Twilight Zone: The Movie Movie Review
We decide to stick it out and sure enough, Aykroyd turns to Brooks and says, "Do you want to see something really scary?" Brooks agrees and the rest is scary movie history. Cue audience screams. We were, indeed, in the right movie.
What the goofy prologue with Aykroyd and Brooks signaled was a shift, from the classic B&W realm of subdued creep-outs to the '80s envelope pushing freak -outs. Hollywood was gorging itself on sci-fi and fantasy special effects extravaganzas and the old Twilight Zone television show that children of the '50s had gotten so worked up over, seemed passé. The thinking was: We can make it bigger, badder, and 10 times scarier. For me, as a kid, it worked.
Twilight Zone: The Movie is an anthology film with segments directed by the top tier of Hollywood whiz-kids working the scene. John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, Animal House), Joe Dante (Piranha, The Howling), George Miller (The Road Warrior) and Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Jaws) came together to re-imagine Rod Serling's cult series as only they could. But they didn't just stop there; they threw in nods and gags from every horror and science fiction novel and film they'd digested as unruly youths. They threw comic books and animation into the mix. Twilight Zone: The Movie was to be their roller-coaster homage to adolescence.
The prologue and first segment of the film were directed by John Landis. The untitled first segment was the only one written exclusively for the film (the others are based on original Zone episodes) and it stars Vic Morrow as a racist who is sucked into a retribution time-warp that puts him in the shoes of every minority he has railed against. It's a harrowing segment and is made all the more difficult to watch because of Vic Morrow's tragic death during the making of the film.
The second segment, "Kick the Can," is the weakest. Spielberg lays on the schmaltz thick in his Cocoon like story of nursing home residents who fall under the optimistic and joy-filled sway of Scatman Crothers.
The third segment, "It's a Good Life," is Joe Dante's manic and gleefully twisted take on the age-old tale of the child with infinite powers. Here, Kathleen Quinlan is a school teacher trapped in the hellish world of young Anthony, a child who has literally invented his own life. Spellbound with Quinlan is Anthony's faux-family, a rag-tag group he's suckered in to his nightmare. Outrageous to a fault, this segment is best remembered by the many wild and frightening visual effects (a girl with no mouth, a spastic cartoon rabbit). Fittingly enough, Dante would go on to direct the similarly themed Gremlins.
The best segment, however, is the capper. George Miller's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is a delirious and sweaty explosion of terror. John Lithgow, at his clammy, wide-eyed best, is an airline passenger convinced he's seen a diminutive troll (with dreadlocks no less) ripping up an engine as the plane passes through a storm. Is he crazy or is there really something hideous attempting to crash the flight? The segment is carefully plotted and brilliantly executed. Flying at night was never the same after this.
While Twilight Zone: The Movie effectively brought Serling's visions of the weird and macabre into the new age of movie making, there was also something lost in the translation. With the addition of high-tech special effects and the infusion of a frenzied, consumer energy, Serling's satirical gifts were all but stripped away. As enjoyable as Twilight Zone: The Movie is to watch (primarily because of Dante and Miller's additions), the film is just too frenzied. It's like being bonked repeatedly with one of those giant ACME cartoon hammers. Spielberg, Landis, Dante and Miller, in their youthful exuberance, just went a bit overboard. It's a shame they weren't able to capture Serling's almost existential dread and deliver it to a new generation.
After seeing this in 1983, I turned to my dad and said, "That was a pretty good movie." Maybe it was the sugar buzz, but I was shaking. My dad, who had grown up watching the Twilight Zone on television, said, "It was okay."
Maybe what he really thought was, "We didn't walk into the wrong movie, just not the one I had hoped to see."