The Twilight Zone: The Movie is an anthology film released in 1983 and based upon the anthology series The Twilight Zone that ran from 1959-1964. Because the film is an anthology it is necessary to tackle each portion individually, and then discuss The Twilight Zone: The Movie as the sum of its parts rather than piecemeal. With this tactic, a better understanding of the entire film as a whole can be gleaned.
The film begins with a cold open of two men driving along what certainly looks like Highway 126 between Ventura and the Santa Clarita Valley in Southern California. Two actors, Dan Akroyd and Albert Brooks, play unnamed characters in the car. It soon becomes apparent that Akroyd is getting a ride from Brooks, as the two of them seem to have already spoken after the cassette deck eats the tape they were listening to. The cold open ends with references to The Twilight Zone television show in a very meta move that films of this era do not typically undertake. The scene ends with a very Twilight Zone finale to transition into the next section of the film. The setup and acting in this cold-open is very interesting, if a little standard by modern interpretations, but for 1983 was most likely quite exciting for an audience seeing it for the first time. Getting the tape to be eaten on cue must have been a minor technical feat at the time, as tapes tended to be very fickle in how they wore out at the time.
The second portion of the film involves an older man making incredibly racist remarks at a bar in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles proper (though still a part of LA County, and technically still part of the Los Angeles sprawl). The man is transported to Nazi Germany, some sort of lynching conducted by white-hooded racists (of the KKK variety), and Vietnam respectively in an attempt to teach the audience a lesson about racism. It is sad to say that this vignette is extremely poignant in 2020, almost 40 years after it was shot and that many people could still learn a lesson or two about tolerance of people fundamentally different from themselves. Technically the transitions appear seamless between one location and another, though the sets themselves certainly appear to be a backlot compared to the real world locations used.
The third part of the film seems to be either a meditation on being only as old as you allow yourself to be, or a meditation on aging and death. It seems a bit unclear as to the direction that it was going, as it centers around an evening where residents of a “rest home” are de-aged into children. One of them makes the decision to stay young, and is missing after a dramatic exit once the magical Mr. Bloom has granted most of them the ability to age back up to their age. It seems to be a lesson toward one of the residents, depicted as being a bit of a killjoy, lightening up and allowing himself to have fun. While this vignette seems to be a bit unfocused, it does seem quite lighthearted and fails to deal with some of the more dour subject matter related to aging and the myriad of events both good and bad that go along with it.
The fourth part of the film centers around a young woman who meets a boy in a diner after getting lost, and despite some cheesy green screen (that even by the standards of 1983 were cheesy) manages to be a master class in how lighting, set design, and camera work can make anything menacing. The juxtaposition of cartoon and live action is brilliant, as is the definite nods to “kid logic” present. Although it is ambiguous as to the ending for the non-principle characters, this segment manages to capture whimsy in one of the most terrifying lights possible. The less said about the puppetry at the end, the better (it is bad…. very bad).
The final segment is a remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” that originally starred one William Shatner, but with John Lithgow cast in the starring role. Rather than compare it to its original counterpart, it is best to tackle this segment on its own. It lunges between excellent tension building and true horror elements and a puppet so utterly lame it undermines the entire segment. One almost wishes for a guy in a suit as opposed to the puppet they used, as the motions are very clearly mechanical in nature and undermines Lithgow’s performance in what could have truly been a fantastic and interesting segment to end the film. With a nice connection to the cold-open to the film, the final segment closes with Dan Akroyd’s nameless character asking Lithgow if he wants to see something “really scary.”
Ultimately, The Twilight Zone: The Movie comes out as a very uneven film. This can be attributed to the fact that it was directed by four different directors: John Landis (Opening, “Time Out” or Segment One); Steven Spielberg (“Kick the Can” or Segment Two); Joe Dante (“It’s a Good Life” or Segment Three); and George Miller (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” or Segment Four). The film was also written by a myriad of writers in what today might be coined a “backdoor pilot” for a relaunch of The Twilight Zone on television, something that actually occurred in 1985, 2002, and 2019 respectively. The filmmaking all has various degrees of pedigree, and nothing feels distinctly connected other than the narration by Burgess Meredith. Despite the quality of the directors working on this project, some of the film’s segments feel better than their counterparts, with Spielberg’s segment feeling decidedly out of place given the content of the other segments. The Twilight Zone: The Movie certainly feels like four episodes of an anthology television series stitched together into a movie rather than a coherent film. An example of how to make a better anthology film would be Four Rooms, released in 1995 and including filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez it stitches together four separate stories using some distinctive connective tissue to create a cohesive whole.
The Twilight Zone: The Movie is currently available for rent on Amazon Prime. With a low price of admission it is certainly worth the price of entry to see what the fuss (and controversy) was all about. It is worth noting that three people were killed during the making of this film (actor Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen), which embroiled the studios and filmmakers in years of litigation as well as the changing of safety standards within the entertainment industry. Was it in poor taste to leave in the segment starring Vic Morrow? Does the shadow of the deaths of three people still loom large over a production that may have already been problematic with different directors, producers, and crews all pulling in different directions? That is for the viewer to decide. As for this reviewer, he recommends that you have yourself a beer, a bottle of Geritol, a candy apple, a double of Four Roses Bourbon and a fistful of Xanax on a film that is worth seeing for such a low price. Is it worthy of the title Twilight Zone? Well, it does certainly seem more normal than 2020.
I really don’t have a lot to say about the film. I think releasing it after Morrow, Le and Chen’s deaths feels like a desperate cash grab. If you want more on my thoughts about this, you can visit my post here.
As noted above, the film is basically a collection of remakes of famous Twilight Zone episodes with an 80s twist (think blood and animatronics). With four separate segments by four directors, it kind of feels like Hollywood wanted to show just how great a segment horror film could be if big names were at the helm (Creepshow, released two years before and directed by George Romero, takes the title of the perfect anthology horror film from the decade). Instead, we’re left with a mess. None of the segments are really enjoyable, and they are completely discombobulated. I don’t know how much of this has to do with the Morrow/Le/Chen tragedy (based on the film’s release date, I would guess his segment was filmed towards the beginning), or if it’s just a mess. I would guess that tragedy’s segment being placed at the beginning definitely is because of the publicity surrounding it (FYI, the crash is available to watch on the confines of the internet, but I refuse to link to it).
None of the segments stand out as anything great. Again, they’re all pulled from past episodes (minus Landis’ which combines two episodes). This is one of those horrid Hollywood remakes that thinks it can surpass the original. Newsflash, it can’t. Spielberg was considered the king of directing during this time, and I sometimes wonder why. This isn’t to say he hasn’t made great movies, he certainly has, but stuff like this is just so WTF that one can’t help to wonder if it’s really his directing or just the quality of the script and crew around him (other films that come to mind to support this theory are The Adventures of Tintin, War of the Worlds, The BFG, Always, Ready Player One and 1941) . Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer Spielberg making historical fiction (and let’s be honest, all bio-pics are historical fiction).
Overall, I think the film falls flat. I personally wouldn’t pay to rent it (see my article linked above), but to each their own. I would pair it with vomit-flavored jelly beans, because the film is bound to make you feel nauseous.
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