“What you’re looking at could be the end of a particularly terrifying nightmare. It isn’t. It’s the beginning. Introducing Mr. John Valentine, air traveler. His destination: the Twilight Zone,” says the narrator.
I’ve always been a fan of the original Rod Serling-hosted 1960s Twilight Zone TV series. The unusual settings, the twists, and the performances always hooked me in (it being a sci-fi/fantasy show was another hook for me). I’ve never been able to catch any of the episodes from the 1980s revival, but I did manage to see a couple of the episodes from the 2000s revival (which was hosted by Forest Whitaker). When I was a kid, I was surprised to discover that there was a Twilight Zone movie, and I watched it on cable whenever I could. Despite having watched it multiple times on cable and later on blu-ray, I’ve always wanted to see it on the big screen. I finally got my chance when I saw a midnight screening of Twilight Zone: The Movie recently at the IFC Center on a 35mm film print. It was as enjoyable as all of the other times I had seen it, and I am glad the film print played fine (the last time I attended a midnight show at the IFC Center in which a film print was projected, one of the frames melted and stopped the film).
1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie is an anthology film presenting four stories: John Landis’ Time Out (After making a number of racial slurs about Jews, blacks, and Asians at a bar, a bigot mysteriously starts to experience prejudice and discrimination through their viewpoints), Steven Spielberg’s Kick the Can (A new member of a retirement home offers its residents a chance to relive their youth for one night), Joe Dante’s It’s A Good Life (A young woman discovers that a boy with incredible powers has been holding his “family” hostage), and George Miller’s Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (An airline passenger sees a creature on the wing of the airplane and becomes determined to stop it when no one believes his story or the danger the creature poses). Terrific casts were assembled for this film: Prologue: Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks; Time Out: Vic Morrow, Steven Williams, John Larroquette; Kick the Can: Scatman Crothers, Bill Quinn; It’s A Good Life: Kathleen Quinlan, Jeremy Licht, Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert, Nancy Cartwright, Dick Miller, Bill Mumy; Nightmare At 20,000 Feet: John Lithgow, Abbe Lane, Donna Dixon, Larry Cedar; and featuring narration by Burgess Meredith.
The screenplay is divided into several parts: The prologue and Time Out (an original screenplay) were written by John Landis, Kick the Can by Richard Matheson and Melissa Mathison (based on the original teleplay by George Clayton Johnson), It’s A Good Life by Richard Matheson (based on the original teleplay by Jerome Bixby), and Nightmare At 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson (based on his short story and original teleplay). The prologue is a great opener for the film, and Time Out is a fascinating, if incomplete, look at then-modern American bigotry (incomplete only because of the helicopter accident that killed Morrow and two child actors, leaving the segment without its final sequence). Kick the Can is a nice update of its original episode; this story about old folks reliving their youth is perhaps the most down-to-earth of the four segments (despite its fantastical elements). It’s A Good Life is an even better update of its original episode; it’s a story about tolerance and understanding of an unusual child (with the most fantastical elements of the four segments). Nightmare At 20,000 Feet is the strongest of the four segments, with a straight-forward tale of an airplane-phobic writer who sees a creature on the wing of the airplane he’s on and must wrestle with his fears when he realizes the creature is jeopardizing the safety of the plane.
The direction from Landis, Spielberg, Dante, and Miller is strong. The production design by James D. Bissell is first-rate (particularly for It’s A Good Life and Nightmare At 20,000 Feet), as is the cinematography by Stevan Larner (Prologue, Time Out), Allen Daviau (Kick the Can, Nightmare At 20,000 Feet), and John Hora (It’s A Good Life). The special effects are impressive especially in a pre-CGI era (Rob Bottin’s creature and practical effects in It’s A Good Life are the big highlight). The creature effects by Michael McCracken for Nightmare At 20,000 Feet are also impressive, as is the editing by Malcolm Campbell (Prologue and Time Out), Michael Kahn (Kick the Can), Tina Hirsch (It’s A Good Life), and Howard Smith (Nightmare At 20,000 Feet). Jerry Goldsmith delivers an excellent score, with motifs representing each segment (Kick the Can and Nightmare At 20,000 Feet are my two favorites). Twilight Zone: The Movie serves as a wonderful tribute to Rod Serling’s original TV show but is also marred by the tragic helicopter accident on the set of Time Out that claimed three lives (including its lead actor). Perhaps the film would’ve been better received had Time Out‘s final sequence been completed safely. Nevertheless, it is still a film worth checking out that I highly recommend.