John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller
The 1983 anthology film comprises of a prologue, four segments (either based solely or loosely on Zone episodes), and an epilogue, strung together by series favorite Burgess Meredith’s narration.
The Prologue and First Segment belong to John Landis, whose previous work has been almost entirely in comedy, which explains the appeal of The Prologue. It’s a notably funny and frightening introduction to our expectations for the next 101 minutes--ones barely mentioned let alone met. Two men (Albert Brooks, Dan Aykroyd) drive on what must be the darkest night of the year, dueting to CCR’s ‘Midnight Special,’ only to have the deck devour the tape. So they resort to games: Brooks turns the beams off while they play ‘Name that TV theme,’ the paranormal theme from the original series cleverly mentioned, along with classic episodes.
Landis’ follow-up First Segment is the only “original” of the quartet, though it takes mild derivations from A Quality of Mercy and Deaths-Hand Revisited. We find Vic Morrow (who was infamously decapitated while filming) as a ranting bigot, unleashing a stream of jabs in a bar filled of his targets. The story, as fantastical fate would have it, puts Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and American soldiers in Viet Cong in pursuit of Morrow
Most Twilight Zone episodes ended with a moral of sorts. Landis’ segment instead leaves his protagonist whimpering for help (not after recognizing the disgust of racism, but in response to his own selfishness) and his audience whirling their Nazi rally flags, in hopes of at least ending Landis’ disjointed effort.
Steven Spielberg (who of course also produced) directs the Second Segment. Retirement center Sunnyvale is a place of reminiscence, both for youth and the 151 other episodes Spielberg could have adapted. Instead, he chooses Kick the Can, a sappy piece that is neither as cute nor funny as intended. Spielberg has gotten away with sentimental tripe before and he’ll do it again--but that was in Hollywood. This is The Twilight Zone, a dimension where we question our morals and purpose, not the directorial choices of an Oscar winner.
The anthology hits a long-awaited high in Joe Dante’s (The Howling) manic Third Segment, the plot of which stems from It’s a Good Life, about a boy’s imagination-turned-reality. Whereas the first two segments could have been filmed in 1959, Dante’s work is the only true upgrade in the whole, splashing out modern special effects and imaginative set design, creating an expressionistic piece of surrealism that truly brings The Twilight Zone to a new audience.
The Fourth Segment, directed by George Miller (Mad Max), pits John Lithgow in the feverishly paranoiac role William Shatner played 20 years earlier in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The story (along with Time Enough at Last and To Serve Man) is one of the definitive Zone selections, an almost daring feat for Miller to embark. But with Lithgow onboard giving the picture’s standout performance, the Fourth Segment slices every nerve its source did in 1963.
Once, in 1983, four filmmakers set out to revive a television show that hadn’t graced sets since 1964, equipped only with a bag of limited tricks: Landis and Spielberg hiding merely the four-of-clubs up their sleeves, with Dante and Miller, fittingly, pulling rabbits from their hats. But two out of four ain’t good…not in Hollywood and not in…The Twilight Zone.