace that never lets up. John Lithgow had something of a reputation of playing characters on the brink of a nervous breakdown in the 80s and the character of John Valentine is no different. As the story builds to each occasion on which Valentine sees the monstrous ‘gremlin’ on the wing of the plane, the combination of Miller’s direction and Goldsmith’s music cranks up the tension to an incredible degree.

It’s not without reason that this segment is so highly regarded; all the elements come together into one nail-biting whole. I’ve heard it said the Spielberg originally wanted to end with his segment and although that would’ve been a fairly upbeat way to finish, it lacks the energy of Miller’s piece and would ultimately have been a poor decision. At the end of this segment, Valentine is carted away in an ambulance and John Landis takes over again for a brief coda. “Got a little scary up there, didn’t it?” asks the ambulance driver, turning round to reveal himself to be Dan Aykroyd from the pre-title sequence; “Wanna see something really scary?” It’s a nice way to tie the four stories together without being pretentious and overblown and it’s creepy without being a tacky, hand-out-of-the-grave jump scare. The Twilight Zone was always more about those scares that mess with your head rather than punch you in the gut.

It’s odd that I hold Twilight Zone – The Movie in such high regard because none of the TV revivals of The Twilight Zone have really grabbed me in the same way as the original series. I think it must be something to do with the mixture of a beloved TV series and that kind of 80s movie like The Goonies or The Lost Boys that hold a particular nostalgic affection for me from a certain time in my life. Put those elements together and you have the kind of movie I see when I watch Twilight Zone – The Movie. I strongly feel that if it hadn’t been for the tragedy that marred the production, this could an 80s movie that is remembered with the same affection as a lot of other 80s movies, but alas it’s impossible to find any feature on Twilight Zone – The Movie that doesn’t mention the accident and I feel slightly guilty about even mentioning it here myself, as this article is meant to be a celebration of one of my favourite movies.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m also a big fan of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for this film. Goldsmith wrote a lot of excellent scores in the 80s for films that aren’t always held in such high regard – Outland, Legend etc – and Twilight Zone – The Movie falls into that category, but it’s an extraordinary piece of work, by turns jubilant and terrifying. I think his touching theme for the old folks in Kick the Can is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard and when the suite for that segment on the soundtrack album mixes into the late Scatman Crothers singing to himself, it never fails to bring a lump to my throat. Goldsmith even cheekily re-used a 6-note motif for the ‘gremlin’ in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet as part of the main theme for the movie Gremlins.

Twilight Zone – The Movie is a terrific, undervalued film that fashionably smartarsed film nerds like to decry because they think it makes them sound clever and sophisticated (spoiler: it doesn’t). I love it because it spoke to me at a certain period in my childhood and pointed me in the direction of Rod Serling’s classic TV series, one of the great influences of my life. If the only Twilight Zone you’ve ever seen is the modern iteration… go and watch the classic series. BUT AFTER THAT go and watch Twilight Zone – The Movie because it’s sharp, imaginative and well-written. No-one is a greater supporter of the 60s series than I, but it’s quite clear to me that they could never have made a movie in that style in 1983 (now is a different matter), so what we have is the vision of four of the most innovative directors of the day. It’s not perfect, far from it, but few films of the 80s were and that’s never stopped me from loving any of them.


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