Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of Star Trek Into Darkness has us fondly remembering other movies based on, or spun-off from, TV shows.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Between The ABCs Of Death and the V/H/S series, the horror anthology has seen a resurgence in recent years. Yet like all omnibus films, these multi-story fright flicks tend to be patchwork affairs, dragged down by their weakest segments. Bringing together four shorts inspired by episodes of the TV show, Twilight Zone: The Movie is certainly uneven, but at least its sections spring from the same well.
John Landis’ “Time Out,” the first vignette, became notorious before the film opened, thanks to an on-set accident that killed star Vic Morrow and two child actors. (It follows a prologue in which Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks sing TV theme songs at each other before working around to Twilight Zone’s famously eerie opening strains.) All traces of that ill-fated scene, which ironically would have provided the story with a redemptive coda, were excised, leaving Morrow’s loudmouth bigot stuck in a string of shoe’s-on-the-other-foot scenarios. First, he’s a Jew in Nazi-occupied France, then a black man in the Ku Klux Klan-era South, then a Vietnamese man hunted by American GIs (the most prominent of whom, in one of the heavy-handed segment’s rare light touches, are non-white). The point—racism is bad—is established early and often, but perhaps it’s a premature apology for what follows: the Steven Spielberg-directed “Kick The Can,” a segment that centers on an uncomplicated version of the Magical Negro, here incarnated by Scatman Crothers. Considering the movie was Spielberg and Landis’ brainchild, it’s puzzling that their half is by far its weakest.
But if you’ve stuck it out this long (or skipped the necessary chapters), a pair of treats remain. First there’s Joe Dante’s “It’s A Good Life,” in which Kathleen Quinlan’s bored schoolteacher happens upon a house whose interior has been warped to fit the desires of a young boy. Though she’s ostensibly the main character, Quinlan is barely present, even when she’s onscreen, but Dante compensates by casting regulars like Dick Miller and Kevin McCarthy, who seem better suited to the segment’s cartoon horror. Though the low-budget effects now look painfully threadbare, some of the images—one in particular—still have the power to shock.
Saving the best for last, Twilight Zone ends with “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” directed by George Miller and starring John Lithgow as a red-eyed airline passenger whose fear of flying is compounded by a horrifying vision. Though it ends with its bogeyman stepping into the light, the segment is most effective for what it doesn’t show—the suggestive glimpses caught through smeared airplane windows and driving rain. Lithgow’s terror is palpable, more frightening that anything we might see, but not what we can imagine.
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