Film Discussion

Twilight Zone: The Movie – Throwback 40

In this content-hungry, pop-culture-will-eat-itself world, it feels that an increasing number of movies are being made of properties which started life on television. However, this is by no means a recent innovation, as evidenced by Doctor Who having materialised on the silver screen in 1965, after only first gracing Saturday teatimes in the UK’s living rooms some two years previously.

Even though Star Trek’s debut as a motion picture was back in 1979, ten years after it was cancelled by NBC, creator Gene Roddenberry first talked about the idea of making a feature film version of the show while it was still airing. Even before Roddenberry’s vision boldly went for the first time, another TV science fiction staple had already come and gone, and its originator had been making plans for its transfer to cinemas during the 1960s. However, it would be another two decades until there would be a theatrically-released film production based on Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

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Serling had written a number of synopses, with the notion that a Twilight Zone movie would follow the programme’s anthology format, with several stories being featured, and Serling acting as the host. A number of the ideas he came up with would end up being used in his follow-up series, Night Gallery, in the 1970s – one of these ended up as a segment entitled ‘Eyes’, featuring Joan Crawford, and which would be the first professional job of a rookie director by the name of Steven Spielberg. It would prove not to be the only occasion where the filmmaker’s career would intersect with Serling’s work.

One of the ideas which Serling devised for a Twilight Zone feature film was based around an alien who came to Earth, finding himself being hunted, before being befriended by a child. Purely coincidentally, this bore a striking resemblance to the story of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Despite numerous attempts, Serling was unsuccessful in having The Twilight Zone transferred to the big screen, but the notion never truly went away, despite Serling’s passing in 1975. At one stage, a film which spent a decade in Development Hell – 1988’s Miracle Mile – almost ended up being made into a Twilight Zone movie, until the writer disagreed with a studio request to soften the ending.

By early 1982, when the idea of making a Twilight Zone film was in development at Warner Bros., Steven Spielberg’s star was firmly in the ascendant, being very much in demand by the major studios. He expressed an interest in The Twilight Zone, with Warner Bros. having acquired theatrical rights to the property from Serling’s widow Carol. Although not being given any credit on the project’s eventual release, Spielberg’s company Amblin Entertainment would  produce the feature film, which would be faithful to the original television show’s anthology nature, and it would ultimately end up comprising four separate short tales.

© 1983 Warner Bros.

Perhaps contrary to what the studio has expected, Spielberg would not direct all four segments, and would instead enlist the services of other filmmakers: Joe Dante, George Miller, and John Landis. The latter would also co-produce the film, alongside Spielberg, as well as both writing and directing a framing sequence – named ‘Really Scary’ – which was based upon an idea for a short film that he had wanted to make for some time. Unlike the other three directors, Landis’ segment would be an entirely original tale, rather than being adapted from an episode from the series.

It was this opening story – ‘Time Out’ – which would end up giving the film notoriety, but for the worst possible reasons. Landis cast veteran actor Vic Morrow as Bill Connor, a man whose outright bigotry and prejudice would see him being on the receiving end of intolerance, racism and hate, ending up being catapulted back and forth in time, encountering a Nazi-occupied France, a KKK lynching in in the Deep South, and an American military assault in Vietnam. It would be the sequences set in the Vietnamese conflict which would lead to a terrible human tragedy occurring, and forever taint the end product.

As well as being the subject of an episode of Shudder’s series Cursed Films, two books would be written about the events of Friday July 23rd 1982: Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case by Stephen Farber and Marc Green, and Fly By Night: The Secret Story of Steven Spielberg, Warner Bros, and the Twilight Zone Deaths by Steve Chain. In brief, at around 2:30am on the morning in question, a sequence of Morrow’s character rescuing two Vietnamese children from a village under assault by American forces led to an accident in which a helicopter crashed, killing the actor, along with two young extras, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen.

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It would lead to a lengthy legal battle, which would not draw to a close until four years after the release of Twilight Zone: The Movie, with several members of the production team – including Landis – being acquitted of manslaughter. As well as the accident casting a long shadow over the entire project, it would irreparably damage the relationship between Landis and Spielberg, and forever act as an albatross round the neck of Landis’ once-promising career, never reaching the kind of stratospheric heights it once promised. Landis was still able to salvage the segment, filming of which was already mostly complete, using it as a tribute to Morrow.

For the second segment, Spielberg initially plumped for an original idea from Twilight Zone series contributor Richard Matheson. It was to have focused on a neighbourhood bully running amok on Halloween, with the intention of ruining the evening for everybody. Finding real monsters wreaking havoc, the bully returns to what his thinks is the safety of his own home, only to discover his Halloween costume – that of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame – has suddenly become real, meaning he has somehow been transformed. The story was to have ended with the bully being pursued by the monsters, finally getting his just desserts.

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However, following the accident on the set of Landis’ tale, it was felt that having another instalment which would involve filming with children at night would be an unwise move, and the script was scrapped. After briefly giving consideration to remaking the 1960 episode ‘The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street’, Spielberg ultimately chose an adaptation of another Twilight Zone tale, 1962’s ‘Kick The Can’, in which residents of a retirement home get a whole new lease of life from the enigmatic Mr. Bloom (played here by Scatman Crothers). It has been reported Spielberg’s enthusiasm dwindled in light of the earlier tragedy, although it certainly does not show in the finished piece.

The third part of Twilight Zone: The Movie was headed up by Joe Dante, who would truly hit the big time the year after the film’s release with Gremlins. Dante’s segment was a remake of the 1961 story ‘It’s A Good Life’, which had centred around a young boy with terrifying abilities. In the original, the boy had been played by seven year old Bill Mumy, who would go on to appear in Lost In Space and Babylon 5. The episode is one which has come to be regarded as one of the finest of all The Twilight Zone’s original run, and it would go on to get a sequel in 2002’s ‘It’s Still A Good Life’, which featured Mumy reprising his role as an adult.

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‘It’s A Good Life’ very nearly became the basis of an earlier try at making a Twilight Zone movie, with Rod Serling giving an interview the year before his death in which he explained he had finished a third draft of a feature-length script based on the original short story by Jerome Bixby that had inspired the initial adaptation for The Twilight Zone on television. In Joe Dante’s version, Mumy would return in a small cameo part as a different character, in a little knowing nod to the original. The segment would perfectly capture what would come to be Dante’s mixture of the macabre with a wacky, almost Looney Tunes-type frenetic, madcap energy.

Closing out the film, George Miller’s segment – ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’ – was one of the most memorable episodes from the television series. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner, it had starred William Shatner as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown, who sees a creature on the wing of the airplane on which he is flying as a passenger, and nobody else believes him. It appears Shatner was interested in reprising the role, but was unavailable, so John Lithgow was cast. This led to a nice in-joke in the Third Rock From The Sun 1999 episode ‘Dick’s Big Giant Headache Part 1’, featuring both Lithgow and Shatner, in which both of their characters claim to have been on a plane with a gremlin on the wing.

Due to circumstances, the movie proved to be something of a moveable feast during production, as the final order of the segments swapped more than once. As a result, it scuppered plans to have the segments link into one another, making it seem like one connected piece, rather than just standalone stories. Another plan was also dropped, in which audio from Serling’s original TV episode narrations could be repurposed for the feature’s segments, but the idea – which was Dante’s suggestion – had to be dropped, partly as Landis’ tale was an original one, rather than being an adaptation, and there was no way to get enough useable audio material of Serling to be able to make it work.

© 1983 Warner Bros.

However, Serling’s voice is heard at the climax of the movie, and a glimpse of him can also be seen reflected in an eyeball at the start of the film, during a recreation of the TV show’s title sequence. Undeterred at having his neat idea scrapped, Dante then came up with the alternative notion of using the voice of Burgess Meredith instead for the linking narration. Meredith had appeared in a total of four television episodes of The Twilight Zone across the years, including one of the most famous – ‘Time Enough At Last’ – in which he was the bookworm lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust, only to break his only pair of reading glasses at the climax of the tale, in an ironic twist of fate.

Twilight Zone: The Movie would also have a couple of links to a film which came out shortly before its release. Robert Bloch – who had refused an offer by Universal to abandon plans to write a sequel to Psycho and to write a novel of their movie of Psycho II instead – would end up novelising Twilight Zone: The Movie, being given six weeks in which to deliver the manuscript (as well as having to quickly rewrite the end of ‘Time Out’, following the accident on set). Jerry Goldsmith was picked as the composer, having carried out similar duties on Psycho II, and after having a theme he had devised for Norman Bates rejected, he used it in the score for ‘Kick The Can’.

Having been produced on a budget of $10 million, Twilight Zone: The Movie would bring in $42 million globally at the box office. Given the talent that was attached to the project, it seems the takings fell short of Warner Bros.’ expectations for the film, possibly due to the bad press which came from the three deaths during filming. However, it appears to have still been sufficient to convince people there was some life in the concept, as just two years later there was a TV revival by CBS, which ran for three seasons. There were two further TV runs of The Twilight Zone, from 2002 until 2003 (hosted by Forest Whitaker), and later 2019 to 2020 (with Jordan Peele as narrator, as well as being involved behind the camera).

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Joe Dante would go on to use advances in technology to bring Rod Serling back to life as narrator and host of the pre-show portion of Disney theme park ride The Twilight Zone Tower Of Terror, making use of the director’s abandoned idea from Twilight Zone: The Movie. In addition, a theatre production based on The Twilight Zone also ran in London’s West End as recently as 2019. However, it looks as though Tinseltown has still got plans to put Rod Serling’s creation back onto the big screen, with Leonardo DiCaprio being attached at one stage. Subsequently, Matt Reeves was touted to direct a Twilight Zone feature which would see a test pilot break the speed of light and end up 96 years in the future, but Reeves moved on to make Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

It seems inevitable that Hollywood will at some point unlock the door to The Twilight Zone once again, not so much with the key of imagination, but more out of a need to pillage the vaults for intellectual property which they can exploit. Even with the horrific events which overshadowed Twilight Zone: The Movie, it seems unlikely any future feature film version will be made with the motivation of being a love letter to the TV series as this was, even going as far as breaking the fourth wall in the pre-credits sequence, by talking about the series and acknowledging its place in popular culture.

Twilight Zone: The Movie was released on 24th June 1983.

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