The Ghosts in the Room
Few movies in my lifetime have incurred as much ill will during their production as 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” the filming of which led to the gruesome deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children (Myca Dinh Le, Shin-Huei Chen) in 1982, after a helicopter accident was triggered by a premature explosion on set in Valencia, California. The children were working well past legal hours for minors in the state of California, and the gross on-set negligence made director John Landis (“American Werewolf in London”) a virtual pariah in Hollywood until his eventual acquittal three years later in a controversial court ruling.
For this column, I’m not going to further rehash old headlines or liabilities regarding this tragedy; I want to go into the movie itself—regardless of reputation or backstory. With that, let’s get…
Back in the “Zone”
Rumors circulated about a revival of the legendary Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” sometime before the eventual movie and subsequent TV revivals (at last count there have been three such revivals; in 1985, 2002 and 2019), but it wasn’t until 1982 that those rumors of a movie became concrete. The film would be in the style of horror anthology films like 1972’s “Tales from the Crypt” and 1982’s “Creepshow,” with four segments and a framing story.
Each of the four segments would be helmed by different directors, and in this case, a list of Hollywood’s then-current best—including the aforementioned John Landis, Steven Spielberg (“JAWS”), Joe Dante (“Gremlins”) and George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”). Producers included Landis, Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy (current Disney producer for Lucasfilm), Michael Finnell and Jon Davison (“Robocop”). Richard Matheson (“The Legend of Hell House,” “I Am Legend”) would cowrite the screenplay, three segments of which were based on episodes of the TV series. A great pool of talent, but also a lot of cooks in the kitchen…
For this review, I pulled out my trusty digital projector and the large collapsible screen (7 ft/2 meters) in a darkened room and re-experienced the movie in an immersive way that I hadn’t since I was in high school, 40 years ago…
“Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983)
The movie opens with a driver (Albert Brooks) and passenger (Dan Akroyd) on a late night road trip, jamming with Clearance Clearwater Revival’s “Midnight Special,” when the car’s cassette deck chews the tape, forcing them to engage in conversation. After the driver tries to briefly scare the passenger by driving with the headlights off, they get into a trivia game of guessing TV theme songs. When the subject steers to “The Twilight Zone,” a passionate discussion of the series begins. The passenger then asks the driver, “Hey, do you want to see something really scary?” They pull over, and the passenger transforms into a prune-faced, ravenous monster, and (for no reason) implicitly kills the driver.
We then cut to the series’ opening narrative and theme song, with the late Burgess Meredith (a multiple Twilight Zone veteran) reading Serling’s words…
Note: This opening vignette is a poor example of what Twilight Zone was about. In the series, the shows always had a moral and a purpose. Action and reaction. Characters didn’t just change into monsters to kill people. If a character was killed, it was usually some form of comeuppance. Killing innocent characters at random was more “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”’s bag…
Segment 1: “Time Out”
Written and directed by John Landis, the segment begins with miserable Bill Connor (Vic Morrow) is commiserating with two friends (Doug McGrath, Charles Hallahan) at the Tender Trap bar, having been passed over for a promotion by a Jewish coworker. Connor then goes on a vitriolic tirade against Jews, Blacks and Asians, blaming them all for his grievances and personal shortcomings. After offending multiple bar patrons, including several Blacks at the next table, Connor exits in an angry huff…only to find himself standing outside in a nondescript street in 1940s Nazi, Germany. After being harassed by Nazi soldiers for being a suspected Jew, a panicked Connor is then shot in the arm for sport, and forced to flee.
Connor then finds himself as a Black man in the southern United States, about to be lynched during a cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan. Barely managing to escape into a bayou, Connor then finds himself in the Vietnam war, where stoned American soldiers see him as a native, and toss a grenade his way. The explosion blows him out of the water and back into Nazi, Germany, where he’s loaded into a boxcar on his way to a concentration camp. Peering through narrow openings in the boxcar, Connor somehow sees his two friends outside the bar searching for him. Connor frantically screams for his friends’ attention, but soon realizes they are separated by forty years of time and will never see him…
Note: This segment, flawed as it is, sadly resonates much stronger today than it did in 1983, as racism and fascism are both on the rise in the United States and in the rest of the world. The ending of the segment was originally going to see Connor redeeming himself by saving the lives of two Vietnamese children (that was the scene being shot the night of the tragedy), but the actors’ death forced a radical rewrite and reshoot (presumably with a double for the back of Morrow’s head in the boxcar). Unfortunately, the reedited version of “Time Out” only tells us that racism is bad, and that those who practice it deserve death. That’s it. Full stop. No chance at redemption or learning the error of their ways. The now-pointless ending only sees Connor going off to meet his fate in Nazi Germany. The original series frequently dealt with Nazis (“Death’s Head Revisited,” “He’s Alive,” etc) twenty years before this segment—and more effectively, as well.
Also of note; one of the US soldiers in the Vietnam scene says, “I told you we shouldn’t have killed Lt. Neidermeyer!” This is a direct reference to director John Landis’ 1978 fraternity comedy “Animal House,” where we learn in that movie’s coda that uptight ROTC squad leader Doug Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf) would later serve in Vietnam, only to be killed by his own troops.
Segment 2: “Kick the Can”
“Kick the Can” is based on the original series episode written by George Clayton Johnson (“Logan’s Run”), adapted by Richard Matheson and “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Mathison (credited as Josh Rogan).
The segment begins at the Sunnyvale Retirement Home, as newly arrived “Mr. Bloom” (Scatman Crothers) tries to encourage the retirees to rediscover the passions of their youth, which he insists can be as easy as playing a childhood game of “kick the can.” Bloom is met by the scorn of bitter retiree Leo Conroy (Bill Quinn), whose son’s family refused to take him home for a visit. The other retirees, including Mr. Weinstein (Martin Garner), Mrs. Weinstein (Selma Diamond), Mr. Agree (Murray Matheson), Mr. Mute (Peter Brocco) and widower Mrs. Dempsey (Helen Shaw) are intrigued by Mr. Bloom’s offer…
Later that night, Bloom gets the oldsters to meet him outside for late night play, where they are each magically transformed into children once again. A 12-year old Mr. Agee is in full Peter Pan-mode, champing at the bit to relive his life all over again, while the child-Weinsteins express concern that their own kids won’t recognize them. Six-year old Mrs. Dempsey cries when her wedding ring slips off her now tiny fingers. While the others asks Mr. Bloom to turn them back into their old selves, Mr. Agree makes a break for freedom. Leo hears the children and wakes up in time to see Mr. Agee on a treetop outside the window. Realizing he was wrong, Leo tearfully begs Mr. Agree to “take me with you,” but the young Agee tells him it’s no longer possible; Leo has to find youth in his own way. With his mission complete, Mr. Bloom leaves this group of retirees and books himself into a new retirement home…ready to make the same offer to its residents, as well.
Note: “Kick the Can” is shot in rich golden hues by cinematographer Alan Daviau suggesting the literal twilight of one’s years. Director Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison really lay on the schmaltz for this segment, which acts as a big-screen precursor for director Ron Howard’s own “Cocoon” two years later. Both the veteran actors and child stars are very memorable (the young actors’ playing the kid versions of the Weinsteins are hilarious). The inimitable Scatman Crothers infuses his “Mr. Bloom” with the same kindness and warmth he brought to Stanley Kubrick’s far creepier “The Shining” (1980). We also see hints of director Spielberg’s later “Peter Pan” sequel “Hook” (1991) with the younger version of Mr. Agee. This version of “Kick the Can,” unlike its more spartan TV version, is awash in sentimentality, which is either a feature or a bug, depending on one’s tastes and mood. Not the strongest segment of the bunch, but well-directed and nicely performed.
Segment 3: “It’s a Good Life”
The third segment is a remake of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” with Joe Dante directing, from a revised screenplay by Richard Matheson.
“It’s a Good Life” begins in a rural town bar, where new teacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) has stopped to ask directions. In a corner of the bar, a boy named Anthony (Jeremy Licht) is playing an arcade game which is disrupting the bar’s TV reception during a boxing match, much to the ire of two townies (one of whom is played by Bill Mumy, who played Anthony in the original). One of the townies angrily shoves the young boy to the ground. An enraged Helen leaves the bar in disgust. As she leaves, she backs into the boy’s bicycle (by ‘accident’…ahem), and takes the boy home out of guilt. Arriving at Anthony’s large, remote house, she’s greeted by his very nervous ‘family,’ who beam anxious, almost terrified smiles at Anthony’s new guest. She meets Anthony’s ‘uncle’ Walt (Kevin McCarthy), his ‘mother’ (Patricia Barry), his ‘father’ (William Schallert), and ‘sister’ Ethel (Nancy Cartwright); all of whom seem to be masking something horrifically wrong with their household…
Soon after meeting Anthony’s now-mouthless sister Sara (Cherie Currie), Helen slowly begins to realize that Anthony has godlike powers of creation, which he’s used to kidnap this random group of strangers whom he’s made his new ‘family’ (a radical rethink of the original story). As ‘family’ to the omnipotent child, they’re forced to watch cartoons, eat candy for dinner and bear witness as Anthony wills nightmarish, cartoonish creatures into solid reality. When Ethel is caught trying to smuggle a note to Helen, Anthony banishes her into a sadistic cartoon where she’s forced to run for her life. The only person in the house who has any influence over Anthony’s behavior is Helen, who vows to stay with Anthony and teach him how to use his powers to make the world a better place. After freeing the others, Anthony and Helen drive off together in her Volkswagen, with boldly-colored flowers spontaneously blooming along the sides of the road behind them…
Note: Changing Anthony’s family into a group of kidnapped strangers makes him seem even more monstrous, though Jeremy Licht lacks the uniquely sinister innocence of young Billy Mumy from the original. Another drawback is with the ending; it seems highly inappropriate for a twenty-something woman to vow ‘never to leave’ an omnipotent child—a child she plans on using for her own purposes. If it were a man of nearly thirty vowing “never to leave” a powerful 12-year old girl, their relationship would be automatically suspect. But because Helen isn’t a man, it’s somehow assumed their relationship won’t be unhealthy somehow (?). What happens when Anthony hits puberty and finds the attractive, mother-figure Helen as his sole companion? Will she be able to refuse an all-powerful teenager’s sexual advances? While I applaud the segment’s dark humor (Kevin McCarthy is hilarious as “Uncle Walt”) and imaginative animatronics, this rewrite of Jerome Bixby’s original’s premise is more pruriently disturbing than terrifying.
Segment 4: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
The final segment is a remake of the original “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and was directed by George Miller from an original story and new screenplay by Richard Matheson.
A plane flying through a severe lightning storm sends nervous flyer Nick Valentine (John Lithgow) into the plane’s restroom, where two worried flight attendants (Abbe Lane, Donna Dixon) try to coax him back to his seat. Valentine eventually summons the strength to exit the bathroom, where he’s gently reassured by the senior flight attendant. Once back in his seat, he decides to open the window to face his fears…only to see a slimy, grinning gremlin sabotaging the first of the plane’s four engines. Valentine screams for help, but is tackled by an air marshal (Charles Knapp) and forced to stay in his seat. Repeatedly mocked by a little girl with a Polaroid camera (Christina Nigra), John’s nerves are temporarily settled by the patient senior flight attendant. Reneging on his promise to sleep soundly, Valentine steals the little girl’s camera and tries to photograph the creature, but captures only the flashbulb’s reflection on his window.
After being coached on the danger he’s presenting to the plane by its first officer (John Dennis Johnston), Valentine asks him to verify a power loss in one engine. The first officer reluctantly confirms Valentine’s suspicion, which prompts Valentine to take bolder action later on, when he sees the grinning menace once again. As the plane descends to lower altitude for landing, the wispy creature merrily sabotages the plane’s second engine. A suddenly heroic Valentine then steals the sky marshal’s pistol from his ankle holster and shoots out the window—an act which causes immediate cabin depressurization. With the plane’s passengers in a panic, Valentine aims the pistol at the creature and fires repeatedly. The gremlin then grabs Valentine’s face—leaving it sufficiently slimy—before wagging a finger and flying off into the storm clouds. The damaged aircraft manages to land safely for Valentine’s intervention.
The coda sees a straightjacketed Valentine being taken to a sanitarium by ambulance, and the ambulance driver is none other than the prologue’s shapeshifter Dan Akryod, who pops in a tape of Credence’s “Midnight Special” just before he offers to show the helpless, strapped-in Mr. Valentine “something really scary”…
Note: The bookending coda, with Dan Akroyd returning as the ravenous shapeshifter from the prologue is the only false note in this otherwise terrific segment. John Lithgow is much more effectively cast as an aviophobic air traveler than William Shatner was in the original. So strong is Lithgow’s performance that the actor’s astronaut character of ‘Walter Curnow’ from “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984) would be given a similar fear of heights (a trait not found in Arthur C. Clarke’s source book). This segment also has the benefit of being rewritten by Richard Matheson—from his same-named short story and original TV script. Instead of the masked stuntman in a carpeted bodysuit from the original TV episode, the revised creature is much closer to Matheson’s original gremlin concept from his short story. This is easily the best segment of the movie, and the best filmed version of Matheson’s original story. The recent Jordon Peele-produced Twilight Zone revival also attempted to remake Matheson’s story yet again (“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”), but it was a mean-spirited, unfocused mess of unrelated ideas that bore little resemblance to either Matheson’s short story or its prior TV & movie incarnations.
Summing It Up
One of the biggest nits that I had with the movie then and now is that it largely misses the point on what made “Twilight Zone” such an effective and memorable show. The original series wasn’t just about being ‘scary’; it was about the morals and life-lessons gleaned from those scares. Many Twilight Zone episodes weren’t scary at all, in fact. Some were comedies (“Once Upon a Time,” “The Chaser,” “From Agnes, With Love”), others were science-fiction (“The Lonely,” “The 100-Year Caper,” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”), but they more often had a moral and a point.
Granted, the expectations for a summer release movie (June 24th, 1983) were very different than those for the original TV show. Summer event movies often require action and thrills over depth and substance. Part of that formula is evident in the movie’s pointless prologue, where Dan Akroyd and Albert Brooks play two road trip buddies who try to out-scare each other. Twilight Zone wasn’t simply about being scary any more than TV’s Star Trek was only about spaceships. However, the movie seems more content with existing as a Twilight Zone-themed carnival ride, with the moral of each segment tossed out almost as an afterthought, not a focal point.
Seen from outside the shadow of its formidably impressive parent series, “Twilight Zone: The Movie” is more a standalone horror anthology flick in the vein of “The House that Dripped Blood” (1971) or “Tales from the Hood” (1995). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. The movie also embodies the unique aesthetics of 1980s horror, with gobs of practical animatronic creature effects, and bold, almost neon color pop. The late composing legend Jerry Goldsmith’s well-balanced score gives each segment a unique musical voice.
There are also some wonderful, full-tilt boogie performances by John Lithgow, Kevin McCarthy (another original series veteran), and Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson herself). Look for cameos by actors John Larroquette (“Star Trek III: The Search For Spock”) and Steven Williams (“The X-Files”), too. Another added bonus is the vocal talent, as Twilight Zone veteran Burgess Meredith and late series creator Rod Serling share narrative duties at the beginning and end of the film, respectively. Always good to hear Rod Serling’s unique voice on film again, even posthumously.
While lacking the depth or gravity of the best TV series episodes, “Twilight Zone: The Movie” is best appreciated as a colorful 1980s horror experience which largely mimics those tropes of the show. In that way, it’s similar to 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), which was pretty much a gussied-up remake of 1967’s classic Star Trek episode “The Changeling” (to “boldly go where Nomad has gone before,” as writer Harlan Ellison once called it). Nevertheless, both movies are successful in their own ways.
“Twilight Zone: The Movie” is the first of many remakes and revivals that would fall short of the original, but it deserves praise for an otherwise entertaining attempt. At the end of its 101-minute running time, fans of “The Twilight Zone” (and ‘80s horror) are left with a sprawling, colorful homage that somehow manages to miss the point of what it’s homaging. However, the film’s ambition, talent and excellent production value still manage to pull a sufficiently freakish rabbit out of its hat…
Where To Watch (and Read)
“Twilight Zone: The Movie” is available as a digital download or for rent on AmazonPrime ($2.89 to rent/$9.99 to buy), and on YouTube Premium (free with subscription). The movie is also available for purchase on DVD and BluRay from Amazon or eBay (prices vary by seller). To those seeking a deeper dive into the history and production of the original Twilight Zone? Seek out author Marc Scott Zicree’s definitive book, “The Twilight Zone Companion,” first published in 1982 and with revised multiple editions, the latest in 2018. Zicree had exclusive access to many of Rod Serling’s original production materials through Serling’s widow, Carol Serling.