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TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE

This big budget anthology film seems destined to be known primarily for the offscreen catastrophe that occurred during filming. The film itself is a severely mixed bag, with one portion working smashingly and rest not so much.

The Package
     It seemed like a good idea: get four hot directors--John Landis (ANIMAL HOUSE, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON), Joe Dante (THE HOWLING), George Miller (MAD MAX) and Steven Spielberg, who also produced--to each direct a portion of a film based on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The 1983 project, however, went horribly wrong when a helicopter crashed during filming of the Landis-directed segment, killing actor Vic Morrow and two young children. The result was a high-profile trial that concluded in 1987 with Landis acquitted.

The Story
     Two dudes driving down a road one night get into a conversation about old TV programs, including THE TWILIGHT ZONE--until one of them, promising to show his pal “something really scary,” abruptly turns into an inhuman creature.
     This is followed by a pointless account of a racist businessman’s comeuppance. Upset that a “Jew bastard” has been promoted in his place, this a-hole launches into a tirade against Jews, blacks and the Vietnamese inside a crowded bar. Upon exiting the bar the protagonist finds himself in Nazi Germany, where he’s taken for a Jew, and then in the American south, where white robed Ku Kluxers try to string him up, and Vietnam, where he’s nearly shot by American soldiers. The man ends up back in Germany, where he’s packed into a train car with several Jews on the way to a death camp.
     Next we have an even dumber account, this one about a bunch of cute codgers in an old folks’ home who are lured into playing Kick the Can by a sweet black guy. This somehow turns the wrinkly old farts into children, who inform their supernaturally endowed benefactor that they really only wanted to become young at heart.
     Following this an attractive woman schoolteacher runs into a young boy who has the power to make his every wish come true. The boy is holding his “family” (actually a bunch of strangers he’s collected after wishing his real family away) hostage in a big house where everyone watches cartoons, eats junk food and dotes on the boy. But in truth all the twerp wants is for people not to be afraid of him.
     Finally there’s a nutty man aboard a commercial flight who’s petrified of flying. The guy becomes even more worked up when he spies a creature on the wing of the plane messing with the engines. Is he seeing things or is there really something out there?

The Direction
     Quality-wise this film has a most unexpected trajectory: the opening segments by the most popular and experienced filmmakers of the quartet flat-out suck, while the third is only slightly better and the final segment a mini-masterpiece.
     A short prologue featuring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks starts things off well. In its mixture of laughs and shock horror it’s pure John Landis, something that can’t be said for the Landis directed opening segment.
     The only one of the four segments not adapted from a TWILIGHT ZONE television episode, Landis’ segment is a disaster. Most of its problems are due to the accident outlined above, which took the life of its star player and resulted in a cobbled-together mess that unwittingly imparts the message that people with racist tendencies all deserve to be shipped off to Nazi death camps.
     Steven Spielberg’s segment is nearly as awful. It’s mawkish and cloying in the extreme, not to mention poorly lit and distractingly overscored by Jerry Goldsmith. The one saving grace is THE SHINING’S always-lovable Scatman Crothers…playing Scatman Crothers.
     Joe Dante contributes a thoroughly misguided update of “It’s a Good Life,” one of the scariest episodes of the original TZ. It suffers from a revamped script that turns the evil little boy of the original episode (and the Jerome Bixby story it was adapted from) into a misunderstood wuss. Phooey!
     Yet Dante’s overpowering candy-colored visuals are impressive, recalling the comic book inspired look of CREEPSHOW and foreshadowing the films of Tim Burton. The great Rob Bottin contributes some impressive animatronic cartoon creatures, and the lead actress Kathleen Quinlan does the best she can in a misconceived role.
     George Miller was the director of the last and best segment, inspired by the Richard Donner directed “Nightmare at 40,000 Feet” TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Working from a script by Richard Matheson (who scripted the original episode and penned the story it was based on), Miller succeeds in rendering this tight, claustrophobic piece, set almost entirely in a small portion of an airplane, in impressively cinematic fashion. It’s eerie, suspenseful and extremely well paced, putting Miller’s skill for cinematic mayhem to excellent use.
     Miller’s collaborators match his skill: the lead performance by John Lithgow is terrifically unhinged, while the steadily building, anxiety inducing score is among Jerry Goldsmith’s finest ever work. The episode also has a nifty monster that’s a far cry from the laughable guy in a gorilla suit that haunted the original “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
 

Vital Statistics

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE
Warner Bros.

Directors: John Landis (Prologue, Segment 1), Steven Spielberg (Segment 2), Joe Dante (Segment 3), George Miller (Segment 4)
Producers: Steven Spielberg, John Landis
Screenplay: John Landis (Prologue, Segment 1), Richard Matheson (Segments 2, 3 & 4), Melissa Matheson (Segment 2), George Clayton Johnson (Segment 2)
Cinematography: Allen Daviau (Segments 2, 4), John Hora (Segment 3), Steven Larner (Prologue, Segment 1)
Editing: Malcolm Campbell (Prologue, Segment 1), Tina Hirsch (Segment 3), Michael Kahn (Segment 2), Howard Smith (Segment 4)
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Scatman Crothers, John Lithgow, Vic Morrow, Kathleen Quinlan, Jeremy Licht, Kevin McCarthy, Patricia Barry, Nancy Cartwright, Doug McGrath, Dick Miller, Abbe Lane, Donna Dixon, Bill Mumy, Larry Cedar
 

     

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