*. I wonder what went wrong. I’m not talking about the tragic accident that saw Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen killed when a helicopter fell on them. That’s a case that’s been through the courts and we know what went wrong there. I mean, what went wrong with this movie? They had some good material, a big budget, and decent talent involved. Why doesn’t it work?
*. The big problem, as I see it, lies in what they did to the stories. Specifically, they seemed intent on providing a bunch of happy endings. Steven Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” episode is the most obvious instance, but it’s not the only one. The third story was actually going quite well until the Happy Ending fairy struck again. And the thing is, it isn’t just a happy ending. It’s a happy ending that directly reverses the ending of the original episode, where Anthony is wishing for snow that will kill the town’s crops and lead to famine. Here he’s bringing the desert to bloom. That’s not just a change, that’s a spit in the eye of the original. And for what?
*. The first story is the only original one (that is, not taken from the television series). This doesn’t make it any better. In fact, it’s a really clunky morality tale about a bigot getting his comeuppance. Where is the wit and the weirdness in that?
*. It’s also worth noting that the first episode was supposed to also have a happy ending, with Morrow’s character being redeemed by saving a pair of Vietnamese children whose village is being destroyed. That it didn’t end up that way was only the result of the helicopter accident.
*. Credit Spielberg with at least being aware of the problem. Originally his story was to be the last one but I think he realized just how weak it was compared to Dante’s and Miller’s efforts and so demoted himself. Roger Ebert: “Spielberg, who produced the whole project, perhaps sensed that he and Landis had the weakest results, since he assembles the stories in an ascending order of excitement. Twilight Zone starts slow, almost grinds to a halt, and then has a fast comeback.”
*. The other problem with the stories is that there aren’t any twists or surprises. All of them play out just as you’d expect, or as less than you’d expect. The only nice touch was the reappearance of Dan Aykroyd at the end.
*. I think the critical consensus is nearly unanimous in finding the last two stories the strongest, and Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” the best overall. I’d agree with this, but I have to say that I’m not blown away by what Miller did. He took a great original and didn’t mess it up. John Lithgow almost takes things too far, but by this point in the movie I think we’re all ready for someone to start cutting loose. Still, watching this segment again recently I really didn’t find it as thrilling as I remembered. In fact, I’m not sure if the TV episode wasn’t better.
*. But maybe what went wrong really does go back to the helicopter accident. When something terrible like that happens, and it was the first of the episodes to film, it must have cast a pall over the rest of the production. I’m sure it affected Landis. Apparently Spielberg just wanted to wrap his episode up as quickly as possible and put the whole thing behind him. I’m sure it would have weighed on Dante and Miller too.
*. I guess it all might have seemed like a good idea at the time. But the direction they wanted to take it was all wrong, and in the event this was a movie built in the eclipse and rigged with curses dark.