Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 12, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1983)

4. Twilight Zone: The Movie

Other shows ran for longer or got better ratings in their day but, as far as pure influence goes, it's hard to top “The Twilight Zone.” Rod Serling's hugely iconic series was an early example of a sci-fi anthology show working on television. More importantly, Serling marrying far out ideas with social commentary and satire made a huge impression on future storytellers and filmmakers. The long shadow “The Twilight Zone” casts over popular culture can be seen in how many attempts there have been to revive the concept. Aside from countless multi-media spin-offs – including novels, comics, amusement park attractions and pinball machines – the concept has been brought back to television four more times, with the newest iteration just premiering earlier this month.

The highest profile revival of “The Twilight Zone” came in 1983. Around the same time several classic fifties sci-fi/horror films were being remade, someone had the idea to make a movie version of “The Twilight Zone.” Three of Serling's classic episodes would be remade, with a brand new story being included as well. A different respected director would handle each segment: Two established hit-makers, Steven Spielberg and John Landis, and two relative newcomers, Joe Dante and George Miller. The project was suppose to be a nostalgia-tinged treat for genre fans and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. You can see this in the film's darkly funny and lightly amusing prologue, which has Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks listening to CCR and reminiscing about old TV shows.

Of course, we all know how this turned out. “Twilight Zone: The Movie” ended up becoming well known for entirely different reasons. I won't regurgitate the gory details, as you can read about the tragedy that happened on-set all across the internet. What happened was a result of gross negligence, child labor laws and special effect safety being thoughtlessly ignored. The incident should have ended the careers of everyone involved. The facts of the matter makes it hard to truly enjoy “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” knowing people – including two children – literally died making it. But I am a professional, even if no one pays me, and will do my best not to let this information color my opinion.

With Burgess Meredith serving as our narrator, we are presented with four tales. In “Time Out,” an outspoken bigot has his prejudice inflamed after a Jewish man gets hired over him. After a racist outburst in a bar, he awakens in Nazi Germany, passing through other historical situation where he's placed in the role of racial minority. In “Kick the Can,” a mysterious stranger arrives at a nursing home, encouraging the elderly residents to play as if they were kids again. Soon enough, magic intervenes. In “It's a Good Life,” a woman is drawn into a home inhabited by a little boy and his very nervous family. She soon discovers the child has god-like powers that he abuses wildly. Lastly, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” concerns a man having a panic attack on an airplane. His mental state cracks up further when he sees a gremlin on the wing, which is naturally not believed by anyone else.

While you can at least separate the other segments from the tragic incident, “Time Out” can not be watched without thinking about the deaths that happened on-set. Even if this wasn't the case, it's hard to imagine the film's sole original segment being especially well regarded. John Landis provided the script himself and it's not the most impressive take on Serling-esque dramatic irony. An unapologetic racist is hard to emphasize with. There's little satisfaction in watching him get put through the humiliation conga, of being oppressed by bigger racists than himself. It's a simple narrative switch-a-roo, the film assuming putting the shoe on the other foot is enough of a twist.

Sadly, Vic Marrow is the one thing “Time Out” really has going for it. Marrow creates an utterly despicable character. In Marrow's hand, Bill becomes a man – maybe decent once upon a time – hardened by bitterness and ignorance. Yet the performance never excuses the character's shitty beliefs and behavior. It certainly says something about the guy that, even after being thrust into the position of a black man at a KKK rally or a Jew in Nazi Germany, he still fails to understand how the institutions of racism that causes these events to happen. The blunt conclusion, necessitated by Marrow's death, is not satisfying. Perhaps if Marrow had lived, if the whole ugly tragedy had been avoided, we might have seen the protagonist's arc come full circle in an interesting way.

Initially planning on adapting “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” Spielberg was feeling so awful about what happened that he opted for a more upbeat story instead. And I can't blame the guy for that. However, “Kick the Can” represents Spielberg giving into his worst tendencies as a filmmaker. The naked sentimentality of the story is ladled on way too thick. The idea of some sort of angel wandering from nursing home to nursing home, offering the elderly one more chance at youth was too glurgey in the hands of the original “Twilight Zone.” (That he's literally a Magical Black Man raises some unfortunate implications.) It also doesn't help that “Kick the Can” barely has a story, the segment more or less just burning itself out after its central narrative twist occurs.

However, I will say that “Kick the Can” does have an excellent cast. Questionable though the part may be, Scatman Crothers has just the right twinkle in his eye as the mysterious visitor. The actors, elderly and young, are all pretty adorable. I especially like Selma Diamond as Mrs. Weinstein and Tanya Fenmore as her younger counterpart, both of whom adapted super cute accents. The strength of the cast is what ultimately brings a sense of bittersweet melancholy to the denouncement, the only thing about “Kick the Can” that is especially interesting at all.

Luckily, “Twilight Zone: The Movie” perks up considerably in its second half. Joe Dante proves an especially inspired choice to handle “It's a Good Life.” Unsurprisingly, Dante is especially sympathetic towards a mischievous little boy obsessed with cartoons. Compared to Bill Mumy's original Anthony, a heartless monster, Jeremy Licht's Anthony is mostly just lonely. Everyone is too afraid of his immense power to even question if he has feelings. Ultimately, Helen – played fantastically by Kathleen Quinlan – is the first person who sees Anthony as a person, not a monster. The upbeat new ending is thoughtful and earned, arguing that a sympathetic ear and some reasonable discipline is all even the most lost soul needs.

Despite the differing way it handles Anthony, Dante's “It's a Good Life” doesn't downplay the horror either. In fact, it's easily the creepiest part of the film. The set design of the Fermont house is fittingly surreal. The home is presented in bold colors, either bright pastels or lifeless monochrome, while the walls are arched and exaggerated. The original cartoon segments we see capture the anarchy of classic Fleischer toons, stretching them into a creepy direction. The decision to bring stretched, cartoony characters into reality via Rob Bottin's grotesque, disturbing looking creature effects was a smart one. As both a devotee of classic animation and classic horror, Dante was the perfect choice to combine both for an effective short segment.

As good as Dante's “It's a Good Life” is, the best segment in “Twilight Zone: The Movie” is George Miller's “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Every aspect of Miller's segment is designed to keep the anxiety escalating. We meet John Valentine in a nervous state, the camera replicate his air-sick feeling in the bathroom. The camerawork is frenzied and shaky, constantly putting the audience in the shoes of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. More aggravations are tossed at the protagonists and audience. From flashing cameras, to creepy ventriloquist dummies, to chaotic lightning bolts outside the window. Miller marries this to a sick sense of humor, as Valentine's histrionic breakdown produces laughs even as the viewer relates to his nervous state. That is most apparent in a shot of his eyes bulging out his head, a trick Miller also used in his “Mad Max” films.

Honestly, it's the kind of character that could have produced some ugly overacting. Instead, John Lithgow was given the role and produced some glorious overacting. Covered in a fine layer of sweat and looking paler than a corpse, Lithgow starts out exhausted and goes more and more nuts. His anguished wails, panicked mutters, failed attempts to calm himself, and wild freak-outs are incredibly entertaining to watch. It's paired with a pretty good monster too, as this gremlin is unknowable and more feral looking than the one seen on television back in 1963.

The on-set calamity, at the time and even now, overshadows pretty much everything about “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The deaths happened early in production and Spielberg considered canning the entire project then and there. Perhaps, he should have. Yet, then again, we would have missed out on some excellent short films from Joe Dante and George Miller if he had. These two segments are the ones most remembered by viewers, transforming “Twilight Zone: The Movie” into a minor cult classic. While anyone would have a hard time re-capturing Rod Serling's brilliance – just look at the diminishing returns of the various “Zone” revivals – at least Dante and Miller put their own spin on it. While “Twilight Zone: the Movie” is a hard movie to recommend, you should definitely see the second half. [Time Out: C] [Kick the Can: C-] [It's a Good Life: B+] [Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: A-] [Grade Overall: B]

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