A look back at Twilight Zone: The Movie, 35 years later (part 1 of 2)

Even before this day and age of seemingly endless reboots and reimaginings, the idea of remaking something for the big screen wasn’t (if you’ll pardon this) new. After all, classic series such as Batman, The Munsters, and Star Trek had all appeared on the big screen by the 1980s. In those three cases though, the casts were the same as those of the beloved TV shows the movies came from. By 1983, Steven Spielberg had gotten enough clout to join up with three of his pals/fellow directors, John Landis, Joe Dante, and George Miller to make a feature length movie based on the legendary anthology series The Twilight Zone, which aired on CBS from 1959-1964.

While I plan to go more into what transpired behind the scenes in part two of this article, each member of this quartet directed one of the four segments which comprise the movie. The movie’s prologue and its subsequent first segment, written and directed by Landis, would be original works, while the remaining three segments, directed by Spielberg, Dante, and Miller, respectively, would be remakes of episodes from the series.

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Our film begins with two chums (Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks) driving down a lonely road one evening. They’re singing the song playing on the car’s tape player until the tape inside jams and the driver (Brooks) states that the radio doesn’t get much reception in their current location. To liven things up, the driver turns off the car’s headlights for brief moments… in the dead of night. It’s a good thing cell phones weren’t around yet, or he would’ve decided to do the equally stupid thing of texting while driving. The passenger (Aykroyd) decides to pass the time by playing trivia. They begin by rattling off the theme tunes of classics shows such as National Geographic and Bonanza. The conversation then turns to (naturally) The Twilight Zone, with both of them recalling episodes, one of which they’re in disagreement over whether it was a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits installment (interestingly, a similar exchange would occur years later in Spielberg’s comedy The Terminal).

But the passenger decides its his time to pull something scary. He asks the driver to pull over in order to see it, and the latter complies with a slightly annoyed shake of the head. The passenger turns his face away for a brief moment, and the driver’s huge smirk changes when the passenger turns back revealing this:

The driver is promptly attacked and the camera pans away from the car as the classic Twilight Zone theme is played. As Rod Sterling had passed in 1975, a new narrator was obviously needed for the movie. Happily, we learn that a great second choice was found as we hear the voice of Burgess Meredith giving the classic intro accompanied by the imagery seen in the show’s title sequence.

The first segment, entitled “Time Out,” begins with Bill Connor (Vic Morrow) entering a bar to meet with his pals Larry (Doug McGrath) and Ray (Charles Hallahan). Bill states that he can’t stay long because his wife’s relatives are coming over, although this doesn’t stop him for hitting on the bar’s waitresses. But what’s really pissing Bill off is that he just got passed over for a promotion. Sure, he acknowledges that the guy who did get it has been with the company longer than he has, but Bill uses the fact that the guy is Jewish to go off on a rant against not only Jews, but black people and “Orientals”. Larry briefly adds fuel to that fire with his smart-ass remark that Jews don’t run everything because Arabs won’t let them. Bill’s ranting pisses off the three black gentlemen sitting at the table next to them and embarrasses Larry and Ray. But Bill just angrily darts off.

Once outside, though, he’s not in the bar’s parking lot, but what is Nazi territory during World War II. Bill is quickly halted by two SS officers who rummage though his wallet. Bill can’t understand what they’re saying as he doesn’t speak German, but demands an explanation.

This demand is answered with the SS men attempting to take him away. Bill escapes, taking a bullet that grazes his arm. He makes his way to the upper floor of an apartment building. However, his attempts to ask the family inside for help are met with the lady of the house shouting to the SS men below that he’s inside. Bill goes outside and makes it to the ledge of the building, allowing the SS below to use him for target practice.

A shot prompts Bill to fall off the building, landing on a dirt road, surrounded by the Ku Klux Klan. One of the Klansmen (John Larroquette, pre-Night Court and pre-serving on Doc Brown’s Klingon ship), tells Bill that they now have him, calling him the n-word. With a cross burning in the background, the Klansmen toss a rope over a nearby branch, preparing to hang Bill. He vehemently states he’s done nothing wrong, but the only response he gets is to shut up while repeatedly being called the n-word. Bill breaks loose, sending a Klansman into the burning cross. With the other Klansmen and their bloodhounds in pursuit, Bill dives into the nearby river. The Klansmen shoot at the river repeatedly.

After a few moments, Bill reemerges, now in jungle surroundings. He keeps himself hidden while a group of Viet-Cong and a serpent pass by him. But when he reveals himself to passing American troops, they reply by firing in his direction. One of them tosses a grenade. The subsequent explosion sends Bill back to WWII-era France, where he’s promptly spotted and shot in the leg by SS men. They take him to a train, and after putting a Star of David on his suit, toss him into a compartment with other prisoners. Bill gets to his feet and sees Larry and Doug in the parking lot looking for him. He shouts for their help but they don’t notice him as the train takes him away.

The second segment, a remake of the classic episode “Kick the Can”, begins with the Sunnyvale Retirement Home being visited by Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers). He gets an idea of the less-than-happy atmosphere in the place when he sees a man once again being turned down by his son for a chance to spend the weekend with him.

That night, while the residents are watching Jeopardy!, Bloom attempts to lift everyone’s spirits when he tells them they’re never too old to run and dance as they reminisce about their youth. This is over the objections of resident Leo Conroy (Bill Quinn). Bloom states that he loved playing Kick the Can when he was younger and he promises that he’ll wake everyone up for a game.

Sure enough, while Conroy sleeps, Bloom gathers the others that night. The game playing creates such joy in the players that they soon realize they’ve transformed into younger versions of themselves. While they’re enjoying this renewed youth, they realize that their families would no longer recognize them (let alone the fact that little children can’t exactly sleep in a retirement home). Bloom allows them to return to their original ages. Conroy sees this and realizes that one person, Mr. Agee, is still a young boy (Evan Richards). Conroy asks to go with him, but Agee turns him down, saying he needs to find his own way.

The story ends with a changed Conroy kicking a can while the residents are in happier spirits and Bloom leaves to help others in need.

The third story, a remake of the episode “It’s a Good Life,” starts with Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) heading to a new town for her new job. She stops at a bar to ask the bartender (Dick Miller) for directions. During that time, she intervenes when a boy named Anthony (Jeremy Licht) is pushed around while playing an arcade game. But as she leaves, she accidentally hits Anthony’s bike and promptly offers him a ride home. En route, he tells her that today is his birthday, although his parents don’t care. Still, they’re both all smiles over the fact that they’re now friends.

At Anthony’s home, Helen meets his parents (Patricia Barry and William Schallert), his sister Ethel (Nancy Cartwright, before voicing Bart Simpson) and his uncle Walt (Kevin McCarthy). Anthony asks that Helen stay for dinner and his family is all for this. Although clearly taken aback, Helen accepts while Anthony gives her a tour of the homestead. In the meantime, the others rummage through her purse (such gracious hosts, huh?).

The house itself adds to Helen’s growing sense of discomfort as every room in the upper floor has a TV playing a cartoon. In one room is Anthony’s other sister Sara (Cherie Currie), who Anthony says was in an accident. We then see that Sara has no mouth.

While waiting for dinner to be served, Helen uncomfortably sits at the TV in the family room next to Anthony, watching a cartoon, naturally. He actually has to remind his mother where the food is. Said food consists of burgers with peanut butter, which Helen assumes is Anthony’s birthday dinner. When she points this out, Ethel reacts as if she didn’t know there was a birthday, prompting Helen to understandably want to bolt. But the family insists that she watch Walt perform his hat trick. He nervously pulls (what else?) a rabbit out. Helen attempts to leave as a more monstrous looking rabbit appears. Anthony tells the monster to go away, which it does. Helen attempts to leave again before they both intercept a note Ethel put in her purse saying Anthony is a monster.

When the others point the finger at Ethel, she informs her that Anthony is keeping them all prisoner so he can have a family, as he killed his real parents. This leads to Anthony sending Ethel into the cartoon playing on TV, where she’s eaten by the cartoon monsters (if only they could do that to Bart).

Anthony vents that everyone is afraid of him (gee, I wonder why). This leads to him sending Helen and himself to another plane of existence, and sending the others back to where they came from. Taking pity on him, Helen offers to teach him how to find better uses for his power. The story ends with the two driving off in Helen’s car.

The movie’s final act is a remake of the show’s classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode. An extreme neurotic named John Valentine (John Lithgow) is on an airplane during a thunderstorm. As the attendants return him to his seat following a panic attack, he notices a monster on the wing of the plane. This causes another attack, although when he tries to show others on the plane, they see nothing.

It’s not long, though, before he looks out and sees the creature again, now attempting to disable the plane. Eventually, Valentine tries to break his window but another passenger stops him. But Valentine takes the guy’s gun and shoots the window open, causing the cabin to depressurize. He fires at the monster, which manages to rush him and dispose of the gun. It leaps off into the sky as the plane makes an emergency landing.

The story and the film end with the shaken passengers being disembarked, while Valentine is taken away in an ambulance. The authorities do make note of damage to the plane’s engines, though.

As Valentine is driven off, the ambulance driver (Aykroyd) plays the same song heard in the prologue before asking Valentine if he’d like to see something really scary (oh, no, don’t tell me he’s going to force him to watch Nothing But Trouble).

I agree with the majority that the movie’s saving graces are the prologue and its final act. The other three installments have their good points as well, though. I’ll go into more detail in part two of this article, but there may have been a reason why the film as a whole turned out the way it did.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author of suspense novels, including the new thriller Past the Breaking Point, available now from Amazon.

Multi-Part Article: A look back at Twilight Zone: The Movie, 35 years later

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  • Mike Smith

    I think you’ll be talking about the ending of the first segment that we have been wanted to see-and no, NOT the ending of the segment we expected in the final product!!! Just like the movie theater shootout in “Gangster Squad” that we all wanted to see, it’s went to hell!!!

  • jbwarner86

    I remember seeking this movie out purely for Joe Dante’s segment, just because I had heard it was full of gratuitous Looney Tunes cameos. I’ll give almost any movie a pass if Bugs Bunny is in it.

    • Nasty In The Pasty

      Unless it’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action (ironically directed by Joe Dante).

  • Kali

    I think the movie’s not bad … unless you’ve watched the originals for twenty years and more. Then, it’s really kind of a pale adaptation seemingly by people who remembered the originals but decided to tell their own stories instead. Serling himself would not recognize the movie as his Twilight Zone, and I am not sure he would have appreciated it as a tribute. And, of course, none of the stories are really based on a Serling tale. (It’s a GOOD Life doesn’t count since it’s an adaptation — and it’s so very different from the original.)

    As you can tell from my avatar, I’m a big TZ fan, and I have very strong feelings about the movie. The movie is NOT in my collection (and neither is the 2001 series because it’s f’n crap).

    For the good: Burgess Meredith is wonderful as the narrator; the opening gambit is cute in a Night Gallery vein; Jerry Goldsmith’s music is fantastic (as it always is); Midnight Special is one of my favorite songs so it’s nice to hear THAT; the first story isn’t bad (a typical Zone “teach the bad guy his lesson” story) except it doesn’t have an ending (and we know WHY it doesn’t have an ending); the ending of the Kick the Can segment — and the conversations between the old people in general — are great; the monster on the plane is much better than the panda bear of the original series; and each of the segments have their little Easter eggs for long-time fans. My favorite moment of the movie is when Valentine shoots at the Gremlin, and the Gremlin, unharmed, works its way to the window, stares at Valentine, does a little “naughty-naughty” with its claws, and jumps off the plane. THAT was fun. Wish I could say that about the adaptation itself.

    Which brings us to the bad and the REALLY bad, but I think I’ll save that for next week.

  • muchsarcasm

    It’s strange to me that they chose “Kick the Can” as one of the four segments. It was always one of the weaker episodes, and certainly wasn’t as iconic as either the ones from the third and fourth segments.

    As far as “It’s a Good Life” the movie Anthony didn’t feel like a kid who’d had his powers since birth but more like a kid who’d gotten his powers later. The original episode I think really made you believe this was a kid who’d grown up where no one dared tell him “no”.

    • Kali

      The actor was too old for the role. That’s why Bill Mumy worked so perfectly: he’s too young to know the difference between right and wrong. The “happy ending” proved he DID know and wants to change, which goes against the grain of the novel — and the original episode.

    • FortesqueX

      Originally, Spielberg was going to remake “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” as his segment…but after the accidental deaths during the filming of the “Time Out” sequence, Spielberg decided to remake a much less violent episode, hence why he chose “Kick the Can.”

  • Xander

    I remember watching most of this on Monstervision on TNT back when I was in college. I missed the It’s a Good Life bumpers, so I didn’t even know it was supposed to be an homage to that episode because it’s so different from the short story/novella and the original episode.
    The main complaint Briggs had with the movie, which I tend to agree with, is the Aykroyd turning into a monster bit at the beginning. It’s an effective jump scare, but the original Twighlight Zone wasn’t much for jump scares on their own. Sure, some episodes had a few, but they were never there to shock on their own with no set up and no resolution after.