It’s the most wonderful time of year: Octoberween! Horror movies are on all the time, we collectively celebrate the fantastic and spooky, and there are LSATs. Wait, sorry; that last one is not a general thing. Sure is horrifying, though. To abate my fears, I finally took the time to watch Twilight Zone: The Movie, based on Rod Serling’s television anthology series from 1959-64, which I’ve written about briefly before. In fact, it aired almost exactly 54 years ago today. I said “finally took the time to watch” because, well, my column is named after the show, and I spent the entire summer researching it for a paper that is almost seventy pages, approximately half the word count of The Great Gatsby. So, how about we start off Octoberween with a review of a film adaptation of one of the most influential sci-fi/fantasy/horror series of all time?
Twilight Zone: The Movie
Set up as an anthology sequence, with four directors each tackling a different segment, the stories are all adaptations of The Twilight Zone episodes. First is John Landis (Animal House, Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London), who adapts the episode “A Quality of Mercy;” then, Steven Spielberg (a ton of stuff), who adapts “Kick the Can;” Joe Dante (Gremlins), who adapts “It’s a Good Life;” and George Miller (Max Max, Happy Feet), who adapts “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Most of these episodes are classics, although you need not have seen them—or even watched The Twilight Zone, really—to know what’s going on in the movie.
Still, having seen them makes the experience a bit more interesting. There are tons of references to the original series, whether it’s name dropping (a town is called Beaumont, in reference to major series writer Charles Beaumont; another place is called Willoughby, in reference to “A Stop at Willoughby”) or playing with the original stories. At first, I didn’t like how much the directors were changing the original stories on principle. But in hindsight, I think that it’s clever for each director to add his own flavor to the segments. Joe Dante makes “It’s a Good Life” a slapstick, fantastical horror sequence; Spielberg sentimentalizes the hell out of “Kick the Can.” In principle, this is actually a pretty clever way to attempt a movie adaptation of the series. Serling had his imprint on the stories, so why not let the directors try to reinterpret the stories with theirs?
Well, the main problem with this movie is that the success of the reinterpretations is wavering at best. The first two segments—oddly enough done by the two directors who, at least at the time, were the most famous: Landis and Spielberg—are particularly weak. The original “A Quality of Mercy” focuses on a young American lieutenant who wants to prove himself by killing a bunch of dying Japanese soldiers at the end of the war. He is temporally transferred to the consciousness of a Japanese soldier, whose lieutenant wants to do the same thing to a group of Americans in a battle three years prior. He realizes the error of his ways in an intimate, personal story. Landis decides to take a racist, prejudiced American and make him go through every terrible thing in history, ever, and it’s so mad-dash that no real effect is left on the viewer. There’s no intimacy, no control.
Spielberg’s adaptation of “Kick the Can” takes an admittedly sentimental story and dials that adjective up to eleven. In the original, some old folks decide that they can be young if they damn well please, and so they do it. In Spielberg’s, a man (Scatman Crothers, who makes this segment a lot better) comes and tells everyone to do it, lets them realize how it’s possibly not great to be young again, and then goes to another old folk’s home to do the same thing to others. I liked the reality check given to the idea of old people suddenly being young again, but ultimately there’s no mystery and no magic left to our imaginations; there’s just a treacly representation of the dangers of wish fulfillment. Again, it’s not so much the fact that Spielberg tries to change the story, but that he does so in a way that leaves a story of little value.
Joe Dante gets closer to the mark in adapting “It’s a Good Life.” The original segment is extremely creepy, wherein a young boy terrorizes a town with his nearly omnipotent powers. Everyone must obey him. In Dante’s segment, a young boy convinces a kind teacher to visit his house, and we quickly realize that the family is terrified of young Anthony. The way Dante builds up the creepiness is fantastic, and the macabre style develops slowly. Still, once everyone blows up, it loses the successful creepiness that it has built and becomes fairly silly, ultimately ending with camp—not the delightful camp Dante is known for, but uninteresting and boring camp. Dante is so close to re-adapting one of the best episodes of the original series into his own style, but misses the mark by lacking consistency, and thus the fact that he’s adapting “It’s a Good Life” becomes a detriment to enjoying the story.
George Miller’s adaptation of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is fairly entertaining, and has the sort of manic energy that was in the original, although Miller makes the craziness much more explicit. This segment is pretty close to its source, and it’s fun to watch, although ultimately not much more than that. Nothing is added, nothing is lost, and in a way Miller’s addition to the film represents why direct adaptations aren’t worthwhile either.
Truth be told, the two best parts of the movie are the prologue and epilogue. In the prologue, two dudes (Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd!) are driving around at night, and start talking about The Twilight Zone. They share some scary stories and play games. There is a sense of fun and love for the material that’s being adapted, and the quietness of the segment matches Serling’s usual desire to approach subjects by focusing on people. By not adapting any segments from The Twilight Zone, this part of the movie is oddly enough the best throwback to the original series. That’s because there’s no sense of devotion or need to change anything. It’s a love-letter, and the love-letter matches up perfectly with Serling’s style while also having a unique flavor on itso wn. The ending, which I won’t spoil, also has a sense of fun to it, which I think matches The Twilight Zone.
Overall, I think that Twilight Zone: The Movie was a good idea. Having great directors adapt episodes that they love and make them their own is the ultimate tribute to Rod Serling’s series. The problem is that no one does it really well. This movie is enjoyable, and I’m glad I sat down and watched it; still, compared to the groundbreaking, top-notch storytelling of the original series, this movie leaves a sense of emptiness in those hoping to relive the feelings they got while first watching the classic television show.
Serling’s great success was creating a series where the stories simultaneously tackled big issues—racism, existential angst, anxieties of growing up, fear of the unknown—and the intimate psychologies of realistic characters. His writing was at once massive in scope and incredibly personal. At its best, The Twilight Zone presents the best of science fiction. Twilight Zone: The Movie is casually enjoyable, which is what makes it disappointing. Is it worth watching if you’re not a fan of The Twilight Zone? I’d say it’s entertaining enough. Is it worth watching if you are? Probably, if only to remind you of the joys of the original show. Oh, and Burgess Meredith is the narrator. Actually, yeah, that’s probably the best reason to watch it.