Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Monday: Twilight Zone: The Movie

The final Movie Monday of the year is 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie!

As people who I'm friends with on Facebook can attest, I've been systematically going through the entire original Twilight Zone series, in order, episode by episode, and then putting up brief, one or two sentence reviews of each as I work my way through the seasons. There are a lot more Zones that I have never seen than I thought, so it's been really, really fun exploring the show all over again.

So to wrap up the year of Movie Mondays, I thought I'd revisit the infamous Twilight Zone: The Movie, released two decades after the show went off the air. I remember seeing it in the theaters during it's original run, and caught it on cable once or twice, but otherwise haven't seen it in probably close to another twenty years. Does it hold up? Did it ever? Let's see:
The film opens, sans credits, on a dark road. We hear some music, but it's rock and roll, something never heard on the original show. It's...Credence Clearwater Revival?

We meet two unnamed guys driving along that dark road, singing along. The guys are played by Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, passing the time during the lonely drive:
They start singing TV theme songs to one another, which turns into a discussion about some of their favorite shows, including...The Twilight Zone! After trading some of the more memorable episodes (one of which is actually an Outer Limits, as Brooks points out), Aykroyd asks if Brooks "wants to see something really scary." Brooks agrees, stopping the car. Aykroyd turns around, and when he turns back, he's turned into some sort of demon! He attacks Brooks, and the camera pans up into the sky.

We then heard a familiar voice...not Rod Serling, but that of Burgess Meredith, who of course was also very associated with the original series. He provides the classic narration, and then we find ourselves in a cruddy bar, where three working stiffs are having a drink. One of them is Bill Connor (Vic Morrow), who is angry that he didn't get the promotion he wanted at work. Real angry. So angry he loudly denounces all the "others" that supposedly run America over the more deserving whites, which attracts the attention of the other, non-white patrons. After his friends try to calm him down, he storms off into the night, only to find himself in...Nazi Germany?

Connor, understandably confuses, begins an ugly journey through world history, where he is mistaken for the type of people he denounced so loudly just a few minutes ago. After escaping the Nazis, the Klan, and the American forces in Vietnam, Connor wakes up in a train, alongside other victims of the Nazis. He sees his friends come out of the bar, and he screams for help, but they can't hear him as he is driven away to a concentration camp. His screams are unheard as his drinking buddies wonder where their friend disappeared to.

This segment, known as "Time Out", is probably the most famous, because of what happened: due to a series of miscommunications and rule-dodging, lead actor Vic Morrow and two child actors (who do not appear in the final film) were killed during a helicopter crash. That scene was supposed to represent the character's evolution, which would presumably lead him to some sort of happy, or at least less angry, ending. But with all that material removed, the segment ends on a totally downbeat note (not sure the whys or hows of it being filmed, since it's clearly Morrow and not a stand-in), which seems a little harsh by Zone standards. Sure, Connor is a total racist a-hole, blaming all his problems on others (thank the Lord we've all moved on from that, eh?), but it's not exactly clear that he deserves this level of comeuppance.

Sure, some of the original shows were this nasty, but they were pretty rare--usually Serling and his writers liked to offer some sort of redemption. Instead, this first segment ends on a supremely down note. Not that any story, no matter how good, would be worth the life of three people, but it seems all the more tragic that a story this...pointless made its participants pay such a heavy price.

We move on to the second story, "Kick The Can", set at a retirement home, where most of the participants are lonely and sad, ignored by their families. A Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) arrives, offering the residents a chance at youth. But not the metaphorical kind: during a game of the aforementioned Kick the Can, the elderly people suddenly become children again!

After frolicking in the yard and getting a chance to relive their childhoods, the former seniors realize that they'd be giving up their entire lives if they stayed this way. They all return to their former selves, except for one: a British man who decides to leap out the window, off on a whole new life. Mr. Bloom leaves, heading off to another retirement home.

This segment, directed by Steven Spielberg, is almost universally considered the weakest of the four, and it's easy to see why: most genre fans, heck, even most people, do not want to see stories about old people. The reasons are obvious, and watching all these nice folks be so sad and lonely is tough to watch. Spielberg is in Full Schmaltz Mode here, and this story, coming as it does right after the very dark "Time Out", is jarring. It's not as bad as I remember it being--my memories was that it was interminably long, but it actually moves pretty briskly. Still, it's just too mushy to really click, which was the same problem a lot of the Zones had when they went for a similar tone.

Third is "It's A Good Life" directed by Joe Dante. A young woman (Kathleen Quinlan) befriends a little boy at a greasy spoon she stopped at while on a cross-country drive. She accidentally hits him with her car, and offers to take him home. When they get there, the young woman notices this is a really, really, really odd family: the parents and siblings are creepily cheery, catering to the young boy's every whim: TVs playing cartoons are nearly everywhere, and the dinner they eat is all candy and ice cream. When she gingerly suggests that a growing boy needs nutrition, the whole family follows the kid's lead when he agrees that yeah, maybe, candy all the time isn't a great idea.

Things shoot into the stratosphere of weird when the boy's uncle (Kevin McCarthy, another TZ veteran) is forced to do a magic trick, which ends with him pulling a giant monstrous rabbit out of a hat. The boy, you see, has magic powers, and has been keeping all these people trapped in this house for years: they are not his real family, but some of sort of nightmarish copy. She tries to leave, but the young boy begs her to stay. Suddenly the boy goes from sweet to monstrous, like banishing his older sister Ethel into a cartoon, where she is eaten alive (the sister is played by future Bart Simpson Nancy Cartwright, which gives the whole bit an even creepier, if unintentional, vibe). The boy's powers grow out of control, but he is brought back to some sort of sanity by the gentle commands of the young woman, who doesn't treat him like a monster. The story ends with the two of them going off together, a surprisingly gentle ending for such a scary story.

And it is scary. Joe Dante does an amazing job bringing cartoons to life, but through a hellish, terrifying prism. This kid can literally do anything, but he lacks the imagination, and probably the inner rot, to become a serial killer or something like that. Still, what he is capable of doing is creepy enough: I remember having the crap scared out of me seeing what he did to his other "sister": the only shot we see of her is sitting in front of a TV, staring dead-eyed at the screen in a dark room. She doesn't say much because, well, she doesn't have a mouth anymore. *shudder*

The final segment is a remake of the classic "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", directed by George Miller and this time starring John Lithgow. Lithgow's character, John Valentine, is not the best flyer in the world: our first shot of him is holed up in the airplane bathroom, gulping sedatives and sweating like a pig. Of course, things are only to get worse for our Infrequent Flyer: there's a man on the wing of this plane!

After a two mediocre segments and one very good one, "Nightmare" delivers on the promise of a big budget Twilight Zone movie: Miller, Lithgow, and company take a classic Zone segment and ramp up the tension a hundred fold. With the help of some superior effects (this is an actual slimy gremlin as opposed to some day player in a onesie, like the original), this final segment is one long gut-punch, and it ends the movie on an exhilarating, genuinely frightening series of notes. Lithgow, sometimes given to chewing the scenery unmercifully (hey, no wonder they got him to replace Shatner!) is perfect here: he knows there's no creature on the wing of the plane, and also knows he just shouldn't even look out the window. But he just can't help checking one...more...time...

The final shot of the movie ends where it began, sort of, with John Valentine being carted off in an ambulance. As the airplane crew marvel at the deep, claw-like tears in the side of the plane, the ambulance driver--Dan Aykroyd again--puts on some CCR and asks his passenger if he "wants to see something really scary." Rod Serling's voice is then heard, and we pan back up into the skies...

Like almost all anthologies, Twilight Zone: The Movie is judged via individual grades. "Time Out", I'd say, is two stars, "Kick The Can" is one star, "It's A Good Life" is three stars, and "Nightmare" is  four stars. The wraparound stuff is fun, too--using famous comedians like Aykroyd and Brooks to deliver laughs then horror was a great idea. I grew up on SNL, and I can distinctly remember being completely unnerved when Elwood Blues himself turned into a monster!

Overall, the movie is worthwhile because the last two segments are so good that they make up for the general weakness of the first two. The film does have a darker, nastier feel to it than the series ever did; for every dark, dark episode like "And When The Sky Was Opened", you had half a dozen more gentle ones like "Mr. Dingle the Strong." Rod Serling, for all his cigarette smoking grimness, I'd argue was mostly an optimist, about human nature at least, while the movie feels like a typical post-Watergate downbeat exercise in nihilism. Poor John Valentine, deemed a crazy man, isn't even going to get a break once he's on the ground!

There's been rumors of a new Twilight Zone movie; but once I heard that the plan is to just feature one story I got the sense that it's just a cash-in, a way to make a horror/sci-fi movie and slap a recognizable "brand" on it. I guess we'll see. For this movie though, I'd say if you haven't seen it and are a TZ fan, it's worth seeing at least once. And then go back and watch "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" again.

This post has been submitted for your approval. See in 2013!


1 comment:

Michael Jones said...

A nice little tribute to 20,000 Feet was on 3rd Rock from the Sun. Lithgow met Shatner (Big Giant Head) and they both recounted stories of having seen a creature on the wing of a plane.

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