"There is a fifth dimension......" - Rod Serling
Any opportunity I can find to wax lyrical about The Twilight Zone is welcome. I’ll take any excuse I can get, and Twilight Zone: The Movie is an excellent one.
The film takes me straight back to 1983. Good times.
Until ’83, I hadn’t actually seen any episodes of The Twilight Zone, but I’d obviously heard and read about it. (It was near impossible to be reading any genre magazines like Starburst, Starlog or Fangoria without stumbling across mentions of it.) My bible in those years was a book by Gary Genrani titled Fantastic Television. It contains (present tense because I still have my copy) episode guides to several series of the fifties and sixties with brief synopsis of every episode of shows like Batman, The Adventures of Superman, The Outer Limits, Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and so on. I must have read those lists through from top to bottom so many times.
But the most tantalising were the Twilight Zone. The brief one or two sentences given to each episode were so intriguing and stirred my imagination so much, I was desperate to see the show, which had been taken off the air nineteen years earlier.
It was in the late summer/early autumn of 1983 that the BBC showed the first season and the first two episodes of the second in a late night slot. (When the show disappeared from their schedules at the end of ’83, I would check the listings in the Radio Times for months, eagerly waiting for its return, but that was it as far as the BBC was concerned. I’d have to wait ten years until satellite TV to come along and complete the run on the Bravo channel.
As soon as I saw the opening episode “Where is Everybody” with a man suffering amnesia finding himself in a deserted town, I was hooked on the show’s unique style of storytelling. Usually an ordinary person would find themselves in extraordinary circumstances with a surprising twist at the end. In its anthology format without continuing characters, a Twilight Zone episode could take place anywhere, at any time. It could be a suburban story one week, a western the next, a horror the following week with a sci-fi story after that. Some even had a strongly comedic storyline. And it all worked. The plots could be in the past, present or future. A scientific nightmare or a grim tale of retribution from beyond the grave. From its second episode, One for the Angels, The Twilight Zone became my all-time favourite TV show, and still remains so to this day. A strong contributory factor is the formula of having the series creator and writer Rod Serling introduce every episode in a casual, but matter of fact style, with a voiceover again at the end. There was something about his sincerity that sold the series to me even further.
The BBC’s transmission was of course to tie in with the release of the big blockbuster movie that brought together four of Hollywood’s biggest A-List directors, who had united to pay a homage to the show which had influenced them so much in their youth. Thus was born Twilight Zone: The Movie.
John Landis was riding the success of An American Werewolf in London, Steven Spielberg had directed E.T. the previous year, Joe Dante was now known for The Howling and George Miller was hot from Mad Max and its superior sequel. Movie magic was in the air and we were about to enter the fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. The land of light and shadow, science and superstition was beckoning.
The idea was that each director would select an episode and direct a remake of that episode. John Landis though wrote his own – but it’s such a “Twilight Zone” type of story that the fact it’s an original doesn’t matter. It’s perfectly in place.
(Note – I know that the tragic on set death of Vic Morrow casts a dark shadow over this segment of the film, but it isn’t the purpose of this article to retread the incident and attribute who did what and which rules were broken culpability. I’m keeping it to the film on the screen.)
Landis also wrote the opening and closing segments to the film, where we kick off with two Saturday Night Live alumni, Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks driving along a darkened road, entertaining themselves by playing a game of TV theme trivia, which leads to a discussion about The Twilight Zone. Now, Brooks has been scaring Aykroyd by driving along the unlit road with his lights off, but Aykroyd has a scare of his own to deliver – he’s actually a carnivorous monster who kills and eats Brooks while the classic Twilight Zone theme kicks in and Burgess Meredith who was a regular face on the show delivers the late Rod Serling’s series opening monologue.
In the first segment which is un-named, we’re introduced to Bill Connor (Vic Morrow). Bill is the kind of guy you see in bars up and down the country – whichever country you’re in, I guess. Casually dispensing racial bigotry and hatred. Except Bill has a particularly big chip on his shoulder this evening, having been passed over for a promotion (which in reality he probably didn’t deserve) in favour of a co-worker who happens to be Jewish. It doesn’t occur to him that his co-worker was more deserving of the promotion – Bill is “an American, damn it. Doesn’t that mean anything any more”?
There’s a just and fitting reward waiting for Bill when he leaves the bar in a rage having insulted several races. Stepping out, he’s no longer in the car park of the bar, but on a street in Nazi occupied Paris. And the Nazis see him as a Jew and ruthlessly pursue him on to a narrow ledge where they use him for target practice. Falling to the cobbled street, he lands instead on grass.
He’s now the victim of a KKK lynch mob in the deep south who see him as black, despite his protests. Evading their noose, he jumps in a lake to escape, but when he dares raise his head above water, he’s in Vietnam and nearby is a squad of jittery, drugged up American GI’s ready to shoot the hell out of anything that moves – and they see him as a Viet Cong. A hand grenade from them sends him flying straight back to Paris, right in front of the Nazi HQ. Here, he’s captured, tagged as a Jew and packed into a livestock carriage on a train bound for the concentration camps. Looking through the slits in the carriage, he sees his friends leaving the bar, unable to hear his cries for help.
The second segment is called Kick The Can, and is a remake of the episode of the same name. Here Spielberg fully indulges his rare talent for directing both old people and children, as Mr Bloom (Scatman Crothers) is an elderly, magical optimist. Now resident at a home for the elderly, he convinces the other residents to join him in a game of kick the can, so they can feel young again. All but one accept his offer and they turn back into children.
The lesson is that having reverted to being kids, but retaining their memories of their long lives, apart from one, they all decide they’d rather be their proper ages, but retain fresh young minds. Mr Conroy, the hold out, realises that he has missed a golden opportunity. (But we’re assured “he’ll get it”) It’s a pleasant tale, and a change of gear after the previous episode which in anybody else’s hands would have been intolerably saccharine sweet sentimentality, but again Spielberg delivers strong performances from everybody involved.
It’s a Good Life was one of the most stunning episodes of the show’s five year run, telling the story of a little boy who could make anything he wanted happen. The consequences of having that unimaginable power in the hands of a five or six year old child who doesn’t really know right from wrong provides the shocks. Moreover, he’ll NEVER know right from wrong because nobody can challenge him. He’ll make them disappear by “sending them to the cornfield”. So, think happy thoughts.
The film version, directed by Joe Dante is a little bit disappointing in comparison, but still gripping nonetheless. Although the concept is the same, the translation to the screen loses something. It’s still about a kid who can wish anything he can imagine into reality, he wished his nagging sister’s mouth away, he wishes people into cartoons where they die horribly – but the kid actor seems to play at being sinister, whereas Billy Mumy played a kid who just didn’t know any better. He was innocent and naïve, but wilful and spoiled (with good reason, of course). Jeremy Licht kind of plays at being sinister and doesn’t do too good a job. Also, his menace seems localised to his house and its immediate surroundings. Mumy had obliterated further afield than that, and had created some strange mixtures of animals that lived their brief lives in torment and pain.
Dante brings his stock company of favourites like Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller into the mix and that elevates the segment. The cartoons that burst to life from the TV and the demonic giant rabbit were the creations of Rob Bottin who in 1982 had provided the visceral effects for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Which gives me an idea, mixed with wistful, wishful thinking – what if John Carpenter in his creative heyday had directed this segment?
And now, the grand finale and the highlight of the film – an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s Horror at 30,000 Feet where a paranoid airliner passenger on a stormy flight sees a gremlin happily wrecking the engine. Nobody else sees the gremlin though. Every time help is called, the damn thing disappears.
This fifth season episode was easily one of the greatest half hours ever broadcast on TV, with a pre Star Trek William Shatner in the starring role, hysterically trying to convince everybody else on board that he was perfectly rational.
John Lithgow takes the role in this remake, which reminds me of a great piece of TV trivia. When Shatner first appeared on Lithgow’s comedy show Third Rock From the Sun as the Big Giant Head in the late nineties, he was met at the airport by the Solomon family and mentioned that he’d seen a gremlin destroying the engine. Dick Solomon (Lithgow) replied “That’s odd. The same thing happened to me.”
Lithgow is as perfect in the role of the panic stricken, twitchy, paranoia driven everyman as Shatner was. Of course the sting in the tale is that despite nobody believing him and his removal from the airliner at the airport strapped to a stretcher because he is thought to be insane – there really WAS something on the wing and he saved everybody’s lives.
But this IS the Twilight Zone and we’re not out of the woods yet.
As the ambulance races through the streets, the driver starts talking to Lithgow, turns in his seat – it’s Dan Aykroyd. He asks his helpless patient “do you want to see something scary?”
I’ve often said that it’s more often than not a mistake for Hollywood to revisit much loved TV series and redo them for the big screen.
Twilight Zone: The Movie is the exception.
Here in the UK, the film has been released as a HMV exclusive, and it's one of their value titles. I'd urge you to check it out.
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