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

Let’s take a closer look at the Twilight Zone movie itself before tackling the elephant in the room regarding this topic.

The prologue, directed by John Landis, sets the tone perfectly and would truly do Rod Serling proud. Burgess Meredith’s narration is another nice touch.

The first segment, “Time Out”, also directed by Landis, certainly has a great premise, as the idea of an asshole who becomes a better person after getting a taste of what he’s dished out sounds like a great story. Obviously, the segment itself didn’t end on that optimistic note, but, originally, Vic Morrow’s character Bill was supposed to come across two children while he was in the Vietnam setting. He redeems himself by collecting them and carrying them to safety across a river just as American choppers are blowing up the village behind him. The segment was to end with Bill holding the kids and promising to keep them safe. But (again, for reasons I’ll get to shortly), the finished film had a more abrupt, downbeat end.

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Spielberg’s segment, “Kick the Can”, is pleasant enough, and the late, great Scatman Crothers was always worth watching. It certainly has an uplifting tone, but there’s nothing else to make it truly special. This makes it come across especially disappointing, as the segment was Spielberg’s followup to his masterwork E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial.

“It’s a Good Life”, Joe Dante’s installment, actually got critical praise. Truthfully though, while it’s appropriately bizarre, I found it a bit dull compared to Dante’s classics like Piranha, The Howling, and the two Gremlins movies.

Finally, we get some great stuff again with George Miller’s take on “Nightmare on 20,000 Feet”. As in the original episode, which was written by the legendary Richard Matheson, and starred William Shatner as the freaked-out passenger, and is rightfully regarded as one of the series’ finest installments, it’s a bit of a miracle that a remake could do it justice. But John Lithgow’s great performance and the intensity Miller generates from beginning to end makes this segment, if not superior to that piece of landmark television, proudly stand alongside it. This would actually lead to a hilarious in-joke years later when Shatner guest-starred on 3rd Rock from the Sun.

The reason the initial “Time Out” segment ended differently than originally intended was because on July 23, 1982, during filming of the sequence in which Bill flees the village with the two children, the helicopter used for the sequence lost control due to its close proximity to the explosions used. As a result, it crashed onto Morrow and the children, killing them instantly. Not surprisingly, the scenes that were previously shot with the children were removed from the film.

This sadly was not the first time a death occurred during the filming of a movie. However, this incident made headlines when it was revealed that the children, seven-year-old Myca Dinh Le and six-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen, had been hired illegally by Landis. The sequence was shot in California’s Indian Dunes park at 2:30 in the morning, and by California law, a special waiver was required to allow the children to work at such an hour. But Landis suspected (correctly, no doubt) that after getting such a waiver, the social worker that would have come to the set to represent the children would’ve had the authority to force him to remove the entire sequence as being too dangerous for them.

But Landis, who began his showbiz career in stunt work, insisted on having the sequence and elected to hire the children illegally and pay their parents out of petty cash in order to avoid putting the children on the payroll. This desire would lead to him becoming the first film director being charged with a fatality that occurred on movie set.

The subsequent investigation led to the below statement being issued by the National Transportation Safety Board in 1984.

The probable cause of the accident was the detonation of debris-laden high temperature special effects explosions too near a low-flying helicopter leading to foreign object damage to one rotor blade and delamination due to heat to the other rotor blade, the separation of the helicopter’s tail rotor assembly, and the uncontrolled descent of the helicopter. The proximity of the helicopter (around 25 feet off the ground) to the special effects explosions was due to the failure to establish direct communications and coordination between the pilot, who was in command of the helicopter operation, and the film director, who was in charge of the filming operation.

The tragedy led to numerous lawsuits and indictments of Landis, associate producer George Folsey Jr, helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo, production manager Dan Allingham, and explosives specialist Paul Stewart. Spielberg, who co-produced the film with Landis, was named in the lawsuits subsequently filed against Warner Bros., but was never charged with anything, as he was traveling around the world promoting E.T. at the time the tragedy occurred. The lawsuits themselves would result in millions of dollars being rewarded to the families of the children as well as Morrow (whose daughter is actress Jennifer Jason Leigh).

The following trial, which began in 1986, saw many witnesses testifying against Landis, who was known for being harsh with crew members. Indeed, Wingo, who actually flew choppers during the Vietnam War, expressed misgivings about the segment beforehand, as did other crew members.

In a tragic irony, Morrow himself stated some time before filming that he had a premonition that he would die in a helicopter accident. Actor Dick Peabody, who worked with Morrow on the TV series Combat! later wrote that his last words before filming were: “I’ve got to be crazy to do this shot. I should’ve asked for a double.”

Folsey reportedly informed the parents of the children not to tell any firefighters on the set that the children would be in the scene. In addition, he hid the presence of the children from a fire safety officer who also happened to be a welfare worker.

Myca’s father, Daniel Lee, stated at the trail that Landis instructed the helicopter to fly lower during filming. The parents of both children testified that they were told the kids would be in no danger in the sequence that was being filmed, and that there would only be loud noises.

The affair would lead to second assistant director Andy House requesting his name be removed from the finished film.

The nine-month trial ended in 1987 with Landis and the four other defendants being acquitted on manslaughter charges, to the disappointment of many. Landis publicly admitted he was wrong to illegally hire the children, but stated that he could not have foreseen such a tragedy.

Spielberg subsequently cut off ties with Landis due to his handling of the accident and its aftermath. Originally, Spielberg was set to remake the classic episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, but the incident prompted him to remake the less intense “Kick the Can” instead. Some have speculated that the tragedy also played a part in Spielberg’s decision to make his next film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which involves Indy rescuing children from danger.

As money talks in Hollywood, it shouldn’t be surprising that Landis, who was riding high at this time thanks to his successes with National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and An American Werewolf in London, was allowed to continue directing even during his trial. Some of the films he made around this time, such as Spies Like Us, Three Amigos!, and Coming to America were successful. He also famously directed the music video of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” during this period. These days, Landis is mostly directing TV, including episodes of Psych. But the accident put a mark on his career that neither he nor the pubic has ever truly forgotten.

He would later say in 1996, “There was absolutely no good aspect about this whole story. The tragedy, which I think about every day, had an enormous impact on my career, from which it may possibly never recover.” Indeed, this was not a case of stunt people dying in the line of duty. These were performers, two of whom were not even professional actors, who tragically lost their lives despite assurances that there was no danger.

Obviously, I don’t believe Landis intended this to happen and I believe the tears he reportedly shed at his trial when he took the stand were genuine. But this doesn’t change the fact that this horrible event would never have occurred had Landis gone through the proper legal channels in the first place.

This would lead to a major shakeup when it came to safety on film sets. The Directors Guild of America began to publish regular safety bulletins for its members, and set up a phone number allowing directors to get instant answers to any safety questions they may have. Any violations for safety procedures on film sets now result in disciplinary action from the Guild as well. Likewise, the Screen Actors Guild established a 24-hour hotline which its members can use if they believe a scene to be unsafe.

While there have been deaths on movie sets since this time (a famous example is the death of actor Brandon Lee, who died in a freak accident while filming The Crow), such incidents reportedly dropped nearly 70% between 1982 and 1986.

Despite these events, Twilight Zone: The Movie was completed and released on schedule, but I suppose it’s not an exaggeration to say that the tragedy, more than anything, led to the film’s less-than-enthusiastic reception, as critics gave it mixed reviews with most of the praise for Dante and Miller’s segments. But one could say that, as unintentional as it was, the film also led to better rules being enforced when it came to safety on film sets. Hence, this is a movie with a legacy that’s two-fold.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is a western: The Search West is available now from Amazon.

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

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  • Wow, I didn’t know any of this.

    • Mike Smith

      Well, I do!!! I was there when that happened!!!

      • Xander

        You worked on the movie? Could you provide any additional insights?

        • Mike Smith

          No, but, i do hear all about that on TV!!!

  • Kenneth Morgan

    There are two books on the incident and trial, both published in 1988: “Special Effects: Disaster at Twilight Zone” by Ron Labrecque (which I haven’t read) and “Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case” by Stephen Farber and Marc Green (which I have read).

  • rpdavies

    I’ve heard about the helicopter crash during the making of this.

    I was surprised to find how lightly those involved were treated considering the seriousness of the accident.

    At least some lessons seemed to be learnt regarding stunts this dangerous.

    • Jett

      John Landis is very lucky he isn’t in prison or the families of the deceased haven’t come after him,but his directing career was never the same again after the trial in 1986 and Spielberg stopped talking to him. The main reason Landis stayed out of prison was probably because he admitted he hired those kids illegally and threw himself on the mercy of the court and the jury decided to take pity on him.

  • Kali

    And now the bad. I think I’ll skip Time Out. It’s problems were definitely unintended, but what was left was essentially several unconnected subplots with a finale that would never be completed.

    “Kick the Can.” This episode was hurt most by Spielberg’s syrupy approach to the subject matter. It was what made the movie AI so difficult to watch – as I said then, if any director’s approach was more opposite to the Kubrick vision, it was Spielberg. The Spielberg approach completely renders much of the segment unwatchable. Plus, there was no need for Scatman Crothers’ character, whatsoever. It was just to make obvious what the original episode rendered subtly. The magic occurred because the others cared enough about Whitley to join him and risk looking foolish: “I can’t play Kick the Can alone!” The best part of the episode when the old people turned young suddenly realize there’s no one who can take care of them, and all but one choose to return to their original states. This reminds one of another original series classic, Serling’s The Trade-Ins: “Grow old along with me; the best is yet to be.”

    “It’s a GOOD Life.” Okay, this was the worst in my opinion. It was SO over the top and so special-effects happy, it might well have been a Spielberg spectacular. Buck Houghton was right; he said he took a look at the crazy set, and could only go, “Oh, these guys don’t get it!” And they didn’t. Plus, Jeremy Licht was WAY too old for the part of Anthony Fremont; the whole point of the original was the fact that a) he was too young to know better and b) he had been coddled practically since birth because of his power and has no understanding of control or morality. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of the raising of Superman; Jonathan and Martha Kent realized that this star child with incredible power must be taught right from wrong and must understand that he must use his power for the benefit of all. Anthony never received this lesson, and — at the time of the episode — is now incapable of understanding it. Licht’s Anthony is at least 6 years older than Mumy’s; old enough to realize that his actions are wrong (as is proven at the end of the episode), and it’s completely opposite to the point of the original episode.

    “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The in-joke from Third Rock from the Sun says it all: William Shatner and John Lithgow are two of the biggest scene stealers — and overactors — on television, and the fact that BOTH took on the role of the nervous flier says it all. Never mind, of course, that Shatner is actually quite sedate in the episode — especially compared to Lithgow’s latter interpretation — two years before taking on the role of Captain Kirk. But, in the end, the main difference — and major detraction from the episode — was in its setup: in the original, Shatner’s character had just been released from a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown. So, when he sees the gremlin on the wing, the first person he has to convince is himself. HE has to understand he is NOT going crazy again, that there really is a gremlin on the wing, and someone has to stop him. Serling’s famed “fear of the unknown working on YOU, which you cannot share with others” takes on an additional meaning in the original version. But the character of Valentine in the movie doesn’t have this background; he’s just severely agoraphobic, and the pilot should have known this before the plane ever left the ground and demanded Valentine be removed to avoid any risk of a complete explosion in the air.

    There is also the added fault that not one of the stories used in the movie were Serling originals, which renders the movie a curious tribute. Serling did adapt Jerome Bixby’s story for the original episode of It’s a Good Life, which isn’t the same thing, and, anyway, the movie was so far removed from the original, it’s practically a new story altogether. The curious thing about the movie version is that this is where the most original series in-joke castings are placed: the character of Helen Foley, original star Bill Mumy is the bartender, the recognizable members of the “family” are Zone veterans, and — since this was a Joe Dante segment — Dick Miller as Walter Paisley.

    In the end, I don’t hate the movie. It has some good scenes, the segments were well directed, and I even liked the opening gambit (the concluding sequence with Dan Aykroyd back as the ambulance driver was totally unnecessary, though). But in the end, the original is the original, and the classics are still better.

    • Jett

      Hey Kali. I responded to you under the wrong name on the Twilight Zone The Movie site.Check it out.

      • Jett

        My reply is under Patrick Waters.

        • Kali

          Very nice. Thank you for the comment. I agree with you. Not sure I agree with Dante, though, what with Helen and Anthony driving off to the rapidly growing flowers along the road, before shifting to the next storyline. For once, the 2001 series (which I absolutely hate) actually pulled that off better with its remake/sequel episode: the daughter brings them back to the real world, and Anthony pulls the “It’s going to be a real good day!” line with the ambiguousness the movie segment ending lacked.

          I kind of liked Darkside, though I acknowledge it was never the dark comedy/horror series Romero had intended. It had a couple of good horror adaptations, and I do have a handful of favorites. But it did go for silly when it should have been the new “Way Out” or “Night Gallery.”

          What I resented over time was Darkside’s black and white view of morality combined with an all too 50s view of male/female relationships: the wife was always pure evil or just monstrous, and there was always another woman nearby who was the embodiment of pure heaven. There were several episodes in that vein — most played for comedy — Word Processor of the Gods was one — but the one I liked was a late episode, Do Not Open this Box. Eileen Heckart played this nasty women who hates her choice of a husband, a kindly stay at home failed inventor. Then, this strange little guy shows up (Richard B Shull of Holmes & Yoyo) shows up trying to find a box. The wife immediately hides the box and uses the guy to get everything she always wanted, and pays no attention to the fact that supernatural forces are being used to do so. She is always trying to one up a neighbor, Clarissa Sanderson, whom she always paints in the nastiest light possible. Everything Clarissa supposedly has (she married rich, then the husband immediately croaked leaving Clarissa everything), the wife wants to do better. At the end, we find out that the guy was an emissary of the devil and the box has — or had — a human soul which escaped the first time the wife opened the box. The emissary then demands “proper payment” in the form of one of their souls. The wife then tries to get her kind-hearted husband to kill the emissary, but he can’t do it. So, she does it, which of course, has no effect, and the emissary, suddenly developing horns and an evil-Spock goatee, starts quoting the ten commandments she’s broken over the episode, and promptly puts HER soul into the box.

          Now, finally, we get to see Clarissa, played by the cutest little old lady the casting director could find, and she, naturally, is that embodiment of pure heaven the series too often used – the type of woman who was cooking a devils food cake at midnight and just deciding to take it right over to the neighbor’s house. Yeah, it’s stupid, but, hey, it was fun. Which pretty much defined Darkside most of the time.

  • Patrick Waters

    “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” was eventually remade for the 2002-03 UPN “Twilight Zone” revival. One unsuccessful film Landis made after the “Zone” tragedy was the chase comedy “Into The Night”, released in February 1985. I didn’t care for it back then, but it got better for me on my second viewing a few years ago. Still though, the movie goes off point at times, which makes me think that Landis’ mind was elsewhere.

    • Jett

      Well when Helen Foley met Anthony in the remake he was older but apparently when he was younger he HADN’T learned control morality and he’d ended up killing his real parents and wishing his real sister’s mouth away,which makes the “happy” ending a little weird. What makes Helen think she can tame this shrew? But Joe Dante said he meant the ending to be ironic and ultimately an exercise in futility,not a happy ending but a “what’s going to have happen around the corner ending.” The idea that she’s too late to redeem Anthony and only she doesn’t get it makes this segment better. I loved this movie when I first saw it as a kid,especially the prologue,last segment and the epilogue. I thought it WAS necessary,to bring the film full circle. Vic Morrow’s and the kids’ deaths forced the first segment to end in a very dark and depressing way and Kick The Can was a little too syrupy and Mr.Agee should have let Me.Conroy come with him,or Mr.Bloom should have,but I hope Conroy did eventually”get it” and regained his youth. I also thought young Agee was great! He should have played Peter Pan. The last segment didn’t have the passenger’s back history,true,but I loved Lithgow’s performance and the dark humor director George Miller added like Lithgow opening the newspaper and seeing a plane crash and that obnoxious little girl! I cracked up when Lithgow opened the window cover,saw the monster and cracked up himself and the monster was more realistic in the movie. I always wondered if it wasn’t another incarnation of Dan Ackroyd’s character,that would make the epilogue even more frightening! All in all, I like this movie despite it mi’s flaws. It doesn’t have the thrills and rollercoaster intensity of Creepshow1(part 2 was okay,mainly segment 2,The Raft),and it doesn’t have the cold,dark menace of 1982’s Nightmares(not to mention that chilling,frightening music),but Twilight Zone The Movie is a lot of fun and all those movies revived the TV anthology series revival in the 1980s with shows like the sadly overlooked and underrated 1980s Twilight Zone with The Grateful Dead’s score,the inexplicably forgotten and surprisingly intelligent Alfred Hitchcock reboot with lost footage of the deceased Mr.Hitchcock,Mr.Spielberg’s own fun but somewhat preachy and overly moralistic Amazing Stories,and last but sadly least ,Tales From The Dark Side which started out great with a really eerie opening and scary stories like “The Last Car”and Stephen King’s “Word Processor Of The Gods” and,I think,””Sorry Right Number”(or that might have been a Twilight Zone),but Dark Side quickly degenerated into over the top self-parody and slapstick fantasy storylines and got the cancellation it deserved. I think the Twilight Zone series around 10 years ago was pretty good,especially the Hitler story,although I’m not sure about Forrest Whittaker as the new narrator. There’s supposedly a new Twilight Zone series in the works. I hope it will carry on the tradition with honor.

      • Kali

        Me too. Jordan Peale is a good producer, and I am looking forward with crossed fingers. Still, it’s going to be on CBS Access (where Star Trek: Discovery is not winning any fantods from me), and I haven’t decided whether the new TZ is enough to plunk down money. Certainly Discovery isn’t.

        I thought Whittaker was the best thing about the misbegotten 2001 TZ reboot – sure he played the spookyness a little past 11, but I liked him. The stories were simply lousy, and the endings were halfassed, and the show as a whole simply didn’t work for me. And let’s not get into that pathetic Korn theme music. At least the 80s series had some great stories and the Grateful Dead providing the music.