"You wanna see something really scary?"
--Dan Aykroyd, "Twilight Zone: The Movie"
From 1959 to 1964, one of the most inventive shows ever broadcast, "The Twilight Zone," thrilled television audiences. Co-written and hosted by Rod Serling, it was an amazing series and one whose 148 individual installments viewers continue to enjoy today. Serling went on to do "The Loner" from 1965-66 and "Night Gallery" from 1969-73, among other things, before his untimely death in 1975. It would be only a few years later that Hollywood paid its ultimate tribute to the classic program and made "Twilight Zone: The Movie" in 1983. To do Serling and his series justice, producers Steven Spielberg and John Landis hired four of cinema's top sci-fi/fantasy directors (including Spielberg and Landis) for the job of helming the film's four separate segments.
Needless to say, when you're dealing with various unrelated episodes, you're going to get variable results. Despite the big-name directors, you'll probably find some of the segments better than others. Like everything else in life, though, the likes and dislikes will vary from viewer to viewer, so there is a little something in the picture for everyone. I just wish the overall movie had been more consistent.
Things start out wonderfully with a short prologue featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a couple of buddies out for a nighttime ride on a lonely back road. If the rest of the movie had maintained the caliber of this opening bit, I would have been able to recommend the whole picture without reservation. Following that, actor Burgess Meredith, who starred in several of the old television show's most-notable installments, introduces each segment in place in the late Rod Serling.
The first major episode comes from writer and director John Landis ("Animal House," "The Blues Brothers," "An American Werewolf in London"), and it is the only episode written specifically for the new movie, the others being adapted from vintage TV scripts. The Landis segment is about a racist named Bill Connor (Vic Morrow), who thinks of himself as better than everybody else because he's a true-blue, white Anglo-Saxon American. After a boisterous, hate-filled, anti-everybody tirade in a bar, he finds himself suddenly thrust successively into Nazi Germany, the Deep South, and other situations where he learns firsthand the horrors of intolerance. It's an interesting premise, but it comes off as too preachy and too obvious, with not enough of a surprise ending. People these days probably know the episode best (and, unfortunately, the movie) because of a tragic helicopter accident on set that killed Morrow and two children.
Steven Spielberg directed the second segment, based on "Kick the Can" by George Clayton Johnson, Josh Rogan, and Richard Matheson. It's a rather sentimental tale about old folks at a rest home "where hope is just a memory." Into their midst comes Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers), an "elderly optimist" who tells them, "the day we stop playing is the day we start getting old." He teaches the despairing old people how to regain their sense of fun and worth. Crothers, as always, is terrific. I mean, when wasn't he? From "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "Silver Streak" to "The Cheap "Detective" to "The Shining," he was always good. The story itself is remarkably sweet, typical of Spielberg's more gushy moods and reminding one of some of the stories by Ray Bradbury as well.
Joe Dante ("The Howling," "Gremlins," "Matinee") did the third segment, based on "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby and Richard Matheson. It is by far the weirdest, most bizarre story of the bunch, about a schoolteacher, Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan), who gives a little boy a ride home after accidentally hitting him on his bike. But when she meets the boy's family, it's Looney Tunes time, literally. Although the episode is playful, funny, and not a little frightening, it leaves one strangely unfilled.
Saving the best for last, George Miller (the three "Mad Max" movies, "Babe: Pig in the City," "Happy Feet") directs the final episode, based on "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" by Richard Matheson. Fans of the television series will remember this story being one of the show's most-memorable offerings, the original directed by Richard Donner and starring William Shatner. This time the star is the formidable John Lithgow as a white-knuckled airline passenger terrified of flying, who sees somebody, some...thing, outside his window on the wing of the plane. Miller provides some tight editing and plenty of unique camera angles to keep you on the edge of your seat. You may want to buy or rent the disc for this episode alone, it's that good.
Or perhaps you'll want to buy or rent "Twilight Zone: The Movie" just to listen to the archival recording of Rod Serling's voice at the end and the TV series' original theme music. I wish this anthology had held together a little better, but the good parts are worth the effort. Besides, that's what the chapter selections are for, no?
Because different directors handled and shot each episode, there is some small variation in movie's picture quality, although the 1.85:1 ratio, VC-1, high-resolution video does a good job reproducing most of it with relative ease. The first segment looks a trifle soft, yet with quite natural colors. The second episode is slightly sharper in definition, although it's a tad dark overall. The third episode displays the best definition of all, with hues appropriately bright for the cartoonish nature of its subject matter. The fourth episode takes place at night, with an airplane in a thunder storm, so the video quality is naturally a bit rougher looking, with a touch more grain in the outdoor footage.
You'll find both Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtracks on the disc, and I chose the TrueHD for its smoother overall response. You'll find the best surround sound in the first episode, where for an older film there is a surprisingly good deal of information in the rear channels. The highs are particularly well extended, too. In episode two, you'll find a wide front-channel stereo spread and strong dynamics, but not quite as much surround material as in the first segment. In episode three there is not much material at all in the surrounds and a rather narrow front stereo spread; otherwise, the dynamics and frequency response are lively. Finally, while there is only moderate 5.1 activity in episode four, the rear channels are a tad more robust than in the previous segment. Midrange in all four episodes sounds fine, and bass is present, if never too prominent.
Keep saying to yourself "The movie's the thing, the movie's the thing" because you're not going to get much else. There is only a well-worn, full-screen theatrical trailer to speak of, as well as twenty-seven scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As always with a Warner Bros. HD DVD, they also offer pop-up menus, bookmarks, a zoom-and-pan feature, a guideline to elapsed time (which now comes up when you pause the picture), and an Elite Red HD case.
"Twilight Zone: The Movie" doesn't quite capture the magic of the old television series, but it makes a good stab at trying. Maybe it was the movie's bigger budget and fancier special effects that distracted from the simplicity of the television's show's creativity. I dunno. Anyway....
"Wanna see something really scary?"