“You unlock this door with a key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension; a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, and a dimension of mind. You are moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You have just crossed over into The Twilight Zone.”
From 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling brought not just horror into American homes, but social commentary thanks to his pivotal program, The Twilight Zone. Sadly, Serling died in 1975, so instead of him, this film uses Burgess Meredith as its narrator, which makes sense, as he starred in four episodes of the original series.
This anthology film remakes three classic episodes and also features one original story. John Landis directed the prologue and the first segment, Stephen Spielberg directed the second, Joe Dante the third, and George Miller directed the fourth. Originally, all four stories would cross over, but this film had, well, problems.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room now: this movie killed Vic Morrow and two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, during a helicopter stunt directed by Landis. There was a major trial, but no criminal charges were ever ruled on. Plus, the two child actors “were hired in violation of California law, which prohibits child actors from working at night or in proximity to explosions, and requires the presence of a teacher or social worker.” They were paid under the table. They did not sign a waiver.
The late night stunt involved a helicopter navigating fireballs that the pilot had issues navigating. A technician on the ground had no clue that he was having problems, so he kept detonating charges, which causes the low flying helicopter to spin out of control and land right on top of the three actors, decapitating Morrow and Le and crushing Chen.
Supposedly, before the scene, Morrow said to a Production Assistant, “I must be out of my mind to be doing this. I should’ve asked for a stunt double. What can they do but kill me, right?!” He’d had a premonition he’d die in a helicopter crash and while he was filming Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, he insisted on a one million dollar life insurance policy before he would shoot any scenes riding in a helicopter.
The crash also ended the friendship between Spielberg and Landis.
If we can, let’s move on to the actual film. In the wraparound story, Something Scary, Albert Brooks picks up Dan Ackroyd and they discuss their favorite episodes of the original show before Ackroyd becomes a monster and attacks Brooks. This Landis-written and directed segment leads directly into the first story, Time Out, Morrow plays a racist man who suddenly must travel through the history of 20th century racism. It’s brutally dark, yet originally had a happier ending with his character being redeemed. The accident changed all of that.
During the Vietnam part of this story, there is the mention of a Lieutenant Neidermeyer getting fragged by his own troops. Obviously, this is a reference to Landis’ Animal House.
Kick the Can is the Spielberg segment of the film and concerns senior citizens all becoming young again. Scatman Crothers is a welcome sight here, but this segment always makes me think of the worst of Spielberg and none of his vision. That said, you can’t really blame him. He was so upset about the Landis segment, which was already filmed, that he shot this sequence in six days so he could be free of his contractual obligations.
It’s a Good Life remakes the original episode but adds the lunatic wonder of Joe Dante’s directorial eye. Here, a young boy named Anthony has kept his family living in fear, as anything he can imagine becomes real. There’s a ton of effects here and I’d compared this segment to an over the top funhouse ride after the dour and syrupy takes presented before.
Finally, Mad Max director George Miller takes John Lithgow where William Shatner once was — Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. There, he’s menaced by a creature on the wing that only he can see. After being driven insane, he’s carted off in an ambulance that’s also driven by Ackroyd, bringing the movie full circle.