A Dimension of Sight, Sound & Mind – Revisiting Twilight Zone: The Movie

Liam crosses over into another dimension with the infamously-troubled feature adaptation of Rod Serling’s classic TV series. Do the real-life horrors still hold it back?

1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie is a film made as a love letter to the classic Rod Serling anthology show of the 1960s, and made by some of the hottest young filmmaking talent of the time. They were led by Mr. Box Office himself, Steven Spielberg, and included John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Joe Dante (The Howling) and George Miller (Mad Max 2). You could say this project had blockbuster written all over it! However, the production would prove to be just as nightmarish as the source material itself, leading to a great deal of controversy which hindered the film’s reception, making Twilight Zone: The Movie one of the most divisive films of the 1980s.

Spielberg had links to the Zone already, having been given his big break with Serling’s Twilight successor series, Night Gallery, directing the episodes “Eyes” (1969) and “Make Me Laugh” (1971). He also did the Zone-esque TV movie Duel (1971)which was written by regular Twilight scribe Richard Matheson. So, when Spielberg was approached with the project by Warner Bros., he was typically enthusiastic and saw it as a great opportunity to make a collaborative piece with his friend Landis, agreeing to produce alongside him with both directing one of the four planned segments. Matheson returned to write three of the four stories whilst Landis would write and direct the intro and the first tale, “Time Out,” the only one not directly based on a classic episode of the show.

The film opens with a prologue. In a seemingly playful mood-setter, we join two men played by Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks driving along a dark, empty desert road. They are singing along to music before the tape they are listening to is chewed up. They then go on to play “name that tune” with classic TV shows, leading them to discuss their memories of The Twilight Zone as well as rival show The Outer Limits. This kind of pop-culture discussion is common today in any Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith film, but such meta winking was unknown in 1983, reserved mainly for variety television. This adds to the sense of nostalgia present throughout the movie, and the film-within-a-film ideal that Landis’ prologue creates. The scene ends with a famous jump scare when Aykroyd transforms into a terrifying ghoul, setting up the viewer for what is meant to be a typically unusual ride into realms beyond.

We are then greeted with the tones of Burgess Meredith (Rocky), a veteran of several classic episodes, and his wise old voice is used to replace that of Serling himself who would introduce and narrate the original. Using Meredith as a narrator was an inspired choice, adding to the reverent feel as he recites the classic opening monologue over the familiar and creepy theme tune (this time composed by Jerry Goldsmith):

”You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… The Twilight Zone.”

Meredith then leads us into the first story, “Time Out.” We are introduced to Bill Connor (Vic Morrow) who joins two friends in a bar to drown his sorrows after missing out on a big promotion to a Jewish colleague. Angry and upset, he vents his frustrations out-loud, offending patrons with his racial slurs and bigoted views on the Jewish, oriental and black communities. This leads to a confrontation and Bill promptly storms out of the bar. Once outside, he doesn’t recognise his location, and it soon becomes evident that he has somehow been transported back to Nazi-occupied France where he is pursued by the Gestapo… as a Jew. Once captured,  he is then beamed to 1950s America where he is hunted down by the Ku-Klux-Klan and then by US forces in Vietnam, before finally being bundled into a train cart and sent off to a Nazi death camp. Bill then sees his friends leave the bar as he is stowed away pleading for help, fittingly remorseful after receiving a taste of his own medicine.

Landis demonstrating varying levels of racial hatred with no sign of redemption didn’t sit too well with studio executives, however, leading to a real-life tragedy. To appease the suits, the script was re-written. Morrow’s character would be shown rescuing two Vietnamese children from a burning building whilst under heavy fire from US troops. With pyrotechnics being set-off left and right, and a helicopter hovering above, Morrow collected the two children under each arm and made his run. Then, suddenly, the helicopter lost control and came down on top of Morrow and the two kids, seven-year-old Myca Dinh Le and six-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen. All three were killed instantly. Landis was held responsible for violating strict labour laws, and charges of involuntary manslaughter and negligence where made against him and several crew members after viewing footage of Landis ordering the helicopter to come down perilously low. The trial would go on for ten months and Landis and the offending personnel were eventually acquitted after five years. This tragedy would have a major affect on the rest of the production, greatly influencing Spielberg’s contribution.

“Kick the Can” was the second instalment and is seen as being the weakest of the four. This was surprising given Spielberg’s “star man” tag. To think that the director of Jaws, Close Encounters of the third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark would provide such an underwhelming addition to the compendium is unthinkable. It is the story of Mr. Bloom played by Scatman Crothers (The Shining), who has been moved into a new retirement home. After listening to the old folks’ stories of their youth, he suggests they play a game of Kick the Can. One resident, however, named Leo Conroy (Bill Quinn) strongly opposes the idea, citing that they are too aged to play games. That night, Mr. Bloom gathers up the residents minus Mr. Conroy and, as they all begin to enjoy Bloom’s suggestion, they magically become children once again. Mr. Bloom then offers them the chance to remain as children or return to being old. Then, in a typically sentimental “Spielberg moment,” the kids decide that growing up all over again isn’t all that and choose to go back to being decrepit. Well, all but one resident named Mr. Agee (Murray Matheson). The young Agee then has a brief dialogue with the old miser Mr. Conroy, reminiscent of the final scene in E.T., before finally disappearing into the night.

This segment is often likened to the Ron Howard film Cocoon (1985), which did a better job overall of creating the fountain of youth atmosphere. However, “Kick the Can” pre-dates Cocoon by two years. Anyone familiar with Spielberg will be able to immediately identify this as his work, with an abundance of awe-struck faces and heartfelt goodbyes. In fact, it seems that Spielberg – who completed this entry in less than a week – may have used “Kick the Can” as a dress rehearsal for possible future projects. In his own anthology show, Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (1985), one episode that Spielberg himself directed titled “Ghost Train” has similar themes of age versus youth. There is also a definite Peter Pan vibe with the younger version of Mr. Agee. Pan was a project so heavily linked with Spielberg in the mid-80s and, of course, he later went on to direct Hook (1991). The director’s decision to go with such a lukewarm entry was made by the unfortunate helicopter incident. Spielberg was originally set to film either “The Masks,” an episode in which people’s faces are altered to resemble ugly Mardis Gras creations, or “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a paranoid story of aliens living amongst humans in suburbia. If Spielberg had gone with either of these two options, the final film would almost certainly have been stronger, but Spielberg’s heart was no longer in the project at this point, only staying on board due to pressure from Warner Bros. executives.

For the third segment, “It’s a Good Life,” Spielberg brought in Dante, the director of his favourite Jaws rip-off Piranha (1978). Dante produced a fantastic, visually-striking and imaginative piece that the movie was in dire need of. We join a young teacher named Helen played by Kathleen Quinlan, who has stopped off at a road side eatery for directions when she makes the acquaintance of a young boy, Anthony (Jeremy Licht), who is being a nuisance to local diners. Later, she accidentally backs her car into the boy and feels compelled to drive Anthony home. On arrival, she is greeted intensely by several over-the-top and desperate family members. After a tour of the house and witnessing bizarre behaviour, Helen realises that the inhabitants are all people that Anthony has brought home over the years, making them take up the roles of family members whilst being kept prisoner. All are frightened by the boy who has incredible god-like powers that he doesn’t fully understand, and so they act tentatively around him, gushing with praise and false joy or else they will suffer horrific punishment. This is indicated in a chilling scene where we see that Anthony has removed the mouth of his elder sister, Sara, played in a cameo by Runaways singer Cherie Currie. They are adults at the mercy of a spoiled brat who watches too much television.

Dante’s signature dark comedy is evident throughout in a number of joyfully scary moments, including Anthony wishing his other sister, Ethel, played by Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart Simpson), into a cartoon land and turning the old magic trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat into a very frightening experience indeed. The story comes to an end when Helen takes on the role of guardian and teacher for Anthony, bringing all of the craziness to end. “Its a Good Life” showcases Dante’s love of Loony Tunes cartoons, a recurring theme in his future films and, as always, there are roles for Dante regulars Dick Miller (Gremlins) and Kevin McCarthy (Innerspace). This third instalment makes for fun viewing and is a pure example of Dante’s style, fitting perfectly into The Twilight Zone universe.

For the final episode, Australian director Miller was chosen to helm a retelling of one of the most popular stories, 1963’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which boasted a pre-Star Trek William Shatner and was directed by a young Richard Donner (1978’s Superman). In this version, which is easily the most popular story in the quartet, we join an already-petrified John Valentine played by the excellent John Lithgow on a late-night flight during bad weather. The cabin crew repeatedly try to calm him down as fellow passengers become disturbed by his antics, and he even raises the attention of an armed air marshal. After taking a sedative, he begins to calm down. Then, whilst looking out of the window, he notices something odd and soon comes to the shocking realisation that there is a “gremlin” on the wing of the plane. This was before Dante introduced those title cretins into mainstream pop-culture, and here the gremlin is used as it was originally described by 1920s RAF pilots; mischievous creatures that sabotage aircraft. Valentine begins to question his own sanity as no other passengers see what he is describing. Finally, after another sighting, he loses all control and attempts to break the window but he is grappled to the ground by the marshal and the captain begins an emergency landing. Valentine then takes the marshal’s gun and fires at the gremlin, breaking the glass and sucking him partially out. The gremlin then approaches Valentine face-on in recognition before flying off into the stormy night sky.

Lithgow provides one of his most memorable performances here, expertly conveying varying levels of paranoia and sheer panic. The creature effects and puppetry in this pre-CGI era are second to none, and Miller’s direction keeps the pressure-cooker atmosphere at bursting point. The story ends with Valentine being whisked away into an ambulance and we notice that one of the aircraft’s engines has been severely damaged. Later, in the ambulance, Valentine expresses his relief to the driver that the ordeal is over and we notice that Dan Aykroyd’s character from the opening prologue has returned, offering one final twist.

Twilight Zone: The Movie made enough at the box office to warrant a new television series which ran from 1985-1989, and was far darker in tone with guest directors including Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist). Ironically, the new CBS series’ main rival would be Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories which offered a lighter alternative and was far closer to the tone that Twilight Zone: The Movie had set. Joe Dante and John Landis would also get involved in Zone-esque television with Eerie Indiana (1991) and Masters of Horror (2005).

Overall, Twilight Zone: The Movie was saved by the final two instalments. Dante and Miller’s entries always warrant repeat viewing in a film where you find yourself skipping past Spielberg’s whimsical, rose-tinted “Kick the Can” and the very hard to watch “Time Out.” The lack of a recurring character to link each story definitely gives the film a fragmented feeling. Also, John Landis’ offering being overshadowed by tragedy and the abundance of racial insults makes it difficult for television stations to broadcast the film in the 21st Century. Therefore, Twilight Zone: The Movie remains a problematic if fascinating 80s gem.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • According to John Larroquette, he requested to watch the filming of what would become the tragic helicopter scene, but his car was stolen the night before and he was unable to get to the set.
  • In the opening title sequence, Rod Serling can be seen in the reflection of the eye.
  • Known for his meticulous preparation, John Lithgow had worked out certain scenes in his airplane seat in conjunction with the manufactured lightning outside the window. However, during filming, the crew member in charge of the lightning flashes would activate it too soon or too late, throwing off Lithgow’s timing. Although initially annoyed, he later came to value the experience after viewing the film, seeing that it added to his anxious, fearful character as he looked genuinely startled by the lightning.
  • The giant, glaring eye that Helen (Kathleen Quinlan) sees when she opens a door was used as part of the opening sequence for the series The Outer Limits (1995).

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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