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STUDIO: Warner Bros.
RUNNING TIME: 101 Minutes
Classic show gets big screen treatment by mid-80’s Hollywood legends.
Vic Morrow. Scatman Crothers. Dan Ackroyd. Albert Brooks. Kathleen Quinlan. Kevin McCarthy. John Lithgow. Wing Gremlin.
Not Available for the Sequel
Vic Morrow. Scatman Crothers. Wing Gremlin.
Martin was born with Watership Down’s Syndrome.
The concept of an anthology horror film is a brilliant one as evidenced by the fact of how few horror films have enough of interest to sustain a feature length running time. It makes sense to get in and out before the audience knows they’re being had. Horror films are the ultimate con, films which play to our fears, make us panic and feel alone and susceptible and then remind us at the end that we’re just lucky spectators. Not much escapism in horror flicks. The audience is almost paying for the opportunity not to be involved in the scary business. That said, Rod Serling’s amazing The Twilight Zone lived in a world between horror, sci-fi, and satire and though there are many duds in the series there’s a lot more episodes that informed the sensibilities of everyone they’ve touched. A feature film took shape under the guidance of folks who in the early 80’s were at the peak of their power…
…except Steven Spielberg…
…and that feature was Twilight Zone: The Movie. Four short stories, two bookending sequences, and a whole lot of talented filmmakers trying to walk in the shoes of a pioneer. It turned out almost decent but ultimately collapsed under its own weight and the accident that claimed the life of Vic Morrow and two little kids who shouldn’t have been on the set in the first place. But, this isn’t about THAT. The film’s on DVD now, finally. Here’s my take.
Here’s a list of what works in Twilight Zone: The Movie:
- John Lithgow versus the Gremlin on the Wing.
- Kathleen Quinlan’s beautiful face and perky, lovely female form.
- Scatman Crothers’ winning personality and smile.
- The Ackroyd/Brooks banter leading up to the ‘big reveal’.
- Burgess Meredith’s warming voice as the narrator.
Lithgow had always wanted to work with Cheryl Hines.
Pretty much everything else is atrocious and dated in all the worst ways. As a child I felt this film was a cutting edge bit of fear cinema but as an adult it’s a reminder that as a boy I was apparently a big ball of shit. It’s amazing what a Thandie Newton lookalike on a cloudy airplane wing can do to a kid’s tastes. I remember playing in my friend Kevin’s yard our own version of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and though were were inspired by some dodgy choices I thought this was higher grade fare. I remember greatness. I remember class. I also remember scares. They do not exist and though this has aged better than anthology flicks like Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, scary it is not. In fact, those films are more fun to watch. That said, no one did a better impersonation of the Wing Gremlin "tsk tsk" finger movement than old CHUD.com contributor Kevin Fahey.
The film begins strongly with a nice bit of banter between Albert Brooks and Dan Ackroyd as two guys on a long car ride together and when their Creedence audio tape dies they’re forced to resort to conversation which eventually leads to the film’s signature line "You wanna see something REALLY scary?". It reminds me a little of John Landis’ American Werewolf in London beginning, though much shorter and nowhere near as flawless. There’s a very good rapport between the two actors and though the film doesn’t live up to the promise of the intro, it does lend a somewhat classic feel to it. Of course, that’s all scuttled when Ackroyd’s scary monster make-up is less frightening than any of the creatures in, say… Family Ties.
"Paine Stewart, I didn’t think you were watching!"
The focus then shifts after a nice title sequence to the first of the four segments, narrated by Burgess Meredith in the Autumnal post-The Manitou [read: DOWNHILL] portion of his career, the tale of racist Vic Morrow and his experience as the tables are turned on him. Morrow was always a good character actor in television and film, but even he can’t elevate a truly one-note character as the man who shouts racial epithets to the four winds only to bounce back and forth in time between Nazi Germany (or Poland or whatever), the pre-war Deep South and its KKK, and Vietnam. Granted, the scenes involving the character finding redemption were cut short by the accident that claimed Morrow’s life but the fact remains that the segment as it stands is too single-minded to have any resonance. You hate the guy at the outset, you watch him squirm, and he gets his just desserts. It’s not a totally unused formula in a film, but it’s not very good. Folks enjoying signature John Landis moments will enjoy a few hidden references but for the most part it’s just a sad reminded that not only did Vic Morrow take the ultimate voyage, he took it on the worst segment of a mediocre film.
The second segment that bored me to a comatose state as a child fares a little better. It’s weird to see a ripoff/homage to the work of Steven Spielberg done BY Steven Spielberg but that’s how this feels. All of the syrupy Peter Pan-esque stuff that constitutes some of the legendary filmmaker’s least engaging work [yeah, Hook can go screw itself and so can Spielberg "joints" like The Goonies, which has been and will always be a loud waste of space] is here in Spielberg’s tale of eternal youth and the seemingly innocuous game called Kick the Can. It’s somewhat trite but it has enough magic to feel like Serling’s show [yes, it’s a remake of a real episode] as well as a heartwarming bit of whimsy. Of course, no one is watching Twilight Zone: The Movie to see old people be happy and young again, but as a piece of film it’s not that bad. It’s just the seriously undercranked version of the talent that is Steven Spielberg.
I don’t know why the rest of you thought Bette Midler lost her good looks after Beaches.
The third segment is easily the most annoying and though it’s vintage Joe Dante, it somehow scuttles its noble Looney Tunes landscape by taking 50’s stereotypes and wholesome family value automatons and neutering them with loudness and the casting of a young male actor who reeks of Central Casting. If they’d anchored the segment with a truly gifted and less bland actor it may have worked but the whole concept of a boy whose imagination fuels everything around him is a lot more convincing when the boy seems to have an imagination. Luckily Kathleen Quinlan is the other star of the segment and as she’s proven herself time and time again as a fantastic actress I can only say that watching her as a ravishing young woman almost makes the abrasive portions of the segment tolerable. She is a stunning and singular beauty and there are sparks of the charisma and sex appeal that made her a late arrival to the A-List in the 90’s here, and she accomplishes more with a furtive glance than Hollywood vet Kevin McCarthy does with extremely exaggerated old school acting tics. It’s not a horrible segment and it’s the one that has the most ambition and diversity. It just happens to be obnoxious too.
They saved the best for last. George Miller’s excellent tale of the fear of flying taken to the extreme (well, Paul Greengrass may have upped the ante). John Lithgow’s manic and sweaty performance as a white knuckle passenger being tormented by a gremlin on the wing of the plane is the film’s near salvation and though it’s not as good as the Richard Matheson story which inspired it, it’s a very effective thriller and a nice reminder that at their hearts Twilight Zone stories are both chilling and a spin on a reality all too familiar to us. This is one of the seminal episodes taken to big screen size and it’s still damn effective.
Ooops, this is one from the family collection.
I’m glad this film is finally on DVD and though films I grew up with more often than not [Night of the Comet & The Monster Squad being recent examples] make me wish I kept them strictly as memories rather than revisiting them, it’s like an old friend stopping by. This idea hasn’t been done 100% right yet but there’s still hope. Maybe we don’t need the brightest shining stars of Hollywood in charge next time but rather the folks who are near the top of the ranks of tomorrow’s talent. A lot of great names made their starts on Rod Serling’s ramshackle little television show, who’s to say it can’t be done again.
Twilight Zone: The Movie is a cautionary tale in more ways than one.
Thankfully, there’s no special features. As good as a few of the moments are and as noble the interntions were [I still think this idea can work, probably why a few of my personal scripts are anthologies and I’ve not sold a screenplay] I think that unless we’re going to get a completely frank feature on the film, its impetus, and its eventual black cloud there’s no point. I’m sure most of these folks have signed confidentiality documents regarding this flick anyhow. We get a trailer. Whoop-de-doo.
6.5 out of 10