Back when the Twilight Zone movie was made, the concept of turning TV shows into movies was still in its infancy. In 1983, you had two Star Trek movies and that Get Smart Nude Bomb monstrosity, so this attempt to bring Rod Serling’s classic anthology series to the big screen was something of a novelty.
Unfortunately, any novelty value became permanently irrelevant on July 23, 1982, when actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children were killed as an ill-advised helicopter stunt went tragically wrong. Even if John Landis’ segment had been the Citizen Kane of television-to-film adaptations, it would not have been worth the cost in human lives.
Sadly, none of the four segments or the overlong, unfunny introduction even came close to that standard.
The movie contains four self-contained stories, three based on episodes of the original series and one new story, the ill-fated Landis segment. The second, “Kick the Can,” directed by Steven Spielberg, stars Scatman Crothers as a mysterious stranger who arrives at an retirement home with the message that growing old does not require acting old. In “It’s a Good Life,” directed by Joe Dante, a young woman (Kathleen Quinlan) encounters a willful, spoiled young boy with the power to make his wishes come true at will. Finally, in George Miller’s remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a stressed-out passenger (John Lithgow) can’t make anyone believe that a creature is out on the wing, tearing apart the engine.
One of the key complaints about recent efforts at adapting television series to movies is that they tend not to respect the source material. The best you can say about the three remakes is that they were produced out of a love for the original show. This was not a cynical “re-imagining,” dumbed down for a teenaged audience. Sadly, two of these three segments feel more like exercises in pointless nostalgia. Only the John Lithgow segment seems to come alive. Not surprisingly, it’s the also only one that doesn’t wallow in excessive sentimentality. In hindsight, a feature length adaptation of this story could have made a far better movie than what was eventually released.
Fans of the original series will recall that many of the Twilight Zone’s least memorable moments happened when series creator Rod Serling abandoned storytelling for preaching, hitting the audience over the head with a didactic moral lesson. One of these was “Death’s Head Revisited,” upon which the opening segment was based and it’s a throwback to just that kind of black and white moralizing of the show’s lesser moments. Vic Morrow plays a bigoted man lamenting the loss of a promotion to a Jewish coworker. After managing to embarrass or piss off half the people in a bar, he walks outside and finds himself a Jew on the wrong end of a Gestapo manhunt in Nazi Germany, then he’s a black man nearly being lynched by the Ku Klux Klan and finally he’s a Vietnamese man being hunted by American soldiers.
Yes, we get it. Bigotry is bad. I’m sure U.S. Vietnam vets also appreciated the suggestion of moral equivalence between them, the Gestapo and the Klan. Frankly, the parallel is more than just a stretch and a better example could probably have been found. Why not a victim of South African Apartheid or a Soviet dissident fleeing the secret police? Of course, a setting other than the Vietnam War would probably also have meant fewer illegally employed child actors being decapitated by crashing helicopters.
I realize that other people have been killed during the production of movies, but generally they were stunt people, paid to take risks and not actors, two of them under age and working without proper supervision, being asked to perform dangerous stunts in the wee hours of the morning. As much as I have enjoyed John Landis’ work, before and since, this incident diminishes my appreciation of his films.
Even great films aren’t worth what this one cost and this was far from a great film.