Originally published online at 4:3.
The Anthology Series is a roundtable column here at 4:3 where we look at the oft-overlooked genre of anthology films. Also known as portmanteaus, the anthology film is composed of a series of short films grouped together by theme or some awkward overarching premise. Some of the more popular portmanteaus in recent memory include Paris, je t’aime and horror anthology series V/H/S. There are also anthology films done by the same director, think Love Actually, Argentian Oscar-nominee Wild Tales and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. For the purposes of this column, we will be focusing on anthology films with more than two directors.
In this entry in the series, Chris Neill and Brad Mariano talk about the 1983 brainchild of John Landis and Steven Spielberg, the homage to a legendary TV show in The Twilight Zone: The Movie, a film generally more known for its tragic production than artistic merits.
Brad: This installment of the Anthology Files looks at a strange project, the 1983 film The Twilight Zone: The Movie. Of course, it’s an entry into the franchise of The Twilight Zone, the legendary television series (an anthology series, for what it’s worth) that was the brainchild of creator Rod Serling, that ran for five seasons between 1959 and 1964, and would be revived as a series in a well received three seasons in the 1980s, and again for a lone season in 2002. Conceived and produced by John Landis and Steven Spielberg, The Twilight Zone: The Movie has four segments (plus a prologue), directed by Landis, Spielberg, Joe Dante and Mad Max helmer George Miller, one original story and three remakes of episodes of the film’s original run. In popular culture however, the film is sadly more remembered for the notorious accident that occurred during the film’s production, a helicopter crash that killed three of the actors and would lead to revolutionary safety procedures and regulations throughout the industry. In light of the baggage of that tragedy and the original series’ legacy, it’s a strange project to approach. Chris, what were your impressions going in?
Chris: I had never seen an episode of the Twilight Zone before watching this, but it’s a show whose fingerprints are all over pop-culture. I imagine I’m not the only one whose initial exposure to the series came from The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” parodies. But it’s a show I’ve always wanted to sit down with. My basic understanding is that each episode usually revolves around some kind of strange event that borders on being almost surreal or Kafkaesque, and usually ends on some ironic twist or absolute downer ending. Looking at the list of directors here, how can you not be excited? Landis, Spielberg, Dante and Miller were in their absolute prime during the 1980s, and considering their majority track records making films that deal with the supernatural or paranormal, having them work on this feels like a no-brainer. Throw in Richard Matheson on writing duties – who wrote a couple original Twilight Zone episodes and classic horror novel I Am Legend – how could this be anything but great?
Brad: You’re not wrong; and it’s a show that I think is actually adequately represented by its pop culture status – Kafkaesque is a good way of describing it, surreal as well. It definitely embraced the twist ending (and in fact in its lesser episodes relied on it probably too much), but sometimes did away with that and instead just nailed a strong premise over the course of the episode that led to some of the strongest outings. But it’s also unequivocally a product of its time; many of its narrative hooks and more human themes are timeless, but it’s principal contextual influences – namely Cold War paranoia and the early, untapped potential of space travel (watching the original episodes, it’s startling to imagine that man hadn’t even landed on the moon considering some of the stellar inter-planetary episodes) are writ large over the series, so there is room for an updated look at it. It was also, of course, an anthology series – every week was a different self-contained story, though certain tropes and actors were recycled1 making the anthology format of this film seem somewhat intuitive.
In terms of the film, let’s start with Landis’ contributions, the prologue and the first episode “Time Out”, which strangely vary wildly in quality. The prologue, featuring Dan Ackroyd and Albert Brooks in a car sets the tone nicely, appropriately meta (talking about their favourite Twilight Zone episodes) and in just a few minutes sets up a really strong chemistry between the two actors (even if through some now pretty dated cultural references) before the effective twist. “Time Out”, however, doesn’t hold up well at all for me, an anti-racist parable that shows its cards far too early and to little effect. The first part of the film sets up that it will deal with racism in a complex way, tied up in the central character’s (Vic Morrow, who was killed in the infamous tragedy shooting this episode) economic woes and perverted patriotism. The film’s twist – turning him into a Jew in Nazi Germany, an African-American about to be lynched and a Vietnamese man in the Vietnam war – instead tackles racism in extreme, broad strokes. Its other key mistake that the Twilight Zone rarely made was to have an obvious inconsistency in the universe of the episode, or at least in the subjective perception of the protagonist; it seems he can’t be killed in these presumable dream scenarios after he falls from a building, is shot at, exploded – and yet we’re supposed to buy the finality of the end shot. This episode felt tacky and ill-conceived to me.
Chris: I liked the prologue, Ackroyd and Brooks play off one another really well; it feels like a genuine road-trip conversation. But there’s this feeling of tension running throughout it. The Twilight Zone is synonymous with the unexpected, that around any corner there’s a big reveal or surprise twist waiting to happen. Landis knows how get a good balance of humour and horror, just look at American Werewolf in London. It’s a strong start that segues into a considerably weaker segment. “Time Out” is partially based on an original episode “A Quality of Mercy,” which follows a similar body-swap premise and is more or less a basic “walk a mile in his shoes” moral story. The problem with “Time Out” is that there’s just no subtlety to the anti-racism message that Landis presents us with. He’s so in your face about what he’s trying to do, it’s like he’s standing next to us jabbing your sides with his elbow whispering “Do you get it?” It just comes off as obnoxious. I don’t think the concept behind “Time Out” is a necessarily bad one; it’s just poorly executed. I think my biggest problem is that I know Landis can do so much better than this – which I guess is a semi-recurring theme for this anthology, especially with Spielberg’s episode.
Brad: Oh boy, the Spielberg. The first of the episodes directly adapted from an original, it differs from the subsequent two segments in that “Kick the Can” is not a particularly celebrated episode from the original series, and watching it in preparation for this episode, quite a weak one emblematic of some of the show’s lazier tendencies, hinging everything on to a twist ending with the preceding 20 minutes feeling like filler, nor is it saved by a great performance like some of the show’s more questionable entries (Everett Sloane devouring scenery in gambling precautionary tale “The Fever” might be the best example of this). So with 150 episodes to choose from, this was an odd selection.2 And yet Spielberg makes it much, much worse. For any Spielberg detractors, this is your Zapruder film; the most complete document displaying all his perceived worst tendencies. Mawkish, shot in a brightly-lit, sickly sepia-tone aesthetic and an array of those invasive close-ups of awe-struck faces, playing as something like the opening five minutes of Blue Velvet without a hint of irony. And changed significantly from the original episode which at least maintained a hint of ambiguity as to the main character, Mr Bloom (Scatman Crothers) is transformed into a Magical Negro, in the most literal sense of the trope.
Chris: You’re right; “Kick The Can” is perfect ammo for any Spielberg detractors. I think one of the biggest problems with this episode is that nothing happens during the first half. The strength of an anthology lies on its ability to establish a connection with its audience in an incredibly short period of time, creating an authentic world and empathetic characters. Spielberg, and writers Richard and Melissa Matheson, waste their already limited time with lazy set-up and incredibly boring, one-note characters. It feels like a cheesy made-for-TV melodrama, or the Disney version of The Twilight Zone. Spielberg really wants us to feel for the characters and the perils of old age, but he does it in the most uninteresting way possible. This segment is so sickly sweet, right down to the nauseating magic hour lighting, which is used in both the day and night scenes. Again, you can feel the director nudging your side whispering, “Do you get it? It’s the magic hour!” I think I would have been more forgiving if Spielberg went with the original ending, where everyone remain as children and leave the bitter Mr. Conroy alone to ponder his existence. After establishing such a bright, uplifting world, a dark twist would’ve been great reversal of expectations. You mentioned that “Kick The Can” wasn’t one of the stronger episodes from the original series, which makes me wonder how they went about choosing what to adapt for this movie. The notion that Spielberg stood up and said “Yeah, I want to do ‘Kick The Can’” baffles me.
Brad: Yeah, the magic hour cinematography at night was a particularly obnoxious stylistic device, even Terrence Malick has the restraint to keep it to the daytime. And the original episode also has nothing happen for the first half (or more), but at the very least we didn’t have to hear the children actually talk at the end. Even in its lesser episodes, The Twilight Zone understood that oftentimes less is more, something Spielberg doesn’t always truly grasp. But anyway, after a lackluster first half, things pick up significantly. “It’s A Good Life” is one the original series most famous episodes, and with good reason. I spoke earlier of how not all episodes had a ‘twist’ – in this one, Rod Serling lays out the premise quite succinctly in his trademark opening narration. Anthony Freemond, a 6 year old boy, has godlike omnipotent powers over the world and his small town is effectively held ransom by his whims, dissenters (or anything he doesn’t like, like a barking dog) are wished away ‘to the cornfield’ or an otherwise grisly fate and everything he says or does is relentlessly praised. As a straight remake, Dante has a difficult job as the original was such a masterful exercise of tone and fear, and thematically rich – a study of fear and power in the most unstable, capricious form, and the anxieties of parents without any control over their own children. Dante’s Anthony is different, much more likeable and sympathetic than the monstrous figure from the original. Although also prone to anger, they are both limited by their own worldviews as children in different ways – the original Anthony is selfish and shortsighted, while the latter tries to help others but lacks the maturity and perspective to do so; when he makes dinner every night as burgers and chocolate, and cartoons the only thing on TV, he can’t fundamentally grasp that others don’t necessarily want that. Furthermore, his concern is that his family fears him and he craves some form of guidance, whereas the original Anthony cared only that they thought bad things about him. The original episode ends suggesting complete destruction in the service of the miniature demigod; in the remake there is possibility of something a little more optimistic. I think it’s a fascinating distinction, and in this way the Dante is the only segment that builds upon the original premise in a meaningful way. In addition to its visual splendour, of a cartoon aesthetic come to life, this was the stand-out segment to my eyes.
Chris: “It’s A Good Life” is one of the definitive episodes of The Twilight Zone, and after such a disappointing first half I was pretty wary going into Dante’s take on it. Both take an interesting approach on what would happen if a six year old was given godlike powers, but with distinctly different personalities – the original Anthony was more malicious, he’s the type of kid who’d burn ants with a magnify glass and throw a tantrum if he didn’t get his own way, while the remake Anthony is more sympathetic and I guess a more normal representation of a child, all cartoons and candy. I think establishing film Anthony as being normal makes him that much creepier. Throughout the segment Dante hints that there’s something wrong with him, and it’s not until we see his mouthless sister that we see just how sinister Anthony truly is. What I really liked about this segment was the attention to detail for the sets. When Helen initially pulls up to Anthony’s house there are a couple of derelict cars out front, which I didn’t pay much attention to but after seeing the exhausted Uncle Walt and sister Ethel, I realize they were owned by other people who were unknowingly deceived by Anthony. The cartoonish look of the house is great as well; it actually feels like something a kid would design. While we don’t get anything that’s as unsettling as Don Keefer being turned into a jack-in-the-box in the original episode, the monstrous rabbit that Uncle Walt pulls out of his hat is disturbing enough. We also get the greatest piece of unintentional irony as Ethel, played by Nancy Cartwright, is condemned to a Cartoon Hell, much like real life where she’s trapped voicing Bart Simpson until the end of time. I found the ending a bit cheesy, however.
Brad: “Nightmare at 20 000 Feet” is perhaps the one episode that has stuck in the public consciousness more than any other, its premise alone evoking the terror and ingenuity of the series highpoints, despite being from generally least cited fifth and final season. George Miller’s adaptation is admirable, and though quite straight a remake, not redundant. For one, anyone familiar with the stunning remastered Blu-rays of the television show knows that for all their bountiful extras and ability to show every bead of sweat of a tortured protagonist over the show, occasionally the super clean image undercuts some of the effects – the gremlin in the original episode (played by Nick Cravat, Burt Lancaster’s trapeze partner and occasional film co-star) is a particular casualty of this, and it’s one of the episodes that probably benefitted from the grainy, tube TV leaving us just slightly unsure what we or the protagonist really saw. So in this regard, the jump in technology is an asset and the character design of the gremlin is wonderfully wicked, and William Shatner’s stellar performance is done justice by John Lithgow’s all-in nervous showing. It’s a straight adaptation save for mostly insignificant details (Lithgow’s character has a fear of flying, Shatner’s was recovering from a nervous breakdown, which I suppose makes whether or not he saw it somewhat more ambiguous for the audience first time around) and does justice to a pretty legendary episode.
Chris: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is by far the best segment of the entire anthology, but as you said, it barely changes anything from the original. I don’t know whether or not that’s a good thing, because from what we’ve seen in this film so far straying from the path has led to some seriously mixed results. In any case, Miller’s version is fantastic, bringing much needed style and flair. I loved the spinning, claustrophobic opening shots of Lithgow panicking in the planes’ bathroom. It quickly establishes a really strong sense of terror. Miller does a great job of building tension and uncertainty with the gremlin; we get these brief glimpses of this inhuman silhouette crawling on the plane’s wing. He really plays to the audience’s fear of the dark; we know something terrible is out there, but the fact we don’t what or where it is makes it so much more menacing. Lithgow’s performance is great as well, he really ramps up the paranoia to the point that you’re not sure if he actually sees the gremlin or if it’s a panic induced hallucination. The segment ending with a nice callback to Dan Ackroyd’s character from the prologue, who is now driving Lithgow’s ambulance, and the addition of Rod Serling’s original opening monologue is a good touch.
Brad: So in terms of the film as a whole, I suppose I’m torn, and not just referring to the quality disparity in episodes which is really quite alarming. I think the show’s fundamental intelligence is kind of overlooked from the get-go; the film tries to recreate in nostalgia the sort of pulpy feel of the original without its strong satire. Some of the original episodes could by hammy, of course (Serling once quipped that even his best episodes had “aged like bread”) but there were some startlingly progressive condemnations of conformity, xenophobia, even hot-button issues like segregation in schools. I suppose Dante’s gets close, as the anxieties of kids growing up obsessed by TV was a very 80s Moms-on-Oprah issue, but the edge is mostly gone. Like, give me an anti-Reagan parable wrapped up as a rags-to-riches-back-to-rags episode the original series did so well, or a thinly veiled take on the AIDS epidemic. This update, fun as it often is, does slightly misconstrue the spirit of the original, but can be forgiven on the strength of those last two episodes. With two more segments like that on top of the prologue and with just a little more bite, this could have been one of the best movies of the 1980s. As it stands, it’s half of one. What were your overall thoughts?
Chris: Twilight Zone: The Movie is a real mixed bag; there’s no real middle ground in terms of quality. “It’s A Good Life” and “Nightmare At 20,00 Feet” are both great segments and definitely worth anyone’s time. Both Dante and Miller do a great job; their directorial styles offer unique and stylish takes on some of the all-time greatest episodes, while maintaining the general feel and tone that you’d expect from The Twilight Zone. As for Landis and Spielberg’s segments, they’re just extremely underwhelming. The former lacks any form of subtly and feels like Twilight Zone fan-fiction (which I suppose it is, as it’s a mostly original story), while the latter is so sickly sweet and cutesy that I feel diabetic just thinking about it. I think those two are so much more disappointing because it’s John Landis and Steven Spielberg dropping the ball. I mean, sure, those two don’t have a perfect track record (I’m looking at you, War Horse and Blues Brothers 2000) – but in the early 1980s when they’re both at the height of their career? That’s a significant letdown. I also don’t understand their choice of episodes. There are some incredible Twilight Zone episodes that I would’ve loved to see adapted [“Time Enough At Last”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”], but instead we get a weak new story and one of the original series’ lesser examples of quality.
As part of this series, we ask all participants in the roundtables to rank the shorts within, not as a means of finding consensus but rather the opposite, an effort to show how varied segments within an anthology film can be, and the highly subjective nature in approaching them.
1. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, George Miller
2. “It’s A Good Life”, Joe Dante
3. “Time Out”, John Landis
4. “Kick The Can”, Steven Spielberg
- Actor Burgess Meredith, who narrates this film, starred in four episodes over its original run.
- Curiously the film doesn’t include any episodes from the generally more acclaimed first and second seasons of the show. Also only one segment, Dante’s, comes from one of the Rod Serling penned episodes, and none of his original scripts. Considering Serling wrote almost 100 episodes of the show (more in the early seasons), this seems like an intentional decision perhaps out of respect for the late writer. With that in mind, it’s perhaps a good thing Spielberg didn’t take on something like the similarly nostalgia-themed “Walking Distance”, one of the best episodes the show ever ran.