Let's Talk About Twilight Zone: The Movie

I've talked plenty about controversial blu-rays, but today's post is about a film that's controversial itself, Twilight Zone: the Movie, the 1985 anthology film based, of course, on Rod Serling's classic television series.  In fact, it follows some specific episodes quite closely, which I'll detail below.  But it opens with a great, completely original Prologue by John Landis that's surprisingly dark, despite starring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, and sets the mood perfectly.  If anything, it sets the bar so high, everything that follows struggles to live up to it.
Segment I, also by Landis, is sometimes described as being an original story, and sometimes as being based on the season 3 episode, A Quality of Mercy starring Dean Stockwell.  Having watched both, I'll say it's pretty far removed, though they share a very basic core.  Both depict war where one man learns an important when he has to see things from the opposing point of view.  But that's really it.  In Quality, Stockwell is a WWII army lieutenant who joins a new platoon and orders them on an excessively dangerous and blood thirsty mission to destroy a cave filled with Japanese stories... until he suddenly finds himself general of the Japanese unit, being fired upon by his own men.

In the movie, Vic Morrow (R.I.P.) is a civilian in contemporary America, who makes racist comments about black, Asian and Jewish people before finding himself being put violently in their place: starting out being chased by the KKK, then finding himself being shot at by American troops in the Vietnam war and finally pursued by Nazi Germans during WWII.  So, basically, both spend at least a little time in WWII, and more critically have a leading person who finds himself in somebody else's place to learn a lesson, but otherwise they're very different.  They don't even learn the same lessons.  One is about respecting human life over the glory of war, and the other is about recognizing the dignity in all races.  So unlike the latter segments, this has a lot to offer in terms of original ideas.
Segment II is based on the season 3 episode Kick the Can, and it's absolutely the sappiest and eye-rollingly nostalgic.  Of course Steven Speilberg did this one.  It's also the most boring, although to be fair; there are plenty of worse episodes he could've chosen.  People forget, between the unforgettable classics, Twilight Zone had some real duds in its day.  Both versions are set in a retirement home where most of the residents have pretty much given up on life and are passing their final moments waiting to die until someone suggests they play kick the can, like they did when they were kids.  When they eventually concede, they become young again - literally.  But in the original series, this character was one of the residents who was naturally pushing back against his fellows' despondence.  Here, Scatman Crothers is well cast put poorly written as a mysterious, magical figure who travels from retirement home to retirement home, restoring everyone's love of life.  As a consequence, I found the original episode more poignant, and the film segment cornier, the one dud in the line-up.
You can take it as a given that the movie has higher production values than the old television episodes, but nowhere is it more apparent than in Joe Dante's Segment III.  In the season 3 episode, It's a Good Life, "the monster" creates a 3-headed gopher and then kills it with his mind... entirely off camera.  But Dante brings to wind life his inhuman creations with ambitious animatronic effects and big, bold colors.  The premises are the same in both: a group of adults live in constant terror of a young boy with unlimited mental powers.  If they displease him in any way, even just in their thoughts that he can read, he can wish them out of existence, or infinitely worse.  Interestingly, the movie narrows the scope to a single family in the boy's house, whereas it's an entire town that lives under his thumb.  Dante also focuses the story with a clear protagonist: a young nanny who gets roped into taking care of the monster and learns along with the audience just what a nightmare she's walking into.  And he gives it a resolution - the show basically explores the scenario and then quietly steps out.  Dante also envisions a delectably madcap, Looney Tunes-inspired world as only he could.  So overall, I'd say this segment is a real upgrade over the original.
I'm not sure I can say the same about the final Segment, based on the season 5 episode, Nightmare At 20,000 Feet, despite it being the big crowd-pleasing show-stopper of the film.  It's by Mad Max's George Miller, so that's to be expected.  But it adheres surprisingly closely to the original, with John Lithgow taking the place of William Shatner as a man with a debilitating fear of flying trying to get through a commercial flight, even as he sees a monster destroying the engines on the wing of their plane.  I suppose the special effects are better - the original monster looked like a man in a fuzzy monkey Halloween costume - and Lithgow is probably a better actor; although Shatner was actually quite effective the first go around.  This is an episode so expertly crafted it didn't need a remake, but it got one anyway.  Therefore this is the least essential segment, but still generally the most entertaining.

But we can't talk about this film without addressing the controversy.  In fact, some potential viewers may feel they still can't view or support this film to this day, because Vic Morrow and two young children died during the filming of the first segment.  Worse, their deaths were not just a tragic accident (though it certainly was that), but the result of negligence, where the actors were working under illegal conditions.  There's been a whole written about the case if you really want to get into it all, and it does have to be said that Landis and the other filmmakers involved were ultimately acquitted of manslaughter charges.  But it's certainly always going to be an awful stain on this film's legacy.
2007 WB DVD top; 2007 WB BD bottom.
And that's probably why it took so long for Warners Bros to to release this on DVD.  But they eventually put it out concurrently with an early (and now quite out of print) blu-ray and HD-DVD all in 2007.  Both the DVD and BD present the film in 1.78:1, though the DVD is slightly stretched vertically, which the blu fixes, revealing extra slivers along the top and bottom.  Over all, this is a decent but slightly dated presentation.  The HD is free of any unwanted glitches or tweaking, but the image is soft and film grain is only lightly hinted at.  It's certainly sharper than the DVD, though.  For a 2007 blu, this is quite good, but it's easy to imagine how much nicer a 1.85 4k scan would be today.  However that's probably going to have to stay in our imaginations.

The DVD includes the original stereo track, a 5.1 remix, plus French and Spanish dubs, as well as optional English, Chinese and Portuguese subs.  The blu bumps the 5.1 remix up to LPCM, but the stereo track stays lossy, which is a disappointment.  It keeps all the foreign language dubs and subtitle options (including, to be clear, the English), and even adds French and Spanish subs.
The only extra found on either edition is the theatrical trailer.  Horror's Hallowed Grounds recently made a video visiting the locations of this film, including yes, the infamous crash site.  But I can't imagine that'll find it's way onto a Collector's Edition anytime soon.  And there was a brief Shudder documentary series called Cursed Films that did an episode about Twilight Zone that sounded promising.  But it turns the series proposes that the films they cover were literally cursed and wind up talking to clairvoyants and all types of silly nonsense rather than just taking credible looks into the unfortunate stories behind these troubled films.  So feel free to skip that.  But given the "cursed" nature of this film, I wouldn't expect a new edition of this film anytime soon, so if you come across one of these blu-rays for an affordable price, jump on it, because they've gotten rather scarce.  Even if you can't bring yourself to watch it, the resale value will be worth it.


  1. Will we get a 4K release?

    1. Never say never, but I would say it's highly unlikely, given the controversy around this film. WB is already struggling financially and publicity-wise lately, and the filmmakers aren't likely to contribute to special features or anything.
      Then again, Speilberg IS one of the directors, so there's always gotta be that temptation to get it back on the market...
      So fingers crossed!