Ever look around your living room and think, “I have too many movies”? No? Well, I do, and that’s what this blog series is all about. $5 Bin Film School is my attempt to work through the bargain bin/Half Price Books discount DVDs and Blus that I have accrued over the years. Some posts will be composed of short thoughts about a film; others might be deep-dives into multiple films joined by a theme; some might be essays about a film’s influence. At the end of each post, I’ll decide if I want to keep the film or get rid of it, and hopefully whittle my collection down to a more manageable number.
The first entry in this series dealt with a trio of Stanley Kubrick films; the second one was all about the “Alien” franchise; the third is all about David Fincher. For this entry (and for some for the rest of October), I’ll be looking at some spooky movies for Halloween. This entry deals with two anthology films that have frightened audiences for years…
‘Do you want to see something really scary?’
With social horror auteur Jordan Peele’s revival of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” scheduled to hit CBS’ streaming service All Access sometime in 2019, I thought it would be fun to revisit the first time the groundbreaking show was adapted for another medium.
Peele’s “Twilight Zone” will be the third time this show has been revived — it was brought back in 1985 and ran for five seasons, and again in 2002, when it ran for one season (plus a TV movie in 1994 that focused on two of Sterling’s stories that never made it to air). But “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983), consisting of four segments directed by different directors, was the first time the show made the leap from the small screen to the big screen. In doing so, it proved why the show should stay on the small screen.
After a fun prologue starring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as travelers riffing on their favorite “Twilight Zone” episodes, where Aykroyd turns into a monster and eats Brooks, the real episodes begin.
With the exception of the first segment, John Landis’ “Time Out,” (which merely borrows from two previous episodes) all of the segments that make up this movie are adaptations from previous episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”
Landis’ is the first (and the worst) in the sequencing order. It’s about a bitter old racist man (Vic Morrow) who is angry about how “a Jew” stole his promotion (maybe the man actually was Jewish, but we don’t know). After he’s done complaining to his friends at dinner about “the Jews and the Asians and the n——,” he walks outside to find himself in Nazi Germany, himself mistaken for a Jew and being hunted by Nazis. And if that doesn’t change his mind, he is in turn transported to the American south at a Klan rally, where Klan members think he is a black man; and he is transported to Vietnam, where American soldiers shoot him because they think he is Vietnamese. He then gets bounced back to Germany, where he is put on a prison transport train with other Jews.
Thus ends the segment, and the moral platitudes are complete. The man never outwardly denounces his racism; he just suffers because of it. Landis never makes it clear if the main character has changed his ways or if he just took a romp through Oppressionville. This is the moralizing that the show was accused of at its worst dialed up to 11.
The next segment, Steven Spielberg’s “Kick The Can,” is an update of the episode of the same name from Season 3. Here, Scatman Crothers stars as a traveling Mystical Negro Trope who roams from residence home to residence home restoring old people with their youth for one night in order to show them how much of a full life they’ve led. It’s not great, and it’s Spielberg at his most sentimental (“E.T.” was released the year prior, and he would follow up this gig with “Temple of Doom”), and the use of Crothers in that role is as outdated now as it was in 1983. But this is the only segment here with a somewhat happy ending where everything works out.
Next we get Joe Dante’s “It’s A Good Life,” taken from the episode of the same name in Season 3. Dante’s “Gremlins” would be released in 1984, and that production must have been on his mind while filming this segment, as it’s the most special effects-heavy and creature-driven of the entire movie. Here, a terrible child with psychokinetic powers has locked his family in a cartoon hell of his own making, and can only be saved by a traveling schoolteacher who promises to help him hone his powers for good. Creepy kids are always scary, and dante knows this, frightfully filming young Anthony like a monster and saturating this set with hypercoloring. It’s the most visually appealing segment, and the second-most frightening.
The most frightening, for anyone who hates flying (or worries about what will happen while flying) is the conclusion, George “Mad Max” Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” taken from the episode of the same name in Season 5. Both are adapted from Richard Matheson’s 1961 short story about a man (John Lithow) flying alone who insists he keeps seeing a malevolent creature on the wing of the plane, but nobody else can see it. But when the plane lands after a turbulent flight, the emergency crew finds something strange.
“Nightmare” is the best segment of this movie. Miller’s command and usage of a small set works in this story’s favor, and the makeup and special effects work on the creature on the wing are terrifying. Lithgow gives a great performance as a man who is afraid of flying but knows what he saw, and it all ends on a full-circle note as Aykroyd reappears as an ambulance driver who is taking Lithgow to the hospital after landing (though I doubt it). It’s an ending note that highlights the playful horror of the 80s, but wouldn’t have been missed had the prologue and the epilogue been left out.
Also, any discussion of this movie is not complete without a mention of its notoriety. A stunt helicopter crash during the Vietnam portion of “Time Out” killed American actor Vic Morrow and Chinese child actors Myca Dinh Le (7 years old) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (6 years old). Le and Chen were hired in violation of California law, which prohibits child actors from working at night or in proximity to explosions.
The scene with the helicopter was not included in the film, and in the subsequent wrongful death trial, Landis admitted guilt for the illegal work practices for (but not for the accident).
On the whole, this anthology starts rough, then gets better, then ends on a soaring high note, but it’s not really essential viewing.
Initial DVD release
Keep or Toss? Toss.