“You wanna see something REALLY scary?”
Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983 (Dan Aykroyd), Warner Bros.
I popped in the old Warner Brothers clamshell VHS tape of this, because I wanted to watch the movie as I remembered it when I saw it on cable television in 1984. Of course I had to play it on my old tube TV (the only way to watch a videotape, or a Laserdisc, or a DVD), and the first thing I notice (after the FBI warning) is the Warner Brothers logo, those post-modern oval or stadium shapes forming the W and the B coming toward the screen, devouring the frame while the first chords of Creedence Clearwater Revival play.
We fade up slowly on a deserted road and then the lights of a car passing by. Inside is hitchhiker Dan Aykroyd and driver Albert Brooks. To pass the time, they play games of trivia, TV theme songs, and then finally settle on a discussion about Twilight Zone, where they reference key episodes. After multiple viewings, it only occurs to me now that the movie is commenting upon the television series in a real-world capacity, in meta fashion, but in the style of Twilight Zone.
We start with “Time Out”, written and directed by John Landis, and starring the late Vic Morrow. Landis also wrote and directed the prologue, and co-produced the film as a whole with Steven Spielberg. It’s hard not to review this episode without thinking of Morrow’s tragic death during shooting, but I will try. Though heavy-handed with a lecturing tone, Morrow’s performance is among the strongest I’ve ever seen. He plays an “angry man,” to use narrator Burgess Meredith’s words, with “a chip on his shoulder the size of the national debt.”
After angrily calling out Jews and blacks as the source of his uniquely American problems, he is transported back and forth through time being given a taste of his own medicine. Landis places him in the shoes of a Jew during wartime France, and then as a black man in the South, and then as an enemy combatant in Vietnam. Morrow died when the rotor blades on a helicopter during an intensely energetic barrage of explosions de-laminated and the vehicle spun into ankle-deep water, killing him and two children he was carrying.
It’s fair to say the film’s production was severely altered due to the tragedy, as the narrative of Landis’ screenplay (which had originally included a scene of vindication for Morrow’s character) was changed drastically so that the only scenes remaining (the only complete scenes Morrow shot) are simply examples of catharsis with little to no structure. Vic Morrow gives an incredible performance, and it’s sad to think of the resurgence his career would’ve enjoyed. Landis and his producers were acquitted on charges of manslaughter in 1986, and while most people like to think his career suffered after this incident, he made several highly-successful movies after this, including Spies Like Us and Coming To America.
Steven Spielberg’s somewhat sentimental remake of “Kick the Can” improves upon the source material by capturing the spirit of youth, as viewed through the eyes of the elderly. The great character actor Bill Quinn plays a bitter old man who watches his fellow denizens at Sunnyvale Retirement Home turn into children under the guidance of new resident Mr. Bloom (jovial Scatman Crothers). Rather than end the proceedings in pathos and irony as the third season episode did, Spielberg (and screenwriters Richard Matheson & Melissa Mathison) decide to bring them back to senior citizenry with “fresh young minds.” The next day, all but one of the elderly folk have transformed back, and Quinn learns a nice lesson about staying young at heart, while Mr. Bloom is off on his next merry adventure. Jerry Goldsmith’s score for this episode (and the movie) is spectacular.
When I was a kid, I loved this next episode: an updating of the classic “It’s a Good Life”. Mostly because I dug the idea of a kid around my age with insane psychic god-like powers wreaking havoc upon his rented family and a hapless schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan), who had the “misfortune” of nearly running him over. She takes him back to his house, where his frightened family anxiously awaits his return. He has televisions in every room playing cartoons. His supper consists of peanut butter, candy apples, and ice cream. His sister (Cherie Currie!) has no mouth (but she must scream), and when he gets angry, conjures horrifying creatures to scare the Hell out of everybody for his amusement. Where Billy Mumy’s version of the child was more monster than boy, the child in this episode is simply an incorrigible brat who needs guidance and structure in his life. Director Joe Dante populates his episode with great character actors from the past like William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Patricia Barry (who had all appeared in original episodes), and Dick Miller. This is still a fun episode to watch.
We wind it up with what is perhaps the movie’s strongest entry, a remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featuring John Lithgow in an Oscar-worthy performance, directed by George Miller (The Road Warrior). Lithgow plays a white-knuckle passenger on an airliner convinced he sees a man (ultimately a gremlin) on the wing of the plane. There are some subtle differences between this remake and the original starring William Shatner. For one, in the Shatner version, his wife is traveling with him, and second, he is recovering from a previous nervous breakdown. I feel the film version is stronger because Lithgow doesn’t foreshadow any particular breakdown, and his performance is a gradual build-up not to insanity but bravery as he takes matters in his own hands and attempts to vanquish the creature (as Shatner did). The film version is much more visceral than the original directed by Richard Donner. It’s interesting the best episodes from the movie were directed by relative novices, compared to the input of Spielberg and Landis. They both meet the same fate, however, as they are carted off to a loony bin while the airplane’s mechanical crew try to figure out where all the damage to the craft came from.
For a decent stinger prologue, Lithgow’s ambulance driver is none other than Dan Aykroyd from the prologue. He puts on some Creedence and away we go! Vic Morrow’s death overshadowed any possible success this movie might have enjoyed, and destroyed any chance of a new film franchise. Though there were reboots in 1985 and 2002, neither they nor this film stack up to the original series. I must admit this is how I was introduced to the series. I was aware of the show, but it never played where I lived, at least until after this movie debuted on cable television. The series played in constant rotation on Channel 11 WPIX New York, and that’s how I was able to watch it before I got the DVDs.
What can be said about Rod Serling’s immortal Twilight Zone that hasn’t been said already? I loved the show so much I started my own podcast about it, in which a guest and I discuss two episodes every week. A new season of “That Twilighty Show About That Zone” starts tomorrow! Sorry about the plug. I had to do it. Today is the one-year anniversary for “Vintage Cable Box”. Hard to believe I started this enterprise a year ago with reviews for Swamp Thing, Easy Money, and Porky’s. If you want to check out my past reviews, go to this handy archive. Again, sorry for the plug!
Sourced from the original 1983 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release. The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu Ray formats. The accompanying essay obviously down-plays Vic Morrow’s death (“the late Vic Morrow”) as though his passing was not connected to the production. The film is compared to Creepshow from 1982. Both movies are referenced as “… the state of the art in cinema horror …”
Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.