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Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983): Four Frights
I guess I’ll always be a fan of the 1983 fantasy anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie, as it was my first introduction to horror movies in the mid-’80s on its original network aired on TV. As a small eight-year-old, I was dazzled by the stunning visual effects of Rob Bottin’s film (The Howling, Legend) and intrigued by the touch of dread and menace that surrounded certain segments. The film was an ambitious collaboration between four highly revered directors in the horror and fantasy industries: John Landis (who directed both the prologue and the first segment of the film), Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller . Three of the film’s four stories are reworkings of episodes from the beloved 1959 television series “The Twilight Zone,” while the fourth is an original creation written specifically for the film by John Landis. Twilight Zone: The Movie is notorious for its production issues which came to a head when veteran actor Vic Morrow (who plays the titular character in John Landis’ original segment) was beheaded on set along with two juvenile Asian actors by a faulty helicopter. The devastating tragedy meant the film sat on the shelf for almost a year while Landis battled in court after being charged with manslaughter.
The film begins with a chilling prologue directed by Landis that features Dan Aykroyd as a hitchhiker who has been picked up by know-it-all driver Albert Brooks on a lonely stretch of road in the mountains. After listening to a Creedence Clearwater Revival Midnight Special (director Landis’ trademark), our traveling duo play chicken on the twisty road, seeing how far they can drive with the headlights off, etc., before the driver challenges the passenger with a contest to see who can guess the other on TV show themes. They end up discussing the weird theme of the Twilight Zone series years ago, before the mysterious hitchhiker asks the driver if he’d like to see something REALLY scary, something so scary he’ll have to shoot the car on the side of the road to see. Brooks impatiently stops the vehicle and turns to Aykroyd, who – much to the horror of Brooks and the audience – has transformed into a chalk-faced, bloodthirsty ghoul strangling the hapless driver before we are welcomed into the Twilight Zone. by Burgess. Meredith, which picks up Rod Serling’s immortal opening narration and leads into the first segment.
Segment #1 stars the late and talented Vic Morrow as Bill Connor, a racist bigot who joins his work buddies Larry (Doug McGrath) and Ray (Charles Hallahan) at a local bar to drink and stew on the fact that he was ignored during a promotion for a fellow Jew named Goldman. After loudly dripping his mouth and punching Arabs, Blacks, Jews, and Hispanics, an irate patron at the bar asks Bill to turn down the decibel level of his sordid conversation, causing Bill to rush out of the room. angry place. Bill walks to his vehicle in the parking lot, but what he doesn’t realize is that he’s entered the Zone and is about to be repaid for his bigoted views. Finding that he has left the bar and entered a Nazi neighborhood around 1943, Bill is chased through the streets and shot dead by a Third Reich squad who think he is Jewish. Bill then finds himself groomed for hanging by a group of white-clad Klansman, who keep referring to him as a “coon” and a “nigger” as they prepare a noose for our baffled anti-hero. Bill manages to escape again to a nearby lake where he hides among the weeds, but again he is transported to another time – now the swamps of Vietnam circa 1969, where he is pursued as a Vietnamese by an army of American soldiers through the steaming water. In the end, Bill finds himself in World War II Germany and is thrown into a heap on a boxcar with a group of Jews heading to a concentration camp. The only episode not to be explicitly based on an original segment of the series, it was nevertheless loosely based on two originals: “A Quality of Mercy” and “Deaths-Head Revisited”. It stays in keeping with the “moral” theme of much of the original Twilight Zone series, and is a tense, intriguing piece that fits right in with the film’s other episodes.
The Next Tale is a whimsical and uplifting story created by Steven Spielberg that closely resembles an episode of the director’s acclaimed Amazing Stories series. An ’80s retelling of the original series episode “Kick the Can”, it stars Scatman Crothers (who is a pure delight) as Mr. Bloom, an elderly man who arrives at Sunnyvale Convalescent Home and inspires elderly residents to live like young people again when he invites them to sneak out of the house the night after head caretaker Miss Cox (Spielberg’s future mother-in-law Priscilla Pointer) visits for part of Kick the Can. When the elders find themselves literally transformed in their clothes into children by the magical Mr. Bloom, they discover that they must make a choice between starting their childhood life over again or remaining old but keeping a “fresh and young mind”. An underrated segment that many don’t think belongs in the movie due to its lighthearted nature, I think it’s incredibly poignant and, as a remake of an actual episode, fits right into the movie and presents a incredible twilight-tinged cinematography by Allen Daviau, not to mention a string of wonderful performances from Bill Quinn, Martin Garner, Helen Shaw, Selma Diamond, Murray Matheson and Peter Brocco.
Our third story is a remake of “It’s a Good Life” directed by Joe Dante and stars Kathleen Quinlan as the charming young schoolteacher Helen Foley, who is on her way to a new job in Willoughby and stops at a restaurant run by Walter Paisley (Dick Miller, reprising his “role” from A Bucket of Blood by Roger Corman and Hollywood Boulevard and The Howling by Dante). On her way out, she accidentally encounters young cyclist Anthony (Jeremy Licht) with her car and ends up driving the boy and his twisted bike to his sprawling house in the middle of nowhere. Upon meeting Anthony’s smiling, neurotic family, which includes his mother (Patricia Barry), father (William Schallert), sister Ethel (Nancy Cartwright) and Uncle Walt (Kevin McCarthy), Helen begins to suspect that something something is wrong with this family. There are television sets throughout the house, all tuned to Looney Tunes; she sees a hanging family portrait that has whitewashed everyone’s faces; and she meets Anthony’s mute, disabled older sister, Sara (Cherie Currie), who not only doesn’t have the ability to speak, she doesn’t have a mouth! Helen reluctantly stays for dinner, which is an assortment of candied apples, ice cream, potato chips, and peanut butter burgers, but soon Anthony forces Uncle Walt to perform a magic trick that gets him out of a rabbit. demonic mutant of a black top hat. It turns out that Anthony has unique mental powers that allow him to control the will of others and conjure up anything he wants out of thin air. After wishing his “family” away (which is not his real family at all but a collection of strangers who were forced to act as such by Anthony), Anthony is alone with Helen, who convinces the lonely boy to actually be her. son as they explore together the nature of his gifts. Excellent acting, psychedelic set design, wild visual effects and fast-paced direction from Dante make this another winner.
The fourth and final story, which many consider the film’s best, is directed by George Miller and is a rehash of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” It stars the wonderful John Lithgow (who won Best Supporting Actor from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for this performance) as John Valentine, an author textbook aviophobe on board an airplane who sees an evil flying gremlin wreaking havoc on the plane’s wing through his seat window. He begins to panic and is considered mad by the other passengers and the plane’s staff, and soon after grabs a gun from a traveling security guard and shoots through his window at the gruesome imp – sending the passengers in panic as the cold air swirls with force. in the compartment. Upon landing, Valentine is escorted by stretcher and wrapped in a straitjacket to the local madhouse for observation; when pushed into the ambulance, he discovers that the driver is the otherworldly hitchhiker from the film’s prologue (Aykroyd again) who sets the radio to “Midnight Special” and leaves with the writer scared in tow. George Miller’s direction is incredible and the episode is very suspenseful and entertaining – a tasty finale for the supernatural omnibus.
Long only available on an expensive VHS release in the United States, Twilight Zone: The Movie was finally released as a remastered version on DVD and Blu-Ray in late 2007, much to the delight of longtime fans. As a viewer, I rate the film 9 out of 10 and recommend it to fans of the original series and fans of horror and fantasy films young and old.
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