Sunday, August 12, 2007

DAY 12: Twilight Zone, the movie - "Kick the Can" (1983)

With two prior connections to the Twilight Zone (his first professional directing job being the Joan Crawford segment of Rod Serling's Night Gallery and his first major hit being the TV movie Duel, written by regular Twilight Zone contributor Richard Matheson) Steven Spielberg, a long-time fan of the show, was more than happy to bring the famous TV series to the big screen. Unfortunately, the resulting movie was a disaster of even greater proportions than 1941.

Since the series did not have recurring characters or a consistent storyline, it was decided that the feature film would be a collection of four different segments. Spielberg himself would direct one (a re-imgaining of one his favorite episodes), co-producer John Landis (Spielberg friend and fellow enthusiast for the Serling series) directed the film's only original story, The Howling's Joe Dante would helm the surreal "It's a Good Life" and Australian director George Miller (Mad Max) provided the fourth and final "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

As with all anthology films (Tales from the Darkside, Four Rooms, etc) some segments are better than others. Most tend to agree that Miller's segment--a suspensefully claustrophobic tale of intense fear and paranoia with the neurotic John Lithgow as the reluctant hero of a commercial airplane--is the best of the bunch. Joe Dante's contribution (my personal favorite of the four), a story of a young boy with extreme powers holding a "family" of strangers hostage, isn't devoid of interest either, filled with his usual collection of stunningly bizarre visuals and humorous in-jokes (the angry cafe patron in the segment's beginning is the same actor who played the boy in the original episode). The other two, unfortunately, have very little to recommend. Landis' segment is an utter mess and Spielberg's "Kick the Can" is a prime example of the director at his worst.

When Twilight Zone was released it did not perform well at the box office nor receive very complimentary reviews from critics. This had been rather expected, however, since the fate of the film was more or less sealed in the early hours of July 23, 1982. In a sequence intended for the Landis-directed story (concerning a bigot who sneers at minority groups, only to find himself mysteriously transformed into a Jew in Nazi Germany, a black pursued by Klansman in the Southern United States and Vietnamese hounded by American troops in Vietnam) actor Vic Morrow and two Asian-born children were fleeing from a helicoptor when an explosion turned out to be bigger than anticipated and it sent the helicoptor flying out of control. It crashed onto Morrow and the children killing them instantly. To make matters worse the children were not officially members of the cast (their parents having been paid in cash due to the fact that it's illegal for juveniles to work at that hour). This led to one of the costliest, most controversial and most highly publicized trials in contemporary Hollywood history. Spielberg was himself never tried and while Landis and four other crew members were eventually found not guilty of involuntray manslaughter, the damage had already been done. The whole endeavor now seemed to have a dark cloud hanging over it.

For a while, Warner Bros. executives considered shutting down the project altogether (something Spielberg would apparently have preferred; "No film is worthy dying for." he said in an interview with L.A. Times' Dave Pollock), but eventually insisted Spielberg and company fulfill their obligation. Spielberg began shooting his segment--a story about a group of elderly residents in a rest home who magically revert to their childlike selves while playing a game of "kick the can"--on November 26, 1982 (five days after Thanksgiving) and shot for six days. From the beginning, Spielberg's heart wasn't in it. Ordinarily almost obsessive in his desire to maintain careful control over every element of the film, Spielberg reportedly didn't attend preproduction meetings, allowed script supervisor Katherine Wooten to block scenes for him and had Melissa Matheson work with the actors on interpretations of dialogue. Spielberg was essentially "going through the motions."

It is no surprise then that the resulting product is pretty wretched, the kind of overly sappy piece of candy-coated sweetness which Spielberg has so often been criticized for creating. E.T. by comparison seems positively subtle. Pauline Kael called it a "lump of ironclad whimsy... the tone here is sentimental-comic, and horribly slick. It's as if Spielberg had sat down and thought about what he could do to make his detractors happiest." Indeed, the segment is everything "bad" about Spielberg (everything self-indulgent and shamelessly melodramatic) packed into a space of about twenty minutes. Some of his usual themes are present but they are given such an unapologetically saccharine and blindly optimistic treatment (with a, quite frankly, rather condescending tone) that they don't resonate at all. They feel forced and empty, lacking any genuine emotion or conviction. In fact, the only thing that saves it from being a total embarassment and annoying waste of time is the effortlessly engaging charm and charisma of Scatman Crothers, a blues musician turned actor (seen in such films as The Shining and Silver Streak) playing a character named Mr. Bloom, a sort of good-natured magician who travels from rest home to rest home teaching folks that stereotypically Spielbergian adage that "you're only as old as you feel." Seeing Crothers' bright, smiling face on screen almost makes the segment endurable.

Today the actual Twilight Zone movie (apart from its accompanying scandal) has been largely forgotten--which is probably best--and "Kick the Can" remains little more than a footnote in Spielberg's career as a director. Although I will confess to having some affection for the film (especially the humorous opening sequence with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks discussing their favorite Zone episodes) and even find myself with a desire to view it again every once in a blue moon, simply trying to locate it proves difficult (as it has not been released onto DVD* yet; in reviewing it for the purposes of this project I had to resort to Youtube). Thus, I shall have to content myself with simply watching the original Rod Serling episodes in the meantime. Ultimately I'm probably better off anyway.

*EDIT: Since posting this essay I have discovered that Warner Bros. will be releasing Twilight Zone: the movie on DVD this October 9. At this point it doesn't say whether it will contain any bonus materials or not, but I would imagine a documentary on the making of this film would be a very interesting feature indeed.

TOMORROW: Indiana Jones Goes to Hell


Joe Valdez said...

At least we'll never have to wonder what a Spielberg produced Twilight Zone movie would have looked like had the plug been pulled.

I can't defend this and am glad that you didn't try to, Damian. The episodes that Landis and Spielberg shot had major problems to begin with. What Kimberly said about E.T. manipulating the emotions of the audience applies to what he tried to do here.

George Miller and his remake of "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" is a sensational piece of filmmaking. The suspense, the visual gloss, Lithgow's batshit performance. It truly doesn't belong with the rest of the project.

This episode aside, I can't think of any Twilight Zone episodes that were begging to be remade on the big screen in the first place.

Annie Frisbie said...

If you can track it down, "Outrageous Conduct" by Stephen Farber and Marc Green chronicles the (un)making of the Landis segment, and sets it within a larger critique of the director-as-autocrat approach to filmmaking that Landis appeared to epitomize. The kids & Morrow died because Landis, against all recommendations by experts, wanted explosives + the actors + TWO helicopters in frame at the same time. And his lackies carried it out, despite their own reservations.

I, too, am a fan of the Dante segment. The Miller segment, of course, is a fantastic short film, utterly perfect. But the Dante segment has a rogue whimsy that I find way more terrifying than the monster & John Lithgow's fear.

Piper said...

This movie does not set well with me, for one reason only: what Landis did during this production was an example of an egotistical director gone crazy. I remember reading about the trial and reading what a complete asshole Landis was during the entire ordeal. There didn't seem to be any regret in how he conducted himself.

But I will say that while I don't defend Spielberg's segment, you seem a bit harsh on it. It's not anywhere near his best, but it's not dreck either. Or maybe I just suffer from the being too enchanted with Scatman Cruthers. I can hear him saying "Kick The Can" with the delight in his voice and I'm sold.

Edward Copeland said...

Dante's segment was indeed the best, along with the fun Albert Brooks/Dan Aykroyd set-up scenes.

Dan Coyle said...

Dante's segment doesn't quite have the sheer terror of the Miller segment, but there's something even more weirdly horrifying about it, even with its more upbeat ending as compared to the original episode.

The Landis segment- he should be in jail. I've seen the footage of that accident, and he should be in jail. The completed project is formulaic in the extreme.

The Spielberg segment- I have to agree with Piper, you're a bit too harsh, but like Piper, I'm infected by Crothers' performance, which contains just the right amount of edge to reveal there may just be a bit of the devil in this wandering angel. It's still dull and saccharine, but I'd rather sit through it than Minority Report or A.I..

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Even as a teenager with a major Spielberg fixation, I was disappointed by Spielberg's "Twilight Zone" episode, and much more taken with the Dante and Miller installments. I didn't know that Spielberg was mentally or physically AWOL from the production, as Damian seems to indicate; that explains why the whole thing seems so mechanical and forced. It's like somebody trying to "do" Spielberg, and imitating the most superficial aspects.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yeah, that is pretty fascinating to think that Spielberg may have directed Kick the Can by remote control. I would agree that while Miller's segment is probably the most satisfying as a piece of suspense narrative, I am partial to Joe Dante's segment for its wildness, for what Annie perfectly describes as "rogue whimsy."

And Damian, if you haven't read it, you really should get a copy of Outrageous Conduct. It will make you weep and, at times, quake with rage. One of the things that I did on my last days on the set of Animal House was some stunt doubling-- they put a down jacket on me, and a suit jacket on top of that, and I became Flounder in the back seat of that Lincoln as it tore ass out of the parking lot of the Dexter Lake Club. We were secured in the back seat by a flimsy piece of rope string over our laps, and before one take a production assistant rushed up to the car window to make sure there weren't any "real people"-- i.e. actors-- inside. Imagine how that made us feel as we spun off down the road. Remember, this movie was surpervised by John Landis, and the car we were riding in was driven by one of the pilots involved in the Twilight Zone disaster. Reading that book, and remembering some of the cavalier behavior displayed toward people's safety on the Animal House set, gave me chills, and still does.

Piper said...


That's a fascinating/scary story and further reinforces my belief that Landis is a criminal.

Dan Coyle said...

IIRC, when filming Three Amigos Martin, Chase, and Akroyd were too close to a cliff for Chase's comfort and brought up the subject of the TWZ accident.

Landis, as they say, was not amused. But tough shit.

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