Four parts filmmaking brilliance and pleasure to one part grievous, tragically compromised misconception, "Twilight Zone--The Movie" emerges as an exhilarating flight of fancy.
If spectators are generous enough to indulge the single weak component in this five-part anthology, they'll discover a new classic in the specialized tradition of supernatural thrillers like "Dead of Night," and the most imaginative and witty entertainment released so far this year.
Opening today at area theaters, "Twilight Zone" consists of a prologue and four tales of the supernatural, inspired by a nostalgic affection for the Rod Serling television series of the early 1960s. That affection is shared by an exceptional group of directors--the American trio of Steven Spielberg, John Landis and Joe Dante along with Australia's original George Miller (there are two of them), the creator of "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior." This anthology lifts the source of inspiration to a headier esthetic plane than it ever approached on TV.
Evidently, the project was initiated by Spielberg and Landis, who doubled as coproducers and recruited Dante and then Miller to join them in what must have begun as a labor of love. Fate took a hideous turn, of course, when an accident cost the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors last summer during the shooting of Landis' episode.
This calamity made the production controversial; Landis and several associates who were at the scene of the accident are to indicted today on as-yet unspecified charges.
The ill-fated Landis episode is the conspicuous weak link. The story is not only conceptually misguided but emotionally alienated from the other episodes, which retain a good-humored outlook even when, as in the cases of the fabulous Dante and Miller segments, they're subjecting you to unprecedented cinematic freakouts.
Intended as a harrowing reminder of the horrors of intolerance, the Landis episode can't avoid transmitting The Message with an oppressively heavy hand. Morrow, as an embittered bigot, meets two friends for a drink after a bad day at the office and makes a spectacle of himself griping about Jews, blacks and Asians. Upon leaving the bar, he finds himself mysteriously transported to a Parisian street during the German Occupation and spends the remainder of the story being chased between time frames by bloodthirsty Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and then GIs, a lost patrol of trigger-happy dopeheads encountered in the jungles of Vietnam.
The sequence being shot when the accident occurred was meant to be a redemptive finale--under fire the bigot rescues a pair of Vietnamese war orphans. Since the accident tainted all this footage, the story now ends on a grotesquely moralistic, guilt-ridden note of retribution.
Another cruel irony: "Twilight Zone" reveals Landis at his best and worst, because he was also responsible for writing and directing the marvelous prologue sequence with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks. A sensationally funny preamble, it monitors a breezy conversation between two hip trivia buffs in a car driving along a lonely, dark country highway.
Landis' dramatic episode is the only one that purports to be an "original," although it's in the dubious tradition of Serling's preachiest scripts. Spielberg, Dante and Miller have worked from astutely free adaptations of specific TV scripts--"Kick the Can," "It's a Good Life" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" were the titles of their respective prototypes, and two writers closely associated with the show, Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson, collaborated on these revisions (Matheson on all three).
Spielberg's work brims with evidence of boyhood devotion to the TV series. His protagonists like Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and Henry Thomas in "E.T." typically confront fantastic, twilight-zone circumstances that turn out to be tangible rather than delusionary, a theme echoed in the three superior episodes of the anthology.
"Kick the Can" is a sentimental set piece elevated from benign triteness by the extraordinary richness of feeling Spielberg is capable of imposing. The frailest of vignettes, it depicts the spiritual and even corporeal rejuvenation experienced by the residents of a rest home under the influence of a sublime Mr. Fixit named Bloom, embodied with irresistible, lustrous benevolence by Scatman Crothers.
This episode unfolds so smoothly and incisively that there's no time for sentimental slack to accumulate and go actively icky on you. And, there's such a wonderful interplay of faces and deft performances among the adult actors (especially Helen Shaw as the delightful Mrs. Dempsey) and then the perky children chosen to embody their brief youthful reincarnations that the atmosphere is constantly enriched by fresh presences and voices.
In the case of Dante's hilarious, head-spinning segment, it's an Alice-in-Wonderland fable that transports you to a baroque satiric setting, a "happy home" controlled by the animating whims of a little boy with prodigious, dangerous mental powers. The Alice figure is Kathleen Quinlan as a young schoolteacher, Helen Foley, escaping some kind of failure and disillusion. She finds her mission upon being lured into the home of the boy, Anthony (Jeremy Licht). A family of craven human cartoon figures, Anthony's kin live among cartoon furnishings with the constant background of television sets tuned to cartoon shows.
The funniest of these inhabitants, who have been reduced to humoring Anthony about everything lest he will them out of existence altogether, are Kevin McCarthy as disheveled Uncle Walt and Patricia Barry as twittering Mom. The heroine steps into a twilight zone where people behave like exaggerated versions of the nitwit family circles in cartoons and slap-happy TV commercials.
The resolution avoids the pat option of imprisoning Helen in the demented domestic farce Anthony has created for himself. Instead, she provides him with a way out of his way-out-ness by resisting his potentially monstrous whims. He's looking for the role she's willing to play: a parent who won't be intimidated.
Although emphasizing the demonic side of a young mind--a side climaxed by the appearance of bughouse cartoon demons designed by the inimitably bizarre young makeup genius Rob Bottin--the Dante episode is also contrived to close on a lyrical note of optimism.
The Miller episode supplies a stunning finish and guarantees that "Twilight Zone" will never be seen on an airplane. Miller and Matheson have streamlined "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which offered a satisfying jolt in its original form with William Shatner as a panic-stricken passenger, into a witty scherzo for virtuoso director and actor.
John Lithgow has inherited the Shatner role and plays it with spellbinding, feverish intensity. Miller and Matheson haven't wasted any time trying to explain the mental shakiness of the protagonist, who was recovering from a breakdown and seemed to relapse in the teleplay, throwing the flight into a tizzy by insisting that a gremlin was outside on the wing busily sabotaging the engines. The apprehension was always justified, because a gremlin is out there endangering everyone's safety, but now the pathological fear of flying is a given. Lithgow isn't relapsing; he just can't help feeling terrified in the air.
The movie introduces Lithgow in mid-freakout, cowering in phobic terror in the airplane lavatory, and wings the premise from there. Miller sustains a remarkable balance between terrifying and amusing manipulations, using throwaway humor to enhance the hysteria as effectively as Spielberg did in "Jaws." The best single effect in the TV film was the appearance of the gremlin flush outside Shatner's window, and Miller has turned this situation into a sensational tease, stringing out the payoff until you've worked up an exquisite anticipatory jumpiness on behalf of Lithgow.
Naturally, advanced technology gives the movie a more frightening gremlin (designed by Craig Reardon and Michael McCracken) than the creature that haunted the TV episode, and it's a gremlin with an unexpected streak of humor to enhance the nastiness. Every alteration in the original scenario, whether it involves cutting superfluous material or inventing fresh and usually funny embellishments, has resulted in a phenomenal intensification of the nightmarish impact. TWILIGHT ZONE
Directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller; written by John Landis; screenplay by George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson and Josh Rogan; directors of photography, Stevan Larner, Allen Daviau and John Hora; production designer, James D. Bissell; edited by Malcolm Campbell, Michael Kahn, A.C.E., Tina Hirsch, A.C.E. and Howard Smith; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Steven Spielberg and John Landis. Distributed by Warner Bros. Rated PG. THE CAST Passenger .... Dan Aykroyd Driver .... Albert Brooks Bill .... Vic Morrow Larry .... Doug McGrath Ray .... Charles Hallahan