Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Summit Of His Knowledge

The prologue that opens 1983’s TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, featuring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks, has held up just great. The Joe Dante segment is fun as well. The George Miller remake is of “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” is simply fantastic. But the entire film is somewhat problematic. Of course, it always was, so that’s no surprise.

It is, however, a pleasant surprise that the film has come out on DVD at all. Just a few years ago there were rumors going around the internet that Warner Bros. was going to let the title simply drop out of circulation when it was not contracted to appear on any cable outlets past at a certain point . The circumstances surrounding the death of star Vic Morrow and the lengthy trial which followed cast a shadow on the film even while it was still being made but several of the other segments are fondly remembered and watching this new DVD admittedly made me a little nostalgic as well.

First what I’d rather get out of the way: The John Landis segment isn’t very good. The only part of the movie not based on an old TZ episode, this piece, apparently titled “Time Out”, is about a hateful bigot, played by Vic Morrow, who is suddenly and without warning given a very harsh taste of his own medicine. I’ll admit to liking some of John Landis’s films (and yeah, part of that is a nostalgia thing as well) but the more you watch them the more a certain streak of nastiness comes out—a real cynical worldview and this might be one of the truest examples of that. I don’t know how different that would have been if “Time Out” had ever been completed as intended, but as it is we’re basically watching twenty minutes of very bad things happening to an unlikable, irredeemable individual. And no matter what, it’s near-impossible to separate it from the truly bad thing that happened to the real individual who was starring in it. There is an in-joke in the Vietnam portion that follows up on the end of ANIMAL HOUSE and if we weren’t so uncomfortable watching this thing it might actually be funny. But there’s not much more to say about it.

I also don’t have much to say about the Steven Spielberg segment, a remake of “Kick the Can”. Scatman Crothers plays Mr. Bloom, a new arrival to the Sunnyvale Nursing Home. While engaging his fellow residents in a conversation about what it was like to be children, he convinces them to take part in a secret game of Kick the Can. But they don’t know that a surprise is waiting for them when the game begins. Maybe there should be an official rule: any director who has just made his most successful film (E.T. had just happened) should never follow it up with directing a chapter in an anthology film. Tarantino learned this with FOUR ROOMS after PULP FICTION. And didn’t Fellini take part in a badly-received omnibus after LA DOLCE VITA? Spileberg obviously found out the hard way here. It’s been reported over the years that after the accident he wanted nothing more to do with this project, which he displayed by shooting out his segment in six days, during which he even relegated tasks like blocking to others. After it wrapped he took off for England and began prepping INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. However much we should assign credit, the film he left behind is pretty weak. While it’s not as unwatchable as the likes of ALWAYS or HOOK—it sure helps that it’s much shorter—in many ways it does offer the worst, the most saccharine, the most artificial of what we expect from this director. There’s no real point in being too hard on “Kick the Can”, but I will say this: Scatman Crothers turning to the camera at the end and saying, “He’ll get it” has to be the single worst moment in all of Spielberg. There’s nothing wrong with watching Crothers in anything, or Selma Diamond for that matter, but none of these actors can rise above this lame material. Not to mention that COCOON did this sort of thing a lot better a few years later.

Now the good news: the pleasure of revisiting the prologue with Aykroyd and Brooks. Written and directed by Landis (although some lines have to be embellishments by the two actors) the extended scene is about a driver and his passenger who engage in a game of TV theme song trivia, followed by reminiscences of the old Twilight Zone TV show. But one of them has a surprise, something really scary, for the other. It’s an amusing way to state right up front that this is going to be the baby boomer version of The Twilight Zone. Coming at it from that perspective it’s like watching an early version of the sort of thing Tarantino would be doing ten years later. And even if it were just a stand-alone short by Landis it would still play as very funny.

More good news: The Joe Dante segment based on “It’s a Good Life” is still a lot of fun, if not the favorite it maybe once was. Dante has been on record as saying that because of what was happening with the project he had very little interference in making this, his first assignment for a major studio. It’s hard to imagine other circumstances where a studio would allow a film like this to contain material so strange, so deliberately surreal, as this sequence. The tale of a schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan) who encounters a young boy (Jeremy Licht) and is taken into the bizarre home he lives in, “It’s a Good Life” is the first real example of Dante’s preoccupation with cartoons that would continue into the GREMLINS pictures and other works, presented here in the most freewheeling style possible. Almost from the get-go the house is presented as obviously off—we’re just not sure how. And as it goes on, and the Bava-like light swirls begin to take hold, the setting becomes what has to be the most audacious entry of live-action into the cartoon world ever attempted.

If I don’t love it as much as I’m used to, that may just be because I don’t identify with the boy like I once may have. There’s also the issue of the young actor being a little….lacking. For the first time, I found myself thinking of Henry Thomas’s E.T. performance in relation to this and how he may have worked here. Fortunately, this is more than compensated by the enjoyable performances by old pros like Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert and Dick Miller, but especially by Kathleen Quinlan. Still a few years younger than thirty when this was shot, the film is undeniably boosted by how much gravity she gives to it. No matter how unbelievable the events going on in front of her, her reactions never feel less than totally real. There may even be too much weight—looking at it now, I’m not entirely sure just how happy the ending is supposed to be. Maybe it’s hard to tell with someone whose eyes display so much soul. Dante’s work is at times excellent, with lots of unexpected touches-- for the first time ever I really noticed the “repeat” effect at the end and how it uses two separate takes. You can really feel that Dante loves making this movie while you watch it.

But best of all, George Miller’s recreation of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” remains truly gripping, scary and exciting. John Lithgow (back before we really knew how over-the-top he could go) as the man who is convinced that there is something out there on the wing of the plane rants as much as we remember but still straddles the line just right. We like him instantly and know he’s telling the truth, but we can still accept why everyone else thinks he just may be a lunatic. There’s also some good work by the various actors playing the crew members, including Donna Dixon, John Dennis Johnston and especially Abbe Lane as the Senior Stewardess. I don’t know if George Miller experienced the same lack of interference that Joe Dante did, but watching “Nightmare” steal the thunder from the other, better known directors, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t become the biggest name in town. Of course, he hasn’t done too bad for himself, but still. Best of all is that hundred seconds of screen-time consisting of the unbroken shot where we slowly move in on John Lithgow’s face, trying to convince himself that there is nothing out there on the wing of that plane. With that closed window behind him as Jerry Goldsmith’s strings seems to be pricking him on the shoulder, daring him to turn around, leading to that literally eye-popping (Freeze that frame!) revelation, George Miller reveals himself right then to be a sort of master. It’s a moment that everyone who ever makes a suspense movie of any kind tries to accomplish and is as good as any that is remembered long after anything else about the movie is forgotten.

Which reminds me of one of my very favorite parts of the movie: Jerry Goldsmith’s score, possibly one of his most underrated. The atonal nature of the “Time Out” section recalls PLANET OF THE APES and his continually propulsive music for “Nightmare” is a true triumph, with the aforementioned prickly strings seeming like a warm-up for the theme to GREMLINS that he would compose for Joe Dante a year later. But most of all I find myself loving the more lyrical stretches in “Kick the Can” and the end of “It’s a Good Life”. It’s easy to refer to some of this material as being too sickly sweet, just as the Spielberg section is. But listening to it now, separating it from the film, I find myself genuinely moved by some of it, making me think that Goldsmith wasn’t just scoring the film he had in front of him. He was scoring the very essence of The Twilight Zone, that place within each of us that makes up our memories, loss and our regret. Perhaps because hearing it takes me back to an earlier time, as if it’s beckoning me to return to my own childhood, to watch this film just one more time in the house I grew up in. It’s not going to happen—but if I close my eyes hard enough while Kathleen Quinlan drives off at the end of “It’s a Good Life”, I almost believe it can.


Anonymous said...

Nice review, you've actually made me want to watch TZ again. I can't remember actually enjoying any of it until Miller's bow. Lithgow is absolutely fantastic in a way that Shatner, sadly, wasn't in the original.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I only saw the Shatner episode once a long, long time ago, so I don't really remember it. But Lithgow is indeed fantastic, it's such a good performance...and it made for a terrific joke when the two men met up on 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN.

Ryan Harvey said...

Thanks for drawing me to this. We pretty have the exact same opinions on the film. I hope you've picked up the new FSM release of the soundtrack.