Best Beat

Setting the Rhythm for Your Music

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983): Four Frights

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983): Four Frights

I suppose I’ll always be partial to 1983’s fantasy anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie, as it was my first introduction to horror films back in the mid-’80s upon its original network run on television. As a wee child of eight, I was dazzled by the film’s mind-blowing visual effects by Rob Bottin (The Howling, Legend) and intrigued by the touch of fright and menace that laced certain segments. The film was an ambitious collaboration between four highly revered directors in the horror and fantasy industries: John Landis (who directed both the film’s prologue and first segment), Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller. Three of the four stories in the film are rehashes of episodes from the beloved 1959 television series “The Twilight Zone”, while the fourth is an original creation written specifically for the film by John Landis. Twilight Zone: The Movie is notorious for its production problems that came to a head when veteran character actor Vic Morrow (who plays the lead character in John Landis’s original segment) was decapitated on set along with two juvenile Asian actors by a malfunctioning helicopter. The devastating tragedy caused the film to sit on the shelf for nearly a year while Landis battled in court after being charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The film begins with a creepy prologue directed by Landis that features Dan Aykroyd as a hitchhiker who has been picked up by know-it-all driver Albert Brooks on a lonely stretch of road in the mountains. After listening to some Midnight Special by Creedence Clearwater Revival (director Landis trademark), our traveling duo play a game of chicken on the twisty road, seeing how far they can drive with the headlights out, etc., before the driver challenges the passenger with a competition to see who can outguess the other on TV show themes. They end up discussing the eerie Twilight Zone series theme of years ago, before the mysterious hitchhiker asks the driver if he’d like to see something REALLY scary, something so scary he’ll have to pull the car to the side of the road to see. Brooks eagerly stops the vehicle and turns to Aykroyd, who — much to the horror of Brooks and the audience — has transformed into a chalk-faced, bloodthirsty ghoul that strangles the unfortunate driver before we’re welcomed to the Twilight Zone by Burgess Meredith, who takes over Rod Serling’s immortal opening narration and leads into the first segment.

Segment #1 stars the late, talented Vic Morrow as Bill Connor, a racist bigot who joins work pals Larry (Doug McGrath) and Ray (Charles Hallahan) at a local bar to drink and stew over the fact that he’s been passed over for a promotion in favor of a Jewish co-worker named Goldman. After running his mouth loudly and knocking Arabs, blacks, Jews and Hispanics, an irritated bar patron asks Bill to lower the decibel level of his sordid conversation, which sends Bill storming out of the place in a huff. Bill walks toward his vehicle in the parking lot, but what he doesn’t realize is that he’s entered the Zone, and is about to be paid back for his bigot opinions. Finding he’s left the bar and walked into a Nazi neighborhood circa 1943, Bill is chased through the streets and shot at by a squad of the Third Reich who think he’s a Jew. Bill then finds himself being prepared for a hanging by a group of Klansman dressed in white, who keep referring to him as a “coon” and “nigger” as they rig up a noose for our bewildered anti-hero. Bill manages to escape again into a nearby lake where he hides among the weeds, but yet again he is transported to another time — now the swamps of Vietnam circa 1969, where he is pursued as a Vietnamese man by an army of US soldiers through the steaming water. In the end, Bill winds up back in WWII Germany and is thrown in a heap onto a boxcar with a group of Jews headed to a concentration camp. The only episode not to be explicitly based on an original segment from the show, it was nonetheless loosely based on two originals: “A Quality of Mercy” and “Deaths-Head Revisited”. It keeps in check with the “moral” theme of much of the original Twilight Zone series and is a tense and intriguing morsel that fits smoothly with the other episodes in the film.

The next tale is a whimsical, uplifting story created by Steven Spielberg that is very much in the style of an episode of the director’s noted Amazing Stories series. An ’80s retelling of the “Kick the Can” episode from the original series, it stars Scatman Crothers (who’s a sheer delight) as Mr. Bloom, an elderly gentleman who arrives at Sunnyvale Convalescent Home and inspires the aged residents to live like young folks again when he invites them to sneak out of the home at night after head caretaker Miss Cox (Spielberg’s future mother-in-law Priscilla Pointer) has turned in for a game of Kick the Can. When the old-timers find themselves literally transformed in their clothes to children by the magical Mr. Bloom, they find they must make a choice between starting their lives anew as children or remaining old but keeping a “fresh, young mind.” An underrated segment that many don’t feel belongs in the film due to its light nature, I think it’s incredibly poignant and, as a remake of an actual episode, fits beautifully in the film and features amazing dusk-tinged cinematography by Allen Daviau, not to mention an array of wonderful performances by Bill Quinn, Martin Garner, Helen Shaw, Selma Diamond, Murray Matheson and Peter Brocco.

Our third story is a remake of “It’s a Good Life” directed by Joe Dante and stars Kathleen Quinlan as lovely young schoolteacher Helen Foley, who is on her way to a new job in Willoughby and stops in at a diner run by Walter Paisley (Dick Miller, reprising his “role” from Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood and Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard and The Howling). On her way out, she accidentally runs into bike-riding youngster Anthony (Jeremy Licht) with her car and ends up giving the boy and his bent bicycle a ride to his sprawling house in the middle of nowhere. Upon meeting Anthony’s smiling, neurotic family which includes Mother (Patricia Barry), Father (William Schallert), sister Ethel (Nancy Cartwright) and Uncle Walt (Kevin McCarthy), Helen begins to suspect that there’s something very wrong this family. There’s television sets throughout the house, all tuned into Looney Tunes; she sees a hanging family portrait that has everyone’s faces whited out; and she meets Anthony’s mute, handicapped oldest sister Sara (Cherie Currie), who not only lacks the ability to speak — she lacks a mouth! Helen reluctantly stays for dinner, which is a smorgasbord of candied apples, ice cream, potato chips and peanut butter burgers, but soon Anthony forces Uncle Walt to perform a magic trick that has him pulling a demonic mutant rabbit out of a black top hat. It turns out that Anthony has unique powers of the mind that allow him to control the wills of other people and conjure up anything he wants out of thin air. After wishing his “family” away (which isn’t his real family at all but a collection of strangers who have been forced to act as such by Anthony), Anthony is alone with Helen, who convinces the lonely boy to in effect be her son as they explore the nature of his gifts together. Great acting, a psychedelic set design, wild visual effects and fast-paced direction by Dante make this one another winner.

The fourth and final story, which many consider to be the best in the film, is directed by George Miller and is a rehash of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. It stars wonderful John Lithgow (who won a Best Supporting Actor award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films for this performance) as John Valentine, an aviophobic author of computer textbooks aboard an airplane who sees a devilish flying gremlin wreaking havoc on the plane’s wing through his seat window. He starts freaking out and is thought crazy by the other passengers and plane personnel, and before long is grabbing a pistol from a traveling security guard and shooting through his window at the ghoulish imp — sending the passengers into a panic as cold air forcefully swirls into the compartment. Upon landing, Valentine is escorted by stretcher and wrapped in a strait jacket to the local madhouse for observation; when he’s pushed into the ambulance, he finds that the driver is the otherworldly hitchhiker from the movie’s prologue (Aykroyd again) who tunes the radio to “Midnight Special” and drives off with the fear-stricken writer in tow. George Miller’s direction is incredible, and the episode is very suspenseful and entertaining — a tasty finale for the supernatural omnibus.

Long only available on a pricy VHS release in the US, Twilight Zone: The Movie was finally released in a remastered print on DVD and Blu-Ray in late 2007, much to the delight of long-time fans. As one such viewer, I rate the film a 9 of 10 and recommend it to fans of the original series and fans of horror and fantasy films, young and old.