Sunday, April 6, 2014

Twilight Zone: The Movie

"You're travelling through another dimension...a dimension, not only of sight and sound, but of mind...a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.  Next stop... The Twilight Zone!"

Growing up, I'd watched a lot of syndicated television, especially shows from the 50s and 60s-all in black & white-and I must say it was the highlight of my life.  Laughing through classic shows like "Leave it to Beaver" and "The Munsters" was what I remember doing most afternoons once returning home from school.  But one show that was equally enjoyable, although more on the serious side, was "The Twilight Zone."

Yes, most people know the music intro and will usually hum it or imitate it when something strange happens to them.  Or they may recognize the image of Rod Serling-the creator of the show-when seeing his image on books, magazines, or other types of media.  It helps, for many generations to come, that the ride, The Tower of Terror in Disney's California Adventure Park, contains video footage of Serling during the progress of the ride so that kids today will know of him.

I am truly a fan of the series that ran from 1959 until 1964 and will watch it any time it shows up on television.  Sadly, that's a rare occurrence and a lot of networks don't show as many syndicated shows as they did long ago.  I guess there are just too many new programs to air that they can't go back to the glorious yesteryear of the Golden Age of television.

Back in 1983, Warner Bros. set out to make a movie anthology, based on the famous television series, calling it Twilight Zone: The Movie.  Four stories were incorporated into the film with four well-known directors helming them.  Before the film was even released, it made the news as, sadly, Vic Morrow was killed during the production due to a stunt performance gone wrong.  Although Morrow was known for films like Blackboard Jungle and The Bad News Bears, I'll always remember him for his awesome performance in this movie.

The film opens with two men driving at night on a rural road, making a game of guessing television theme songs; it becomes obvious that the driver picked up the passenger as a hitchhiker.  The passenger (Dan Aykroyd), at one point, asks the driver (Albert Brooks), "Do you want to see something really scary?"  The driver reluctantly pulls over at the behest of the passenger and waits.  The passenger turns away, and then turns back as a demonic creature of some sort, attacking the driver.

And that's when the familiar opening, we all know so well, begins.  Except, instead of the voice of Rod Serling, we get the equally recognizable voice of Burgess Meredith, which is fitting since Meredith had starred in a number of original "Twilight Zone" television episodes.

In the first segment, "Time Out," directed by John Landis, Bill Conner (Vic Morrow) gets together with some friends at the local tavern after work.  He begins to be seriously pissed off because he was passed up on a promotion, citing that the company wanted to make sure they promoted another ethnicity besides white.
 Going on a tirade about other cultures and using racial slurs, Conner gets up and leaves.  However, when he goes out the door, he begins to be seen as the ethnicities he had just degraded minutes ago.  In different worlds and timelines, he now know how it feels to be persecuted as a Jew, an African-American, and a Vietnamese, as he goes through different dimensions to have these lessons taught to him.

"Time Out" is my favorite of all the segments in this film.  Morrow was perfect for the part and the story was incredible.  Strangely, yet remarkably, this is the original of the stories, as the others are remakes of actual episodes.  Unfortunately, this is the vignette where Morrow lost his life.  Turns out, there was to be a very enthusiastic scene where Morrow's character saves two Vietnamese children during the war.  Included were numerous pyrotechnics and a helicopter that flew overhead as the scene played out.  Well, the helicopter pilot lost control or something malfunctioned and the helicopter went down, the blades decapitating Morrow and one of the children, while the helicopter itself crushed the other child on impact.  It's a very forlorn swansong for a great like Vic Morrow.  I always keep him in mind when I watch this segment, because it could have been even more mesmerizing of a story.

In the second segment, "Kick the Can," a cheerful old man, Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers), shows up to teach the other aging residents that you're never too old to play a game of 'kick the can'-in other words, you're never too old to enjoy life.  However, Leo Conroy (Bill Quinn), resists, saying he's too old and that the other residents shouldn't play as well, citing they'll end up hurting themselves as they shouldn't engage in such activities.  But later, he learns how wrong he was and how right Mr. Bloom had been.

"Kick the Can" is not one of my favorites from this fact, it's my least favorite.  Amazingly, it was Steven Spielberg who had directed this part of the film.  It's still nice to view, but it makes the film, as a whole, a little uneven to watch.  The other three stories feature more shocking themes to them and this little family outing seems a little soft in comparison.  Still, it's a nice story and a basic premise that you might've seen on one of the original television programs.

The third segment, directed by Joe Dante, is "It's a Good Life" and is taken from one of the well-known episodes featuring Billy Mumy (who has a cameo in this piece).  Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) is a teacher travelling to her new job and stops at a local diner for directions.  When leaving, as she backs away from the
diner in her car, she ends up hitting a young boy named Anthony (Jeremy Licht) on his bike, knocking him off but not hurting him.  She then offers Anthony a ride home, to which he accepts.  Upon arrival at the boy's home, she finds herself in a strange place where the boy has the power to control everything and create anything he wants.

This is another nice one featuring some truly terrifying practical special effects.  If you're familiar with the works of Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins), then you'll know the look of his films, which is what you have here.  The story is a little tighter than the original, definitely goes a little further then what they did in that episode, but it still lags a little here and there.  But as I'd said about the theme of the movie as a whole, it gets the movie back on track and sets up the last terrific segment.

The fourth story, directed by George Miller, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," is yet another remake of a classic episode.  The story is about a nervously stressed out passenger, John Valentine (John Lithgow), on a flight to L.A.  The core of his stress-being afraid to fly-is eating at him as he annoys the flight attendants and other passengers throughout the flight.  To add to his anxiety, Valentine begins seeing a strange creature on the wing of the plane, ripping pieces of paneling off and hurling them into the engine.  Every time he has someone look out the window, the creature is not there. Mr. Valentine hallucinating?  Or is the creature real?

Man, this segment really hits home, as I'm nearly as crazed and tense when flying on an airplane as Lithgow's character in this part-although I pretty much keep it all inside.  The whole segment is such a suspenseful experience; you really sit on the edge of your seat, wondering what's going to happen next.  Though the story is taken from the classic episode starring William Shatner, Lithgow really turns it up a notch-or ten-with his wild-eyed performance.  While the first segment is my favorite, this one's a close second.  The segment concludes, wrapping up the beginning prologue with Dan Aykroyd (as an ambulance driver taking Lithgow's character away) repeating his question from the start of the film, "Do you want to see something really scary?"  The famous theme music begins as the end credits roll.

Thoroughly, I think this movie is great with superb performances and great direction.  With the odd exception of "Kick the Can," all the stories-including the bookend segments-fit nicely together and mesh well, going from one to another.  The film was certainly an ambition project, but done well so I don't know why it didn't garner better box office receipts.  Who knows?  Maybe the movie-going audiences weren't ready for it back then?  Perhaps the negative publicity, due to the film having three deaths during production, caused Warner Bros. not to promote it as much.  I actually don't remember hearing about it back then, but I do remember seeing advertisements for it.

Anyway, let's get my final "bit" on Twilight Zone: The Movie.

The film could've been a strong beginning to a continuation of many sequels.  One can only imagine how cool it would've been to have a four-segment movie come out every few years, remaking classic episodes of the show.  Without having the constraints television would've put in place if this was to be aired on TV, the shock value is a lot higher when including a bit of gore and believable dialogue infused.  It's sad that this film has been forgotten and not really known for anything but the tragic accident during filming.

As a post "bit," word has it that Warner Bros. wants to try a full-length feature again.  This time, however, they want to have one story as opposed to making another anthology of tales...big mistake, in my opinion.  When the show ran in the early 60s, CBS had Rod Serling change the episode lengths from half-hour shows to full-hour ones.  They were noticably drawn-out and had a lot of obvious filler in each episode, making them kind of boring.  The following season, however, the format went back to half-hour, so that should clue in Warner Bros. to their harebrained idea to make a 90-minute movie with just one story.  Learn from history, Warner Bros.

Thanks for reading...and I welcome any comments!

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