May 20, 2020
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.
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.