Doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo. You know it, you’ve sang it after one of those unexpected moments, meeting an old friend you dreamed of the night before or seeing Mom levitate pork chops over the dinner table (could happen). From 1959 thru 1964, “The Twilight Zone” theme signaled our passage into creator Rod Serling’s fifth dimension, that “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.” The anthology series has added interest today given some of the names featured earlier in their careers – Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Shatner and Nimoy. But more than a televised stage for performers and performances, this was a show of ideas, one of the medium’s first and best examples of thinking outside the box. Part of Serling’s motivation for delving into the fantastic was out of frustration. He’d felt the controlling hands of networks and sponsors on his scripts before, tinkering here, redacting there, influencing the stories he wanted to tell. “I think it’s criminal that we’re not allowed to make dramatic note of social evils as they exist, of controversial themes as they’re inherent in our society,” he told Mike Wallace in a 1959 interview (YouTube it). Some think he did anyway, that Serling created “The Twilight Zone” to speak to those very social evils under the radar, though he denied it. “We’re dealing with a half-hour show, which cannot probe like a 90, which doesn’t use scripts as vehicles of social criticism. These are strictly for entertainment.” And they were entertaining. The original series ran 156 episodes before it was cancelled. Gotta love syndication though, the gift that keeps on giving, at least to us. Serling sold his rights to the show to CBS.
Trip ahead 19 years. “Twilight Zone: the Movie” broke in 1983, the year of “Scarface” and “Risky Business,” the year Skywalker discovered that the girl he’d kissed in 1980 was really his sister. Bummer. At 11, I was more interested in another 60s TV series adapted for the big screen, Star Trek, but was familiar enough with the talents attached to Zone’s first film: John Landis (“Animal House”), Steven Spielberg (“Jaws”), Joe Dante (“The Howling”) and George Miller (“The Road Warrior”). Each directed one of four segments in the movie narrated by series alumnus Burgess Meredith, the spectacled book lover of the original 1959 episode, “Time Enough at Last.” What a voice, although who can compete with Serling himself, inviting us into his world like some all-knowing porter.
The film is solid entertainment but not an outright fresh creation. The Spielberg, Dante and Miller segments are remakes of previously televised Zone episodes. Landis’ (the first full segment in the movie) is heavily retooled from “A Quality of Mercy,” an episode staring Dean Stockwell as an American turned Japanese soldier. The film version is called “Time Out” and stars Vic Morrow as a bigot granted a walk in the shoes of the very minorities he slurs. It might be the best known segment of the four but for all the wrong reasons. In a scene meant to give Morrow’s character a chance to atone for his sins, a stunt helicopter was downed in a mishandled blast of explosives. Morrow and a pair of child extras were killed by the vehicle. Settlements were made with the families (including Morrow’s daughter, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) even while Landis and a handful of others were found not-guilty of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. The tragedy helped advance the cause of safety standards within the industry.
As a whole “Twilight Zone: the Movie” works. The film might play better for virgin Zoners, ticket holders not versed in the best of the Serling series (which none of the film’s segments can match, in my mind), but it still stands as an imaginative thrill-ride deserving of its title. It begins with a prologue about two men (Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks) on a late-night drive. When the cassette deck makes a meal of their Creedence (Clearwater Revival) tape, they’re forced to make conversation. Then they play a song-naming game, humming, babbling, stumbling. Now here’s a case of enjoying two comedic talents at work. Aykroyd and Brooks are terrific, but one of their characters is in for a twisted surprise. “Do you want to see something really scary?” says one. Always say no to that. Better yet, drive alone. If the prologue has a pedigree, it’s more “Night Gallery” than “Twilight Zone” but that’s fine. It’s an appetizer and gives the heart its introductory jump. “Time Out” follows, then Spielberg’s reimagining of “Kick the Can” about a group of rest-home seniors given youth through a childhood game. This may well be the weakest link but not in its merits as a filmed story (the visualization is rich, the performances charming), only as a Zone entry. I’ll have to go along with those reviewers who say that it suffers from the Spielberg wand, that rainbow sentimentality that files sharp edges into nice rounded corners. If you’ve seen the original episode, you’ll notice the absence of Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers), a character that carries his magic tin can from one retirement home to the next, ostensibly to teach its residents hope, the importance of staying young at heart. The TV version though has its own lesson to teach, but as is often the case in the Zone, something or someone has to be sacrificed. As in life, Serling’s lessons often involve some bitter schooling.
The final two segments are great fun, the best of the film, though again changed noticeably from the originals. Segment 3, “It’s a Good Life,” is rarely mentioned without some hat tipping toward make-up master Rob Bottin’s creature work, rubbery toothy cartoonish terrors. Directed by Joe Dante, the story concerns Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan), a teacher in transit who befriends a young boy and his bizarrely cordial family. “We love you Anthony!” they repeat over and over, fake grins in a cold sweat. Very odd. In the television series we knew precisely why the family behaved this way, having been told by Serling at the get-go, but the movie purposefully keeps us in the dark, like Helen, scratching various parts of our faces wondering how Mom, Dad, sibling Ethel and Uncle Walt (genre fave Kevin McCarthy) can get so jazzed over cartoons and peanut-butter burgers. Answer: Anthony can create or destory at will. They pamper him out of fear. By the time we’re told this though, it’s too late to feel much fear for protagonist Helen or anyone else. Nor is movie Anthony (Jeremy Licht) anywhere near as threatening as TV Anthony (Bill Mumy). What the segment is though is a funhouse, lighter and less paranoid by intent. The haunted house folllows.
Miller’s remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is the skittish conclusion. Both the classic episode (staring William Shatner) and most of the film’s remake were penned by the late Richard Matheson. The Miller version however, is a hot-blooded sprint next to Donner’s 400-meter. Matheson preferred the original. In his words, “Lithgow is a wonderful actor and he did the best he could but I think he was asked to do an impossible job to start at 100% hysteria and work your way up from that.” We know of course that this Lithgow is John, as is his character, John Valentine, an airline passenger so sick with fear he’s practically choking in that little sink. The storm doesn’t help. The gremlin tampering with the engines really doesn’t help, but the payoff is on screen whenever the camera finds Lithgow. The man has a face for terror, giving or receiving. But which version is better? Such a lousy question. For a modern audience, heck any audience, it’s hard to compete with the movie’s aesthetics: the set, the thunderstorm and above all the gremlin are an emphatic leap forward. Matheson admitted as much. He said the 1963 creature looked like a woolly bear. I say a mascot for fabric softener. But Shatner’s Bob Wilson, a husband battling back from a previous psychological breakdown, is arguably the more sympathetic character and the more interesting character. “It was much more, I think, gripping that way,” said Matheson. I’ll buy that. There’s a big difference between watching a man break and watching hoping he doesn’t.
I’m guessing when I say that the real priority in translating “The Twilight Zone” to the screen was to be more cinematic than ironic, more visual than reflective on the human condition, but it seems to play out that way. Yes the original episodes themselves were hindered by matters of time and money. An ambitious show one week could mean a trimmed budget for the next three, but this appears a separate issue from the stories themselves, which were chosen for their quality, not their economy. Watching them, for myself at least, was a psychological investment that consistently paid in creativity and self-satisfied slaps to the forehead. Remember those moments of awe so typical of this show: the escape in “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” the revelation in “To Serve Man,” the conclusion to “The Invaders”? As far as I can tell, “Twilight Zone: the Movie” is sorely lacking in that brillance. A good time though is something else entirely.
R.I.P. Richard Matheson (February 20, 1926 – June 23, 2013).