11 May 2009

Movie review: Twilight Zone: The Movie

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller. Starring Vic Morrow, John Lithgow, Scatman Crothers, Kathleen Quinlan, Dan Aykroyd.

Look at me! I’m writing about a movie revival of a classic ‘60 speculative-fiction television series that has a connection to Jerry Goldsmith—and it’s not Star Trek! Illogical.

The inspiration for re-watching Twilight Zone: The Movie, however, isn’t from Trek at all. I just received on my doorstep my copy of the freshly-minted expanded release of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the movie. I own an old LP, and transferred that to CD and my iPod long ago, but the score has never had a domestic CD release—and this new one from Film Score Monthly contains the entirety of the music. It occurred to me as I listened to the album that I hadn’t watched the film in probably a decade. Time for another trip through the Doorway of Imagination. . . .

The Zone movie arose out of the nostalgia waves packaged with the new blockbuster era that started in the late-1970s. With Spielberg’s name attached to it as producer, the project had major prestige, and Spielberg was able to attract top-talent to the project. Although some early ideas floated around for a single-story film, eventually the filmmakers opted for a four-story anthology, with a different director and crew working on each one. John Landis, hot from An American Werewolf in London and also a huge Twilight Zone fan, came on board with an original script called “Time Out.” Spielberg initially planned to direct a re-make one of the classic episodes of the show, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” but after the early production tragedy, switched to one of Zone’s lighter pieces, “Kick the Can.” Joe Dante, who had recent success with another 1981 werewolf film, The Howling, picked one of the show’s strangest episodes, “It’s a Good Life,” based on a classic science-fiction story. Last was George Miller, the mastermind behind The Road Warrior, who took the helm on perhaps the flat-out scariest of all Twilight Zone episodes, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” based on a story by Richard Matheson, and which originally starred William Shatner. (No, no, not more Trek!)

No matter how many years pass, Twilight Zone: The Movie will always have the shadow of actor Vic Morrow’s death hanging over it. Morrow and two child actors died in an accident involving a helicopter crash during the filming of Landis’s segment. Not only did this tragedy put a bleak black mark over the film’s reception (ending up in a long legal case, which eventually exonerated Landis of culpability), it damaged the whole production as well, since Landis had started filming his segment first. I’m amazed that production continued, and that two of the four stories ended up as good as they are. I think Spielberg’s story got injured the most—it feels a bit phoned-in, as if the director thought the whole project was doomed.

The conventional wisdom is that the four segments get increasingly better, and I agree. Best to tackle the episodes in order:
The movie opens with a prologue, Real Scary, which Landis wrote and directed, but which almost feels like an improv. Two men (Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks) drive through desolate country at night and banter about TV shows until one of them brings up The Twilight Zone. It’s a funny bit because of the skill of the two comedians, and it certainly catches audience members off-guard with its easy conversational humor that almost seems like Quentin Tarantino. It segues perfectly into the opening title sequence replicating the main titles from the fifth season of the show, with Burgess Meredith replacing Rod Serling as the voiceover.
Landis’s Time Out doesn’t work at all, and it’s partially because of the tragic accident. I don’t mean that thoughts of the tragedy prevent the segment from functioning for viewers—although they don’t help—but that the needed restructuring neutered the story of anything like drama or development. A bigot gets his comeuppance. That’s it. The cut scene involving the helicopter had the racist Mr. Connor (Morrow) trying to rescue two Vietnamese children, an act of redemption, even though he still ultimately pays with a train ride to Auschwitz. This at least indicates a change in the character and movement in the story. As presented in the finished film, the segment goes nowhere. Connor throws around every insult he can about Jews, blacks, women, and Asians at a bar—which is too over-the-top, although I think Morrow is excellent at playing it—and then he stumbles out into a time-shift where he suffers as a minority in different periods of time. There’s nothing more to it, and it leaves no emotional residue aside from knowing Vic Morrow died filming it.
I’ve already mentioned that I believe Spielberg was mentally absent for Kick the Can. It’s sentimental, in-line with his recent E. T., but too close to treacle. Compared to Ron Howard’s Cocoon, which would re-visit the story of youth returning to the elderly, it’s sub-par. But it has a story at least, and after “Time Out,” you’ll grasp for anything.

Scatman Crothers plays Mr. Bloom, a new resident at the Sunnyvale Rest Home who has the power to turn the other oldsters into bad child actors using his magic tin can. Spielberg botches the setting: the rest home seems a rather charming place, not a dead-end dreary single step from the cemetery, and its inhabits act pretty darn cheerful even before Crothers pulls his magic. Crothers almost single-handedly salvages the story from complete apathy; his grin has a warmth and magic far beyond any of the staid “magic” he works on the residents of Sunnyvale.
Joe Dante has the most outright humorous story to tackle, Jerome Bixby’s It’s a Good Life (the italics appear only in the short story title). The episode of the original show, best known as “the one where the kid wishes people into the cornfield” stays close to the short story, but Dante introduces an outside character, Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan, and a character name from the TV episode “Nightmare as a Child”). Because of this he can’t do the actual “apocalypse” concept of Bixby’s work (seek out that story; it’s genius) but he does do the “madcap” part. And he gets to embrace his love of crazy Warner Bros. cartoons that mark so much of his work.

Helen, while in transit (a classic situation for anyone entering the Twilight Zone), gives a ride home to a young boy, Anthony (Jeremy Licht). His home contains a “family” that toadies desperately to the boy’s every whim and appears deathly afraid of him. Helen slowly comes to understand that Anthony has immense reality-warping powers, which he uses to force what he sees as the “good life” on the people he’s trapped (which includes future Bart Simpson voice Nancy Cartwright, who coincidentally gets trapped in “cartoon land”). Unfortunately for the inmates of the crazy house, the “good life” for Anthony is an endless Warner Bros. cartoon. Dante makes this the mostly stylized of the segments, with weird lighting and sets, and a series of bizarre cartoon monsters created by Rob Bottin. It’s funny and the right level of weird, although perhaps starting too slowly and concluding too pat.
Last up, the only genuinely scary segment. Everybody loves Nigthmare at 20,000 Feet . . . unless they, like the poor airplane passenger protagonist, have an intense phobia of flying. The nerve-shattered man, John Valentine, is played by Chris Pine William Shatner John Lithgow in the best performance in the movie. He’s a sweaty, quivering, stuttering mess as his commercial airline flight goes through a nasty storm. Director Miller sends the camera swirling and swinging so viewers feel that same nauseous instability. Everything about the segment is intense in building suspense and horror toward the moment that Valentine faces the gremlin he’s convinced has started to attack the plane’s engines. This segment wasn’t originally supposed to conclude the movie; the post-production slate had it second, with “Kick the Can” as the sign-off. But producer Spielberg must have realized that Miller’s story was the strongest of them all and sacrificed his story’s original prime position so audiences would walk out of the theater feeling an adrenaline rush.

Unifying the four stories, all of which used separate crews and editors, is Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific score. Goldsmith scored seven episodes of the original series and had previously worked with Spielberg on Poltergeist, so he was the natural choice for Twilight Zone: The Movie. This marked his first work with Joe Dante, who supervised the recording sessions, and the two men immediately found a natural groove. Goldsmith would work with Dante until the composer’s final score, Loony Tunes: Back in Action. Goldsmith’s music for all the segments is intriguing, such as the small piano and percussion ensemble for “Time Out” that recalls the scores from the television show. But it’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” that gets the primo treatment: Goldsmith’s driving bass-line score pulsates with the fear and growing horror that matches the direction and editing of the images. It’s tingly, terrifying work.

Seen today, Twilight Zone: The Movie mixes historical curiosity with spots of excellence. The first half is sad (for meta-textual reasons), stodgy, and slow; the second frenetic, funny, and frightening. Although only a mild success, the movie helped the creation of more anthology films, as well as an excellent TV revival of the show a few years later. (I think this second Twilight Zone series is underrated.) And it led to Dante directing Gremlins, so there’s a big victory right there.

Update: My friend Peter posted a review of the movie when it premiered on DVD. We agree nearly 100% about the film, and I think it’s a great read.