While Image Entertainment satisfied fans of Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone series by bringing out their ultimate editions of each season, the feature film that hit theatres in 1983 took a long, long time to arrive on DVD, which is odd, given it was released on VHS and laserdisc, albeit panned & scanned, a year after the film's theatrical run
Apparently the film was never reissued on laserdisc in a widescreen format, which is very suspicious since Warner Bros. later made a point in reissuing cult catalogue titles in swanky widescreen transfers, like The Wild Bunch, Dirty Harry, or schlock like The Swarm.
So why did it take 24 years for the feature film to reach fans in its original widescreen ratio?
Well, the film became a major hot potato when two children and actor Vic Morrow were killed in a godawful accident during filming, resulting in a lengthy trial that ultimately acquitted director John Landis of negligence, along with the film's producers (who were conveniently out of the country during the court proceedings).
The deaths inevitably shined a glaring spotlight on the improper use of children during filming – using kids beyond the regulated hours, and close to live explosives for Pete's sake – and the studio was stuck with a film that was supposed to ride on the success Superman: The Movie, another feature film based on a hugely successful and beloved TV series that continued to draw new fans during years of syndication airings.
From the studio's angle in 1983, they had a mostly complete film to release – ultimately the Landis segment was cleverly edited to cover up the missing scenes of Vic Morrow rescuing two Vietnamese kids while under helicopter fire (making the missing sequence superfluous, and the deaths even more revolting) – and a huge ad campaign meant to alert fans of the four stories directed by a quartet from that era's top directors.
The film's first home video release was probably locked in place long before the tragic deaths, and once those video commitments were honored, the film quietly disappeared from circulation.
Of course, it's mostly a specific generation who recalls the media frenzy that surrounded the trial, the prosecutor's outrage, and the hard-edged book, Outrageous Conduct, that pretty much excoriated Landis and the producers for being reckless during filming, and failing to admit some fault in the tragedy.
(The book's conclusion wasn't that Landis and the producers deliberately allowed events to go beyond their safe parameters, but that they were too caught up in ego plays, production constraints, and surrounded by some inexperienced and over-zealous technicians willing to skip a few safety precautions in order to use the production as their first major entry into film work.)
Most of the Twilight Zone series – the original sixties, eighties and millennium versions – have made it to DVD by now, and Warner Bros.' release of the movie finally allows fans to revisit the much-maligned theatrical spin-off.
The first segment, an original story written and directed by John Landis, received the most derision, but it's undeserving, given each episode has its own share of variable flaws. Landis' tale is pretty compact and simple: a bigot is persecuted in temporal episodes after slandering various races with his drinking buddies after a long crappy day at work: he becomes a Jew in Nazi-occupied France, an African-American in the deep south, and a Vietcong soldier during the Vietnam War.
He's basically hunted until he's loaded up by Nazis in a cattle car destined for a concentration camp, and as he looks beyond the wooden slats, he sees his friends outside of the bar, deaf to his pleas for help. It's a sharp jab, but it doesn't make much sense as to why there's a dimensional portal between the two worlds for this ersatz twist finale.
Of note in this segment is Jerry Goldsmith's punchy score, fusing synth and orchestral percussion with a rippling, ticking piano that beautifully recalls the compact scores he wrote decades earlier for his own Twilight Zone episodes. Vic Morrow's performance is first-rate, and the hard lighting by veteran TV cinematographer Stevan Larner strangely suits the heavy use of studio backlots, evoking the familiar sets of the original TV series, yet reducing the story's cinematic value and rendering Landis' effort as the stagiest of the quartet.
The second segment updates George Clayton Johnson's “Kick the Can” episode, which has a stranger encouraging brittle-minded seniors to play a midnight session of the kid's game, after which they physically become young again. On the surface, it's a great story, yet Richard Matheson and Melissa Mathison (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) recognized the original TV script had one big flaw: if they're kids, where do they go, given their parents have been dead and buried for decades? How do they call up their own kids and explain their status as parents trapped in the shells of kids?
The solution was a scene where the youthanized seniors - still possessing their adult personalities - ask those questions to the magical visitor (a final, benevolent performance by veteran character actor Scatman Crothers), and of the group, only one chooses to stay young and venture out into the world, while the others return to their proper ages, but start the next day with a greater zeal for an active life.
Sappy to the bone, Spielberg's directorial style was very gooey during this period, and he fills shots with wide-eyed faces paused in frozen wonderment, all set to Goldsmith's gushy score that embraces all the treacly sentimentality that's dated some of Spielberg's eighties work, including his own contributions to his clumsy TV series, Amazing Stories. (The exception, however, is Poltergeist, which benefitted immensely from Goldsmith's mix of a lullaby and gnarled, brassy chaos.)
For the one character who remains a child (uhm, really a teenager), you have wonder how he's going to explain himself if a police car drives along the street past midnight and sees a half-naked, peroxide boy wearing a cape. In spite of the tweaks to Matheson's original story, the fanciful ending is just plain illogical.
Rod Serling had his own indulgences during his tenure on the original TV series, particularly tales of characters longing for simpler, past lives, but in his best teleplays, and with rare exceptions, happy endings where skewered by sharp irony. The characters in Spielberg's “Kick the Can” are aware that the sacrifice to start again as children is just too great, so they return to their senior years, and there's no challenging message beyond ‘be young at heart.' The character in Serling's own world often fond tenuous solace when they attempted to revisit their past, and they quickly discovered it's either unattainable, their desperate efforts were dangerously meddlesome, or to stay in their idyllic world required a great sacrifice.
The third segment has Richard Matheson updating Rod Serling's original teleplay of Jerome Bixby's classic story, “It's a Good Life,” about a boy with powers that allow him to virtually create and destroy anything at any time, and keep tabs on people by hearing their thoughts. Joe Dante's persona and cartoon fetishes are all over the script, and while Matheson might be credited with the update, Dante larded the tale with vivid recreations of classic Warner Bros. cartoons, duplicating some lighting schemes and shadows, house furniture, and stylizing the house itself.
The updating has a teacher (Kathleen Quinlan) taking the creepy kid to his home, and eventually realizing she's been ensnared as the latest addition to the boy's fake family. Dante adds some moody touches via slow reveals, the fake family's bizarre behaviour while the boy gives his new friend a tour of the house, and the use of rubber puppets and visual effects for mutant versions of animated TV characters that burst from the TV set.
The problem with Dante's story is it cops out; it's as though Spielberg felt the script was getting too dark, and mandated a syrupy happy ending that has the teacher acting as a guardian for the boy who now realizes his gift is something to be cherished and applied quite sparingly. If you show a sister with no mouth, add a mutant rabbit, and have a character trapped and devoured on TV by an animated maw, why go sappy at the end, adding a blossoming field of Technicolor flowers as the two drive away from the wasteland the boy had created prior to the teacher's arrival?
There's a nice cameo by Billy Mumy, who played the original monster child in Serling's grim teleplay, and a wildly fun Goldsmith score that see-saws from orchestral suspense to demonic mickey-mousing. The segment also foreshadows Dante's more indulgent use of cartoon humour and rubber puppets in Gremlins a year later, and the unsatisfying finale of his segment somewhat parallels the weak finale of Explorers (1985), which, like his Twilight Zone segment built up the suspense and mystery, but capped the story with a finale that had viewers scratching their heads.
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George Miller's segment, a remake of the episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” is bereft of Spielbergian gushiness, and it's the best tale in the film, with Matheson updating his original story with some minor tweaks to the characters.
The poor schlub (originally played on TV by William Shatner) who sees the gremlin has been transformed into a pill-popping loon (an elastic John Lithgow), and the passengers are far more unpleasant: the children are vile, soulless monsters, and the cop who saves Lithgow from the gremlin is initially presented as walking-talking corpulent sneer.
Directed by Miller, the segment immediately starts with an energy level that trounces the more genteel efforts of the other directors, and while Miller's segment exclusively addresses paranoia under cramped conditions, it does what the other directors failed to achieve: scare audiences, and reward them with a few genuine chuckles.
Like his Mad Max films, the camera angles force wide lenses close to the actor's sweaty pores, and he pushes the actors close to each other within singular shots to further aggravate each other; when the co-pilot (a rare sympathetic role, nicely underplayed by veteran TV actor John Dennis Johnston) tries to calm his strung-out passenger, he hovers uncomfortably close to Lithgow's face in spite of using in a calm and steady tone.
Aside from Miller's warped directorial touches, the script is pretty close to the original teleplay, proving that a good story maintains its impact if you leave its winning elements alone, and don't mess with its simplicity to engage in personal fetishes or fixations. Maybe Miller's own rule-breaking style suited the segment, but it's the most faithful tribute to the original series.
Warner Bros.' transfer, sporting a Dolby 5.1 mix, is first-rate, but aside from a short teaser trailer that makes use of the original campaign art & logo (dropped for the DVD sleeve, and replaced with visuals similar to Image Entertainment's DVDs of the original series), there's no other extras, which again indicates the studio's decision to give the film a discrete release.
It's all a catch-22: if they recorded a commentary track with an unrestricted discussion of the film, it could become a legal headache, as there's no way to avoid talking about Landis' segment without addressing the deaths; if the tragedies are not to be discussed, then the label is seen as playing censor.
At the very least, what should have been included were bits of the original publicity materials – stills, text files – or bio sketches of Serling, a pop culture overview of the series, and sketches of the film's writers (of which several were heavy hitters in the fantasy/science-fiction genre. Even the novelization was written by horror scribe Robert Bloch, author of Psycho.)
Anthology films are often a mixed bag; regardless of whether each story is directed or written by one or several, it's basically a crap shoot. Richard Matheson's best tale in the TV movie Trilogy of Terror is “Prey” – the last one – and it's the only reason to watch an otherwise mediocre anthology penned by Matheson and directed Dan Curtis, two men otherwise well-versed in the horror genre. And of the three tales penned by Rod Serling for his Night Gallery TV movie, the strongest efforts came from director Boris Sagal (“The Cemetery”), and a very young Steven Spielberg (“Eyes”) who, like Dante's own early work (namely The Howling), managed to scare viewers & audiences before his own personal fixations started to handicapped narratives and affect the tone and texture of stories.
Twilight Zone: The Movie is also intriguing for being a snapshot of the directors as their careers where going full steam. After a series of good films – Spies Like Us, The Three Amigos - John Landis later directed increasingly lame comedies and dreadful sequels, although his cable TV series Dream On had strong moments during its early years.
Steven Spielberg, in turn, was beginning his impresario phase, executive producing family fare with his own brand of sentimental, ersatz childhood innocence, and building up Amblin' Entertainment as a major player among personal production companies for film and TV markets.
Joe Dante had already started to move from genre satires of the sleazy exploitation films for which he cut trailers during his formative years, and his gory satires like Piranha and The Howling were overtaken by an interest to mine his personal affection for fifties monster movies (Matinee), surreal childhood worlds (TV's Eerie, Indiana) and Warner Bros. cartoons (the misfire Explorers, and the more recent misstep, Looney Tines: Back in Action).
Unlike Landis, whose recent films have barely gotten much screen time, Dante has fared a bit better, and both directors recently contributed their own episodes to the Masters of Horror cable TV series, with Dante delivering a surprisingly vicious and gory political satire.
Like Spielberg, George Miller has largely stayed in the feature film world, producing and directing films at a rather erratic level, and helming some very eclectic projects, such as the gut-wrenching drama Lorenzo's Oil (1992), the dark adult drama, camouflaged inside the Trojan kiddie film Babe: Pig in the City (1998), and the bonkers animated musical, Happy Feet (2006) – all very distant from his violent and gloomy Mad Max triptych.
In addition to efforts to revive Serling's TV series during the eighties and early 00's, a TV movie in 1994 dramatized two original stories written by Serling that were never filmed during the series original 1959-1964 run.
Richard Matheson followed Twilight Zone: The Movie with a lesser efforty in his canon - the flat-headed sequel Jaws 3-D.
For a more nostalgic take on the theatrical release of Twilight Zone: The Movie, check out the following blog.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan