I’ve seen Twilight Zone: The Movie before (in the theater when it came out in 1983, in fact) but just recently recorded and watched it again. It doesn’t hold up.
I had forgotten that the opening is a literal update of the final few seasons’ intro sequence, complete with the Scary Door, floating eyeball, shattering window, human figure and clock, all given a nice modern sheen. The effect is to underscore just how silly the whole thing was to begin with. When CBS revived the series two years later they wisely jettisoned this for completely different opening credits that call back to the original without aping them.
The movie is framed by a character played by Dan Aykroyd. In the movie’s first sequence he is a passenger in a car driven by Albert Brooks. They exchange banter for a bit before Aykroyd talks Brooks into pulling over in order to show him something ‘really scary’. This turns out to be Aykroyd done up with make-up effects worthy of the original Star Trek. The main problem here is that they apparently could not budget a movable mouth so Aykroyd’s monster face looks like a mound of blue plaster topped with a fright wig. Maybe it was meant to be an homage to Creepshow and other cheesy horror movies/comics but that’s not what The Twilight Zone is about, so it would have still missed the mark there.
This leads into the first of four stories and the only original one, which I find both understandable (present the audience with stories they know and presumably love) and mildly puzzling on the other (“I can watch these stories for free on TV, why should I pay to watch them in a theater?”). Sadly the original story is the weakest of the bunch. A racist man played by Vic Morrow leaves a bar in a huff and finds himself in Nazi-occupied France where the bad guys see him as a Jew. He then lands at a KKK lynching, appearing as the black would-be lynching victim, escapes again to find himself doing a compelling impersonation of Charlie during the Vietnam war before ending up back with the Nazis. Upon return he is captured and put into a cattle car and shipped off to the concentration camps because he is a racist and isn’t that ironic?
Granted, the message episodes of The Twilight Zone were never subtle to begin with ( in one an American Nazi — played wonderfully by Dennis Hopper — is guided by Hitler himself) but this story is a limp series of sequences that feels rote. There’s no investment in the character — he’s just a nondescript loudmouth with ugly views and an uglier suit jacket (it was the early 80s, after all) and each sequence is too brief to carry any emotional impact. There is a certain ghoulish feeling knowing that Morrow was killed during the shooting of the Vietnam scene (when a helicopter hovering above him crashed due to an effects explosion).
The next story is a remake of “Kick the Can”, directed by Steven Spielberg and is cute enough to be twee and that’s even before you get to Scatman Crothers’ creepy perpetually grinning character. Where the original leaves off with the seniors transforming into kids and running off into the night, the remake brings them back to old age because the object is to be old in body but with ‘young minds’. Having shown everyone how neat it is to be young again but not really so you better climb back into bed and be old, Crothers heads off to the next seniors home to do it all over again. The scene where someone finally punches him in his stupid grinning mouth was apparently deleted.
This story captures Spielberg at his most sentimental. While the actors are fine, the script is mawkish and heavy-handed, once again bent on delivering a message above all else. As you might have guessed, I found Crothers’ character (new for the remake) annoying and unnecessary.
The third story is a remake of the classic episode where Bill Mumy plays an evil kid who can do anything with his mind and occupies most of his time by demanding fealty from his parents and their neighbors as they are forced to endure his childish, outlandish indulgences, lest they get sent to the corn field — or worse. The remake introduces a new character, a young school teacher who takes the boy home and gets ensnared in his bizarre world and changes the supporting characters to be similar victims, rather than his actual family. The rest plays out mostly the same but while the horror of the original was palpable (one character is famously turned into a living jack-in-the-box) it is presented more cartoonishly here (literally, for the most part). The biggest change is the ending, where the teacher breaks through the boy’s loneliness and agrees to teach him to be nice and use his power wisely rather than to put people into cartoons where they are eaten by monsters. It’s a happy thing but makes the story feel a bit too pat. The original leaves one with a sense that these people are going to be stuck in his hellish world for a very long time, the remake seems to sum up with ‘all you need is love’ and while that’s nice, it’s not nearly as fun. Still, this is far better than the first two stories.
The final is perhaps one of the best-known of the original series, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” where a nervous airline passenger (William Shatner in the original, John Lithgow in the remake) believes he seems a creature on the wing of the plane trying to damage the engines. This is the most faithful retelling, down to Lithgow’s character being carted off in a straitjacket and the reveal of actual damage to the plane, proving he wasn’t just seeing things. It differs in a few ways, most notably by eliminating the wife of the character. My biggest problem with this segment is the pacing. In the original the character seems perfectly normal but nervous about flying (given that his previous flight ended in an actual nervous breakdown). After first spotting the creature he begins to unwind and grows increasingly hysterical but there is always the sense that he is trying to maintain control. The remake starts with Lithgow in the washroom already freaking out. The arc of the character isn’t given room to breathe and is less rewarding as a result. Plus Lithgow plays nervous maybe a little too well. The creature’s appearance is also changed from a big fluffy something with a kind of ugly face to an hairless, demon-like thing with a mouth full of nasty-looking teeth. While it is theoretically scarier, it also changes the creature’s motivation. In the original it seemed to be pulling apart the plane out of fun. The remake creature seems more determined to actually bring the plane down, which muddles why it would disappear when Lithgow’s character tries to point it out to others instead of just finishing the job.
The movie ends with Lithgow in the ambulance and Aykroyd revealed as the driver, offering to show him something ‘really scary’ (I’m guessing bad make-up effects).
On a scale of 1 to 10 Serlings, Twlight Zone: The Movie rates 6 Serlings. Individually:
“Time Out”: 4/10
“Kick the Can”: 4/10
“It’s a Good life”: 6/10
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”: 7/10