Oh anthology films – what ever happened to them? They have seemed to have gone out of popularity, which is a shame because I think they were remarkable. Instead of having to sit through one long story, the audience instead experiences a few different stories, all centered around a specific theme. Perhaps the only bastion of anthology horror found these days is on The Simpsons in their annual Treehouse of Horror episodes. Growing up enjoying those episodes, I naturally was drawn towards The Twilight Zone – a TV show where anything can happen, and each episode told a different story of horror or science fiction. They kept me glued to my seat, and I adored them, and even though I only encountered them a few years ago, they are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and 1960s. It is only fitting that if a film was ever to be made about The Twilight Zone, it should be as good as the show. I can safely say that while Twilight Zone: The Movie has many flaws, it is still a great film, and the four stories selected are absolutely wonderful.
The key to Twilight Zone: The Movie‘s success can be found in the fact that the four directors of the film were each established directors, who have gone on to become legendary in their careers since making this film, and in the case of two of them, they were already notable and respected directors, each with more than one classic under his belt before making this film. Many anthology films that do not do quite as well hire amateur or inexperienced directors, hoping that they are able to handle a small part of a bigger film, rather than an entire film. The vision of each director of Twilight Zone: The Movie shows throughout, and while this film is certainly far from being the best in the careers of any of these men, the film serves as a very interesting segment in each of their filmographies.
The first segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie is known as “Time Out” – it is an original story, and the only one of the four segments not adapted from an episode of the television show. The segment sees character actor Vic Morrow playing a bitter and bigoted man that spurts out racist slurs like he greets his friends everyday. Of course, this is The Twilight Zone, and he finds himself exiting the bar, and entering into a variety of places – the Holocaust, where he is perceived as a Jew, the racist South, where he is seen as being an African-American, and then in Vietnam, where he is one of the Asian enemies. He has to endure being on the other side, facing off with people just like him – racist, bigoted and narrow-minded people, and he finds himself in the exact position of the exact people he insults constantly. It is certainly the most moral of the segments, and it is the only one that really has a social meaning – and that isn’t a criticism or praise – because a film like Twilight Zone: The Movie doesn’t need social messages, but it doesn’t look odd when it does have a moral to the story. Morrow is wonderful in the main role, and director John Landis (who, by this point, had done National Lampoon’s Animal House, An American Werewolf in London and The Blues Brothers) directed it well, capturing the fear and terror that people in the eras shown in this segment had to go through. Unfortunately, watching this segment is saddening, as Vic Morrow, along with two young children, lost their lives after a stunt when wrong, killing all three of them.
The second segment, directed by Steven Spielberg, is titled as “Kick the Can”, and was probably my least favorite of the segments. The story itself is wonderfully sweet – a group of retired people yearn to be young again, and they get their wish when a magical man appears that gives them the opportunity to be young, but they soon learn that being young is not quite the most desirable thing one can be. Scatman Crothers is great in the main role of Mr. Bloom, who possesses the magical can that causes the elderly to become children again. The rest of the cast of this segment were fine, but they didn’t serve any other purpose than just being old. The segment felt too long, and fell flat far too often, and just didn’t have the frenzied intricacy or brilliance of the rest of the segments. The execution wasn’t great, and it could have been so much better (although I would have not kept it in, and I’d rather have opted for a different segment that fit in better with the rest of the film).
The third segment was certainly a signal that the film was improving. Titled “It’s a Good Life”, director Joe Dante tells the story of a young school teacher, Helen, who is travelling to a small town, and encounters an innocent little boy who she accidentally knocks over with her car. Her guilt (and decency) makes her offer the boy a ride home. When she arrives there, she discovers that the boy seems to have the perfect life – loving parents, a kooky house, televisions in every room that only show cartoons and all the junk-food he could want. Helen soon discovers that the little boy is far more malicious, and what unfolds is that there is a hostage situation going on, where the boy possesses powers that can make anything happen. Helen finds herself trapped, but using her powerful personality gained from being a schoolteacher, she is able to outsmart the monstrosity that has kidnapped her and others. This segment is a technological and design marvel, with the fear and terror being exhibited through exquisite production design and highly progressive practical visual effects. Dante may not be the most iconic of the four directors, but he certainly is able to capture exactly what this segment was aiming for. The performances from Kathleen Quinlan and Jeremy Licht. Look out for a smaller role from Nancy Cartwright, who would soon go on to voice a particular cartoon boy of equal maliciousness and mischief that would make her into a millionaire.
The final segment, known as “Terror at 20,000 Feet” is most certainly the best. John Lithgow plays John Valentine, an author who has an irrational fear of flying, and he causes the crew and his fellow passengers considerable annoyance with his paranoia. However, it is just made worse by the fact that he sees a monster on the wing of the plane, and even though he screams for help, people simply think he’s hysterical and making things up. Lithgow gives an amazing performance as the frightened and paranoid Valentine. He was nominated for an Academy Award that year, but for his average work in Terms of Endearment. I certainly think he should have gotten recognition for his performance here, because it was just too nuanced and frantic to ignore. George Miller directed this segment, and it is interesting to see him handle a small-scope setting rather than the endless landscape that populate his Mad Max films. It is the best segment of the entire film, and one of the most terrifying and brilliant horror moments of the 1980s.
Twilight Zone: The Movie is really an entertaining and well-crafted film. The four directors bring their own unique visions to the film, and while the first two segments are overshadowed by the final two segments, the film itself is still an exhilarating and truly entertaining film. Anthology films should definitely make a comeback, because I definitely think there is an audience for them. If you love science fiction and horror, Twilight Zone: The Movie will definitely be right up your alley.