Play It Again: Twilight Zone – The Movie

Twilight Zone

By Simon Miraudo
October 15, 2013

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up … or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line. (Hey, whatever. It fits!) This month, we herald Halloween with horror movies!

There’s a disastrous tale behind the scenes of Twilight Zone: The Movie more horrific and nightmarish than what was committed to the screen in any of its four individual shorts. Actor Vic Morrow and two – illegally hired – Vietnamese children, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, were killed during shooting by a failed helicopter stunt. Had everything gone as planned, the climax of John Landis‘ opening stanza would have seen Morrow’s time-transplanted racist rescue the kids from a firing American chopper during the Vietnam War. Landis’ reputation wouldn’t forever carry a giant asterisk, and perhaps this feature adaptation of Rod Serling‘s beloved TV show would have been enthusiastically embraced by audiences. More significantly, three lives wouldn’t have been brought to an early end; two sets of parents spared from receiving that most unthinkable of news. Sadly, it did not go as planned.

This was not the first production to result in a fatality, nor was it the last, but it’s probably the most needless, and certainly the most tragic. Though Landis and all involved were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing – at least legally – the event has forever tarnished the final project (so much so, I couldn’t even bring myself to critique the flick on its own merits without addressing the lumbering elephant in the room). A modest success at the box office, it’s sole legacy today is its trail of casualties. Even if it had been a masterpiece, nothing could have excused that loss of life. I add this lengthy caveat to my review as a means of making something clear: despite my belief, in some instances, that sacrifice for the sake of art can be a noble and worthwhile endeavour, I cannot view Twilight Zone: The Movie independent of this enraging event. It’s the worst thing to ever happen on set. How can we truly enjoy what was meant to be a goofy good time in its wake?

Twilight Zone

Produced by Landis and Steven Spielberg, this 1983 compendium takes inspiration from episodes of Serling’s original series, which ran from 1959 to 1964. It opens with a fairly amusing prologue in which Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks play two jovial strangers on a late-night drive that quickly turns devilish. This mixture of comedy and terror is never replicated successfully in the following sequences. The next chapter, Time Out, is helmed by Landis and stars the aforementioned Morrow as the “angry man” (described as such by narrator Burgess Meredith). Defeated by his lonely existence and bristling with misplaced rage, he finds himself transported without explanation into the shoes of those he persecutes: mistaken for a Jew in Nazi-occupied France; as an African-American in the custody of the KKK; and, finally, hiding from U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Besides everything troubling discussed above, Time Out is a poor opener, fulfilling a layperson’s worst expectations of what  The Twilight Zone is: simplistic moralising hidden within unsurprising twists. Time Out does not represent the brand well, on almost every possible front.

Even more disappointing is Spielberg’s effort Kick the Can. Scatman Crothers – in the unfortunate Magical Negro role – allows the residents of a nursing home the opportunity to experience youth once again. With its grotesque fish-eye lensing, twinkly score, and nostalgic hue, Kick the Can is non-stop god-awful. Much better are the final two entries; unfortunately, they arrive long past the point any reasonable audience member would still be intrigued. Joe Dante brings his maniacal talents to It’s A Good Life, wherein a young schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan) is taken hostage by a boy (Jeremy Licht) with a boundless, violent imagination. Its cartoonish imagery and energy must have been an inspiration for Tim Burton (who wouldn’t make his debut picture for another two years).

Twilight Zone

Best of all is Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, George Miller‘s interpretation of Richard Matheson’s famed novelette. John Lithgow this time plays the nervous flyer – depicted by William Shatner in the series – who becomes convinced a monster outside his window is dismantling the plane. Immediately abandoning any sense of a slow burn, this frenetic instalment finally introduces the terror and intensity sorely missing elsewhere. Yet, as thrilling as this entry is, the curse of an anthology means it only comprises a small percentage of the overall film. Twilight Zone: The Movie is mostly bad; never quite managing to achieve the pathos of Serling’s rightfully revered program. That show’s ingenious, cruel, sometimes powerful morality plays have lingered in our cultural memory. Only one thing about Twilight Zone: The Movie still haunts us today, and it wasn’t intentional.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews.

Twilight Zone: The Movie is now on Quickflix.

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