Monday, March 20, 2023

Adaptation Insanity: The one where the scariest thing is Dan Aykroyd



Title: Twilight Zone The Movie

What Year?: 1983

Classification: Irreproducible Oddity

Rating: Ow, My Brain!!! (Unrated/ NR)


As I write this, I’ve been continuing to think over what I want to do with my blog and writing in general. In the process, I recently found myself with a string of movies that could all have suited my purposes. These included a movie I had thought about for a very long time, which I decided was enough to kick off a feature I had considered before as a spinoff to my Super Movies feature. This will be a look at movies based on other properties, which as a further twist will focus on things besides books and comics. Our first entry for consideration will be a film so notorious it could literally be its own category. I present Twilight Zone: The Movie, and yeah, I know all about the backstory.

Our story begins with a driver and a friendly hitchhiker singing TV themes and talking about a certain famous series, until the encounter turns lethal. We then see an unfolding anthology that starts with a middle-aged racist who finds himself transported back in time as the minorities he hates. We then meet the denizens of a retirement home who regain their youth with a game of kick the can, only to discover a price that won’t be a clear downside. Things are looking up as we move on to a school teacher who is invited home by a quirky little boy who proves to be a godlike superhuman with a captive “family”. Finally, we meet a fussy intellectual on a plane who sees a mysterious creature sabotaging the engines, but can’t convince anyone else of the threat. It’s all kinds of pretty good, I guess- but can anything be scarier than Dan Aykroyd?

The Twilight Zone: The Movie was a 1983 dark fantasy/ horror anthology film released by Warner Bros, based on the TV series created by the late Rod Serling. The film was produced by John Landis (An American Werewolf In London) and Steven Spielberg (Duel, ET), who directed the first two segments, “Time Out” and “Kick The Can”. Additional segments based on the original TZ episodes “It’s A Good Life” and “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” were directed by Joe Dante (InnerSpace, Gremlins 2) and George Miller respectively. Frequent TZ contributor Richard Matheson (see… Jaws 3?) received writing credits for 3 out of 4 sequences. The soundtrack was scored by Jerry Goldsmith (see Link, Deep Rising, etc, etc, etc), whose early work included the TZ episode “The Invaders”. The cast included Vic Morrow (see Message From Space... wait, my first review?), Kathleen Quinlan and John Lithgow (Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai), with Burgess Meredith (Batman, The Manitou) as the narrator and Dan Aykroyd as the Hitchhiker/ Monster in a prologue sequence. The film became notorious for an accident that resulted in the deaths of Morrow and two child extras. It was a moderate commercial success, earning $42 million against a $10M budget, but subsequently suffered from controversy and limited availability on home video. Among series fans and genre critics, it was poorly received except for Dante’s segment. As of early 2023, it is available for digital purchase and rental.

For my experiences, I will say right off the bat that my usual format and length was out the window from the start. As far as the present film, what really stands out in hindsight is that I literally had no awareness of it until at least the middling 1990s, and still didn't watch it until around 2017. The astonishing part of that is that I was an absolute TZ junkie virtually from the time I had regular access to television at all. I would watch the original series, I would watch the ‘80s revival, I would read the tie-in books, I would narrate episodes to innocent bystanders. All of which is just to say, for me to have known nothing about this film means somebody really screwed up. The most obvious reasons, I must also say at the outset, are ones I won’t go into. I have reviewed movies with body counts before (see Brainstorm, which still wasn’t as uncomfortable as Hardware), and the only thing that really works is to keep it out of the picture. In those terms, my diagnosis is that this was always on track to be sleek, expensive and completely forgettable, which is not what it deserves.

Moving forward, I really couldn’t avoid a paragraph on the opening segment(s). The prologue is, if anything, underrated, especially in light of Dan Aykroyd’s performance. At face value, the role isn’t even against type, yet the actor becomes subtly unsettling well before the end, enough to ponder what might have been if he had gone further into roles outside comedy. We then get the embarrassingly good modernization of the TZ opening, with Meredith swinging for the fences. Finally, we get to Morrow’s segment, which I feel I am committing heresy by endorsing probably the second strongest in the entire movie. We get a strong set-up through the introduction to a very unsympathetic character who (in arguable contrast to the antiheroes of “Judgment Night” or “Death’s Head Revisited”) is never so monstrous that he can’t be identified with people a viewer might meet. What follows is a reasonably satisfying series of vignettes that never needed any other ending than its chilling final sequence. The “problem” is that this never quite reaches the level of true irony, unless you count the jerk’s surprisingly plausible ability to stay alive as long as he does, and there really isn’t a lot that could have been done differently. To me, the one good option would be to put him through the slights and resentment even “model” minorities in “modern” society face, perhaps by a “body swap” with the individual he's really mad at, but then, that would require political subtlety in an ‘80s movie.

The other segment I had to write up on its own is “It’s A Good Life”, based on both the TZ episode and the short story by Jerome Bixby. This is the one segment that is at least as good as it’s usually made out to be. I would go so far as to make favorable comparisons to the original series episode (one of the ones I can remember retelling). The most intriguing part is that this “remake” is even bolder than The Thing in reconceiving the source material as well as its “classic” adaptation. (The short story is still far more horrific…) Here, the child god-demon is content to hold power over a single house, resulting in a claustrophobic focus and significant ambiguities that certainly “work”. It’s never clear if this version of the character is less powerful, less ambitious or simply mature enough to preserve a line of contact with the “real” world. His meeting with the protagonist teacher is similarly debatable. It makes sense that she would succeed in connecting where others have failed, but it’s very possible that the miserable captives we meet in the house thought the same at some point. As events proceed, the cinematography and effects convey a sense of unravelling reality as much as Anthony’s power, augmented by the prominent cartoons. The materialized creatures truly feel like toons brought to life, still not as unnerving as the on-screen monster that dispatches the “sister” sent into its domain. Of course, there are many things I considered for the “one scene”, which will be from here. My own favorite is the would-be magician’s reluctant rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick, followed by the deceptively drawn-out reveal of Anthony’s real sibling.

That still leaves two whole segments, including Spielberg’s contribution. That is quite justly Ground Zero for the hate this movie usually gets, to the point that I am hard-pressed to say anything save that yes, it is that bad. My only dissent is that I don’t buy the suggested narrative that he was thrown off by the legendary troubles of the production. On the contrary, I find it typical of the sentimental, allegedly kid-friendly material that he was either being saddled with or bringing on himself before Jurassic Park forced the “system” to take him seriously again. Then there is the finale, which tends to get a measure of goodwill that I have yet to muster. For me, Lithgow simply does not work in the role. I also have to say, I find the gremlin strangely ineffective. Much of the time, you really can’t see the damn thing, and when you can, its wonky design borders on comical rather than threatening (yes, even compared to the suit they put Nick Cravat in…). The only thing that his improved my opinion after several viewings is the surreal camerawork, which at its best achieves a “comic book” feel akin to Creepshow. I can put in an extra good word for John Dennis Johnston as the quite sympathetic pilot, who really comes close to being in the right even with the gremlin.

Now I still have the “one scene”, and I finally went with the opening of the best segment. The teacher comes into a diner, where Anthony is playing Tempest (see… Night of the Comet?). The proprietor behind the counter is none other than everyone’s favorite cameo actor, Dick Miller (Night of the Creeps, Terminator, etc). He’s as entertaining as ever with more meat than usual as he charms the lady, throwing out multiple franchise references in the process. Meanwhile, an adult male patron becomes disgruntled at interference on a TV screen. In a curious bit of foreshadowing, he accuses Anthony of causing the static. The situation only escalates when the proprietor dismisses him. Finally, the patron takes matters into his own hands. As often happens, what follows is less interesting than the buildup. Does this mean that the townspeople suspect that Anthony is different? If so, does this also mean that Anthony’s abilities are weakened or largely nullified away from the house? Either way, why hasn’t anyone come to look for people who must be missing? Perhaps his powers are still effective enough to make people disregard the matter, or perhaps that is where some of the captives came from. As usual, no more will be said about it, which just makes it more interesting.

In closing, I would usually be defending the rating. This is one where there is simply too much baggage for me to venture a rating. As a whole, it’s better than people have wanted to give it credit for. The downside is, there are also things that are actually worse. All in all, that’s a pretty accurate representation of the series it’s based on. You can take it or leave it, but it’s time we stopped ignoring it. With that, I can find a little peace.

Image credit The Legendary VHS (Tumblr).

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