Apart from the stellar final section, there isn’t a whole lot to recommend in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Two of the four short films are piss poor and one is merely okay.
However, the opening prologue is rather amusing. The film begins with two men driving along a deserted road at night. It’s unclear whether the men know each other, but they talk about TV shows and eventually begin to try and scare one another. The driver’s method is to turn the lights off on his car and drive blind. The passenger isn’t best pleased and then asks the driver if he wants to see something really scary. The driver pulls off the road and the passenger turns around. When he turns back he’s a blue demon.
I don’t know whether the above is meant to be scary, but it’s certainly funny. And it’s funny because Dan Akroyd plays the passenger. A less scary man I can’t imagine – he the cuddly, Pillsbury Dough Boy-like figure of the Ghostbusters films. So therefore, when he has the driver (incidentally played by Albert Brooks) stop the car, and when he holds his finger up as he hides his face, it’s amusing rather than threatening. What’s blubber-boy Akyroyd going to do? Hug the man to death? And as a demon he almost does this. But even though the moment with the demon is genuinely meant to be shocking and scary, it’s made somewhat laughable by the fact that the demon looks like it goes cross-eyed when it attacks the driver. The bonk-eyed demon from hell strikes!
Sadly most of the short films aren’t as entertaining as this prologue.
The first short, and the one that was responsible for beheading Vic Morrow and the killing of two children when a helicopter crashed into them, is a moribund affair. What we have is a bigot pissing and moaning about the fact that he was passed over for promotion by a Jewish man. Cue the joyless bastard insulting as many minorities as he can.
For his sins, the man is then transported back to Nazi Germany and he’s recognised not as the all-American, uber macho Yankee he sees himself as, and is instead given a yellow star to wear. He then tires to run away and is pursued by dirty fascists.
After this, he’s transported back to America and is almost lynched (a group of rednecks call him a nigger). However, the man manages to kick a hooded Klan member into a burning crucifix, once again proving why it’s stupid to walk around with a huge, burning stick. And after surviving this ordeal, the man is transported back to Vietnam and is almost killed by American soldiers as they call him a gook.
The final moments see the man transported to a concentration camp by Nazis. Mmm. I wonder what the moral of this story could be? Is it saying that racism is, you know, bad?
The second film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is even worse than the first. Indeed it’s hardly even worth mentioning. Basically what happens is that a magic black man turns a bunch of old codgers into children and we learn that no matter how old you are, you should always stay young at heart. But there can be no feelgood glow when the child actors are so overbearingly precious. It’s like a horrible test run for Hook. And plus it feels incredibly out of place when spliced into the middle of all of these dark, nasty tales. It’s like being punched by a couple of right hooks (Demons! Nazis!) and then someone baking you a cake that makes you puke all over yourself. It’s just wrong.
Things improve somewhat with the third film, but it still didn’t quite do it for me. A schoolteacher almost runs over a child and then drives him home to take him back to his family. However, when we get to his house, we realise something is wrong. The family (which proves not to be his family at all – he ‘collects’ people) behave weirdly and there seem to be far too many televisions playing cartoons.
Over time we find out that the child can make all of his wishes come true. And seeing as he’s a pre-pubescent, he mostly wants to make people cook him burgers and tell him how great he is. Of course, though, for everyone else, this is hell. They live in terror. They’re always frightened of displeasing their ‘son’.
And while this story is fun, the attempts to round out the character of the child fall flat. He’s sad that his wishes don’t make him happy like wishes are supposed to. Oh boo-hoo, I feel so sorry for someone who transports people into cartoons and has them eaten by weird cartoon characters. Yes, I can feel your plight.
And while there are some pleasingly nasty shocks, the end is kind of ridiculous. The teacher decides to become a real mother to the boy and he promises to no longer use his powers for evil – she’ll look after him and give him a proper life. Yeah, right, good thinking lady. You just know that he’ll fall off the wagon. I mean, say he’s okay for a couple of years. Sounds okay, doesn’t it? But then the teenage years will hit and bad things will happen. Just think about it. Say there’s a girl in school that he likes but then she turns him down. Is he really going to accept that? I don’t think so. He’ll do something hideous to her. Or even if he has a girlfriend but she wont perform an act that he desperately wants. For example, say he wants her to perform oral sex on him but she doesn’t like it. He’ll probably go and have her mouth turned into a vagina and have her transported into a maximum security prison. Or alternatively, unbeknownst to her, he’ll have her clitoris transported into her heart. The only time the woman will have a clitoral orgasm will be when she has a massive coronary.
Thankfully the fourth film comes along and blows everything else out of the water. It’s a remake of the Twilight Zone story that had William Shatner terrorized by a fat Yeti on the wing of a plane (a fat Yeti that looked like the man in a bear suit in The Shining - the one that was sucking that ghost dude's cock). Here, though, you have a nasty, evil looking gremlin.
The success of the story lies in the everyday fear that drives it. Even if you’re not frightened of flying, you can relate in some way. I’m sure most people have had their moments on flights when they’ve been scared – whether it be turbulence or a jittery landing. So unlike the demons, the scary boy and the Nazis (unless you lived through the Second World War), you finally have a story that can easily resonate.
Plus there’s no annoying moralising. This isn’t a plea to stop being a bigot, or to stay young at heart, or to be nice – it’s just a good, honest story about a gremlin.
And the gremlin anyway is just a visualisation of the fear that something will happen to the engines or the plane itself. It’s a normal fear made flesh.
And most of the time the gremlin looks very cool. It looks particularly creepy when seen from a distance. But things kind of fall apart when it interacts with John Lithgow. At the end there’s a ridiculous moment when Lithgow shoots through the plane window and man and monster fight at thousands of feet in the air. It’s the only wrong step in an otherwise excellent piece of filmmaking.
Lots of credit must be given to the director and the star. The film is jittery and anxious, and Lithgow’s performance is marvellous. And it’s kind of galling that the director of Mad Max and Babe: Pig in the City could so easily blow Spielberg off the screen. But he does so with ease.