Movie Review: Twilight Zone: The Movie

Posted: October 26, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983 Warner Bros. Dir. John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante & George Miller)

Hey! An anthology without AIP, Vincent Price or Stephen King’s writing! It’s not even based or inspired by EC comics! Woo! Something different. This time it’s the movie based on the Twilight Zone TV show, which probably was only made after everyone saw how well Creepshow did. Far as I can tell, Steven Spielberg & John Landis put this joint together with Frank Marshall as the Executive Producer. Sort of like how after Tales from the Darkside did so well, Spielberg made Amazing Stories. That’s not to say that this is bad or anything, just saying that it’s a copycat production made after Romero proved that it could be done. I will say however that this sort of a crystallization of these directors in that time period. Everything you want to know about Landis, Spielberg, Dante and Miller in the early 1980s, you can learn by watching this movie. They pretty much bring all their early 80s tropes with them to this production. Is that good? Is it bad? We’ll have to see…

Augh! Don’t play MMMBop! I hate Hanson!

We start with what has to be the single most pointless introduction to a movie in the history of filmmaking. Okay, I’m being a little harsh, but it is really slow and stupid. I mean, you’ve got Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd singing Midnight Special for a solid two minutes. Not joking, I checked the time. Midnight Special plays over the Warner logo, and plays while we see the car driving up, and then Brooks and Aykroyd sing along. This is the first two minutes of the movie, which leads me to think either I’m A.D.D. or they’re crap. I’m going to cop to the A.D.D. thing, but even at the time I remember people complaining about this opening. Because it goes on like this, only slightly different. After two minutes the tape gets eaten and they start to amuse themselves by switching off the lights and seeing how long they could go. Then they start to sing theme songs to each other trying to guess which show it’s to. This eats up another three and a half minutes before they finally start talking about The Twilight Zone. We are five and a half minutes into this movie and The Zone has only just been mentioned. Nothing interesting has happened you understand, they’re going to just keep talking, “Hey you remember that one episode” for another minute while you check your watch and wonder just how long this has gone on. So far, this thing has been like watching Gerry, only Gerry didn’t feel quite as long or as tedious as this segment. After assing around for a few more minutes, Aykroyd asks Brooks if he wants to see something really scarty and then turns away for a moment, only to turn back as some sort of monster and eat Brooks… which actually sort of feels like it was based on something from an EC Comic and not at all like anything from the Twilight Zone as I remember it. Sooo, maybe it is EC inspired and nothing to do with Rod Serling?

See? The window, you remember the window thing? This is just the like old Twilight Zone you remember.

Naaah! We’ve got some Zone stuff right here with what would be call the opening credit sequence if not for the fact that the opening is completely free of credits. Just a narration and the title card, which is interesting because both DGA and SAG rules demand people get billing at the beginning of the movie and not wanting to do so is the reason George Lucas left the DGA in the first place. It’s an interesting reworking of the original Zone opening though, following it with updated graphics and a voice over by Burgess Meredith who sounds nothing like Serling, but manages not to embarrass either himself or the audience so lets cut him some slack. There is no frame story here, it just goers black after the opening sequence and opens up on the first story. Now as I understand it, the first story and this opening were both directed by Landis, which is probably why both of them are so utterly pointless, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I mean, I’ve hardly mentioned that this is the movie that got Vic Morrow killed along with two little kids and changed the way stunts were done in Hollywood for at least 10 years. I also have failed to talk about the lengthy lawsuits, the settlements, the fact that Landis has always laid the blame on an unnamed special effects artist and that this more or less destroyed the relationship between Landis and Steven Spielberg. Oh, I just did. Okay, carry on then. Frankly, if you want to know about this, you can find the information by checking your local internet.

The Bring Back the 70s Society has their general annual meeting.

Now, in the closing credits, these are just called Segment 1 or segment 2 and so on, so the stories don’t have any titles. This first one doesn’t have a real analogue to the show either. It’s just the sort of thing that might have been on the show, without actually fitting into the mold completely. A businessman goes on a bigoted rant in a bar about how everybody not white is ruining the country. See, those non-white, non-Christians, who were probably born in Kenya anyway, keep getting the jobs instead of letting decent, white, Christians have them. He gets pissy, talks a lot and leaves the bar to go find some “Real Americans” who will help him beat up either a homosexual or an immigrant of some variety. Instead he finds himself with the heavy hand of Liberal Hollywood slapping him into Nazi Germany for some extraordinarily heavy handed symbolism. He then finds himself in the deep south about to be lynched by the KKK and then in Vietnam where he’s shot at by some American Soldiers. You can just about see Landis foaming at the mouth with lefty-pinko rage, jumping on his desk and screaming about how symbolic the whole thing is and that 9/11 was an inside job. This thing has about the same shades of grey as a Sin City story and the main character proves to be as resilient as one of the heroes from those books.

I never know what’s worse. The hangover or the waking up in a field surrounded by angry strangers.

Yes, I get it, if he were anywhere else and anyone else he’d be subjected to horrors of every kind. Even as a person who is somewhat liberal at times I find myself asking if they can’t tone down the rhetoric a few dozen notches. There isn’t much plot here, it’s like the movie version of a gothic novel, completely built on experience. The problem is, you can’t sympathize with this guy because he’s an incomparable douche and his plight doesn’t interest me. Had he been a little more casual about his racism, we might have learned something. Anyone who is a bit racist though, will look and just say “Well, I’m not like him, so I’m not really racist.” and get on with their day of condescending to non-whites, demanding to see birth certificates, and telling people where they can and can’t build things. I can’t get into the turn about, because it’s so over done and cartoony that it’s not even remotely interesting. However, you get to see John Larroquette when he still had completely black hair, so that’s sort of interesting. Like Steve Martin, I thought he was always sort of gray.

Perfect arrangement of characters.

Now, the second segment is completely different. Steven Spielberg is at his emotionally manipulating best here, tugging on every string your poor heart has and laying on the treacle laced twee with a trowel. It’s based on the classic episode Kick the Can, which is about youthening the elderly, so you know what you’re in for here. Scatman Crothers comes to a retirement home and talks to a bunch of retirees at the rest home about what they were like as kids and how they should try to feel young again. Before that, we get the requisite finger waggling about how yuppies shove their parents into rest homes so they can forget about them, which is par for the course. Every camera trick, lighting trick, musical trick and characterization trick is used here. You can simply look at how the frame is set up with actor placement and lighting, just one screen cap will tell you that you are being manipulated. This is before Spielberg realized that not every single shot in a movie needs that perfect classic Hollywood framing. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It’s not, it’s very good. However it is manipulation and upon noticing it, you could start to resent it. There are also flaws in the logic of this story. The Mrs. Dempsey says she’ll never meet her husband, and the old Jewish woman is disturbed to think she’ll loose her father all over again. Only, they wouldn’t because those people are dead. Mrs. Dempsey remembers her husband, so like the way he wore his hat, they can’t take that away from her.

Well, that’s not a creepy look for this story or anything.

Through the magic of a late night game of kick the can, all but one member of the rest home is turned into children again. This is so clearly the Spielberg who made E.T. and Hook rather than the one who made Minority Report or War of the Worlds. This is Speilberg at his greeting cardiest with nostalgia sloshing around the edges and sweetness oozing from every pore. There is even the adorable detail that the house cat has become a kitten along with everyone else. Then of course, after a little while of being young, everyone realizes that they don’t want to go to school again, and that problem I mentioned above about deaths that doesn’t make sense. Always a problem with Spielberg, things rarely really fit together properly. As a result, they decide to go back into their beds and be seniors with Fresh Young Minds, a concept so important they only mention is about 83 times in a span of two minutes. One of them however, does decide to stay young and runs off, having the one guy who didn’t join in ask to go with him. He can’t though, and the young man runs off again, probably to become a boy prostitute because I can think of no other way a kid that young is going to make it on his own. But hey, maybe experience will do something for him. Come the morning, the old grouch is kicking a can around the yard while all the former kids are filled with life again and Scatman leaves to go infect another rest home with hope and youth, while we are left to test our blood sugar levels.

Yeah, your new deodorant is awesome.

At this point I have to walk away and eat something salty to dispel the sweetness. If I just try to go right into watch the next segment, I get all cynical about it because all that sweet rots my stomach. Segment three, directed by Joe Dante, is a semi-sequel to It’s a Good Life. However, you’re not supposed to know that at first. Dante was very smart in this, because if one had never seen the original episode, you can watch this on its own and get the full effect when we’re surprised by Anthony’s god like powers. However, if you have seen the original, then the logical extension of the tale is still interesting and you’re only tipped off a few moments the rest of the crowd. At least I assume so, I’ve never seen it. This however is well before the internet, so all the episodes wouldn’t have been announced on some website, and you couldn’t go find the episodes online anytime day or night. As a result, it’s an effective piece to watch for the first time. I watched it with Syd for this review, and she had never seen it, so she was sort of surprised by it.

The stuff is kickin’ in. I can see the music.

What I find sort of surprising is that Anthony is presented to us as sort of a depressed emokid. He actually has one of those “Nobody understands me!” moments. Of course, that moment comes right after he murders his sister, who it turns out was just some poor girl he was holding hostage. His outbursts are seen to be the result of manic depression. He simultaneously wants people not to be afraid of him, while taking great delight in scaring the shit out of everyone. While he’s in the midst of such and outburst, we get to see a host of movie monsters, the sort that would inform Gremlins a year while later. In the end, the woman who is our avatar in the story talks Anthony down and convinces him to be good, but I sort of think it probably only lasts a few months at best and then he’s back to killing people for not being perfect again.

WOOO! Ride the lightning!

After that, we go into the part of the movie that is, for me, pure tedium. George Miller is a fine director, and he’s using all his classic skills here. However, this isn’t a Mad Max sequel, it’s a story based on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Now, maybe you’re into this sort of thing, but I’m not. I’m really not into the paranoia, or the claustrophobia of this tale. I’m not into watching a man have a panic attack, either justified or unjustified. I’m just not interested. If you don’t get invested in the character or the tension of the moment, then this story is twenty minutes of sigh inducing boredom. I know some people are way into it, but I’m not one of them. I know some people who have said it’s the best segment of the movie and some have said that it’s their favorite episode of the movie. It’s an effective piece, it’s well made, people exist who dig this, and they did it a lot. For me though, I just feeling my butt get numb and my fingers itching for the remote. It doesn’t help that the movie ends with a wrap around of Dan Aykroyd asking John Lithgow if after what he’s been through if he wants “To see something really scary?” like we’re in that damn EC comic again.


I can’t really recommend you go buy it, but you might want to rent it sometime if you’ve decided to have a peak at it. Heck, I’d rather tell you to go get the first season on Blu-ray or maybe have a peak at the new series from 1985. I can’t recommend the movie, not very strongly anyway. However, none of that really matters. What matters, as we know, is the score. You can take the movie as a whole, or you can take the individual segments and try to judge them on their own. You can reflect on each director’s skillset and merits, deciding for yourself how well they translate the vision of the TV show. Or you can take it as a piece of the 80s, freeze dried and preserved on video. I won’t do that though, because I can’t. I’ve got to take this thing and try to gauge it on a scale that refers it to Graffiti Bridge. How does this compare to that wonder of wonders?

Official Score:
25 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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