Saturday, September 12, 2015

Twilight Zone: The Movie

1983's TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE is one of the great thundering disappointments of my movie going life. My anticipation for this project was white hot as I was an inveterate fan of Rod Serling's television program. Surely Hollywood could duplicate the sort of  intelligent, compelling tales on the big screen as it had Americans' living rooms? Or so my 14 year old self thought.  Instead I was left with the sort of hollow feeling you experience when the build up is so intense, the promise of What Could Be was so limitless that the crash is nearly equally strong. It was a lesson of sorts, one I would have to relearn with 1989's BATMAN.  And 1999's STAR WARS EPISODE ONE. And....

Boomer directors Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante, and George Miller each contribute a half hour tale.  All of whom undoubtedly absorbed the original series.  All but Landis based their stories on an old episode.  Aside from Miller's take on "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", this project fizzles. Leaves you wanting.  It's not an awful movie, but how deflating to watch a promising idea executed half-heartedly.  There may be a good reason why TWILIGHT ZONE plays more like a filmed obligation than something inspirational.

Perhaps you read about the terrible accident that occurred on Landis' segment, "Time Out".  Actor Vic Morrow, who plays a loudmouth bigot who finds himself mistaken for the very ethnicities he denigrates, was killed, along with two children, when a helicopter spun out of control after a special effects explosion.  The director and several colleagues were charged and later acquitted of manslaughter.  Stephen Farber and Marc Green's Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case documents these events and subsequent trial quite thoroughly, with a fascinating (and far from flattering) character sketch of Landis as well.  To say that this tragedy cast a pall on the production is to state the obvious, and you have to imagine the excitement drained for all who participated.  To me, it's entirely evident, right up there on screen.

You see it in the lack of energy in Segment #2: Spielberg's "Kick the Can", based on an episode of the same name.  The material is a perfect match to the director's sense of wide eyed optimism, and could've been a nice companion to the previous year's E.T.  But what an ineffectual, mawkish result.  Maybe you can blame Richard Matheson and Melissa Mathieson's adaptation, though it reads like a blueprint that could be opened up into something beautiful.  Of how a mysterious stranger teaches the residents of a retirement home to embrace what is left of their lives.  Spielberg's lack of enthusiasm is evident in every frame.  The fine cast, led by the wonderful Scatman Crothers, tries their best.

Joe Dante's "It's a Good Life" is based on a few different TZ episodes and scores points for sheer oddity alone.  It would be too easy to spoil this segment's surprises by disclosing too much of the plot.  Suffice it to say that a young boy named Anthony (Jeremy Licht) brings a traveling schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan) home to his extremely bizarre family, where TVs are on in every room and seem to be portals into cartoon dimensions.  Matheson and Jerome Bixby penned this tale that does reward a few viewings as one sorts out their points.  The first time you watch it you may just be scratching (or shaking) your head.

But then we come to George Miller's 'Nightmare....", a pulse pounding white knuckler that succeeds in old fashioned movie thrills, pure adrenaline that is certainly more explicit than the episode upon which it is based.  Not that the effects are too much, in fact, it's one of those times where the budget really serves the story of an already ultra nervous airline passenger (John Lithgow) who sees a gremlin wreaking destruction on the wing of his plane.  Matheson adapts the namesake episode quite well, but it's Miller's tense direction and Lithgow's knockout performance that puts it over.

Which leads us back to Landis' segment, a watchable but unremarkable journey through several vistas, from Vietnam to Nazi Germany.  The intolerant gets a taste of his own medicine.  Landis adds some in-jokes for fans of his movies, including an update of one of the characters from ANIMAL HOUSE.  His segment and the entire film were certainly not worth the horrible deaths, as no piece of film would be.   It's impossible not to be reminded of the accident while watching "Time Out", and this makes the entire viewing a stomach churner, and not in a good way.

Despite my tepid review, I realize curiosity will get the better of some of you, invisible audience.  If you do watch make sure not to miss the prologue, which stars Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and some nifty make-up effects.
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