20 Crazy Facts About Twilight Zone: The Movie
When a quartet of the biggest names in film teamed up to produce a prestigious big screen take on a classic TV series that had inspired all four filmmakers, the results should have been cinematic gold. 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie sought to capture the mind-bending spirit of Rod Serling’s sinister series for the new generation of moviegoers.
Unfortunately, while the TV show was famous for giving us strange and otherworldly stories, the behind the scenes story of Twilight Zone: The Movie is sadly similarly bizarre and all too tragic. While the film was completed and released to reasonable success, its legacy is forever tainted by the fatal accident that occurred during its production, and the recklessness that led to it.
Below are some shocking facts about this 1983 sci-fi horror anthology film, the production of which will forever be shrouded in controversy.
20. It has very little in common with the TV show
The original Twilight Zone TV series premiered on US network CBS in 1959, running until 1964 in its first iteration.
Created by Rod Serling, who also served as the host, each episode told a self-contained story inspired by tales published in pulp fiction magazines.
These stories covered a range of genres: typically science fiction, fantasy and horror, but sometimes more grounded tales, often with undertones of social commentary, and always with some kind of unexpected twist.
While the filmmakers were heavily influenced by the series, it’s debatable just how much Twilight Zone: The Movie actually has in common with Rod Serling’s creation.
The movie was instead described as ‘a cinematic interpretation’ of the TV show, updating the core ideas for a contemporary sensibility.
19. Four legendary directors directed the movie together
Over the years we’ve seen plenty of films made in the ‘anthology horror’ format, a label which can certainly be deemed applicable to Twilight Zone: The Movie.
However, whereas most anthology horrors were the work of individual directors (for example, Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath), Twilight Zone: The Movie is a collaboration between four famed filmmakers, each directing a story of their own.
These directors were John Landis (The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London), Joe Dante (Piranha, The Howling), George Miller (the Mad Max series), and Steven Spielberg, then fresh from the success of ET.
Landis directs opening story Time Out; Speilberg takes second story Kick the Can; Dante goes third with It’s a Good Life; and Miller closes things with Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
Landis also called the shots on the prologue and epilogue scenes, both of which feature his regular collaborator Dan Aykroyd.
18. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling gave Spielberg his first job
After the success of The Twilight Zone, writer Rod Serling went on to spearhead another TV anthology series, Night Gallery.
For the pilot episode of Night Gallery, which aired in 1969, Serling hired a young director by the name of Steven Spielberg.
The future blockbuster pioneer was only 21 at the time, and in his first professional job as director Spielberg found himself directing iconic actress Joan Crawford.
This big break sent Spielberg on his way to becoming the legend we know him as today.
As such, turning Twilight Zone into a movie in 1983 was Spielberg’s way of paying homage to Serling, following the TV pioneer’s death in 1975.
17. Another Hollywood legend serves as the movie’s narrator
Throughout the original Twilight Zone series, Rod Serling provided introductions and occasional narration in his distinctively soothing, yet slightly sinister voice.
As Serling had passed away before production began, the filmmakers needed to find someone else to take Serling’s narrator role on Twilight Zone: The Movie.
The actor they ultimately hired for the job was none other than screen legend Burgess Meredith.
A seasoned actor with decades of work behind him (including an episode of The Twilight Zone), Meredith was enjoying a career resurgence in the early 80s thanks to his role in the Rocky movies.
Meredith went on to make over a dozen more films before his death in 1997.
16. The four different stories were originally meant to intertwine
With the exception of Landis’ Time Out, all the stories in the Twilight Zone movie are direct adaptations of existing stories from the TV series.
Director Joe Dante has revealed that the movie’s four segments were originally meant to intertwine with each other, with the film’s characters appearing in more than one story.
Reportedly, the film’s epilogue scene was meant to play out differently, with all the central characters of the stories crossing paths on the same highway seen at the beginning.
However, issues with the movie’s troubled production meant that this idea was eventually scrapped, and the segments were instead ultimately kept completely stand-alone and separate.
Ultimately, the only call-back within the film comes in the closing moments when Dan Aykroyd reprises his prologue role, this time driving an ambulance.
15. A horrific on-set accident took the lives of three actors, including two children
Time Out – the Twilight Zone movie segment directed by John Landis, starring Vic Morrow as a racist forced to confront his prejudices by directly experiencing the suffering of those he is prejudiced against – was the first of the four stories to go before cameras.
In the early hours of 23rd July 1982, Landis was directing a scene set during the Vietnam War, in which Morrow’s character was – in the script – intended to rescue two Vietnamese children.
The sequence required Morrow to run through water whilst carrying the two children, while a low-flying helicopter hovered nearby and explosives were set off around them.
Unfortunately, one such explosion was set off too close to the helicopter, damaging the vehicle’s rotor blades and causing it to crash.
Tragically, this resulted in the deaths of Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le (aged 7) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (aged 6), whose completed scenes were omitted from the final film out of respect.
14. The filmmakers behind the sequence were taken to court charged with manslaughter
It quickly came to light after the accident that Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, the two child actors who tragically lost their lives on the Twilight Zone movie set, had also been hired illegally.
The children’s parents were being paid in secret in an attempt to circumvent California’s child labour laws, which prevented children from working at night, or in proximity of explosives.
In addition, the parents had been asked by producer George Folsey Jr. not to let any on-set firefighters know that the children would be present during the scene.
The accident resulted in legal action against the filmmakers which lasted several years – during which time Landis, who was among those on trial, continued to direct films, including Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Ultimately Landis was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter – as were associate producer George Folsey, production manager Dan Allingham, pilot Dorcey Wingo and explosives specialist Paul Stewart – though his career was never quite the same following the trial.
13. Steven Spielberg ended his friendship with John Landis over the accident
While John Landis admitted wrong-doing in the illegal hiring of Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, the director has never publicly accepted responsibility for the accident.
Twilight Zone: The Movie producer and co-director Steven Spielberg was so disgusted with how Landis handled the accident that he publicly ended their friendship over it.
Spielberg, who had cameoed in Landis’ The Blues Brothers and cast Landis in his 1979 comedy, 1941, declared that everyone involved in the Twilight Zone film was “sick to the center of our souls,” and that the whole event “made me grow up a little more.”
Spielberg soon called for an end to directors having complete control over a movie, saying that “no movie is worth dying for.”
Spielberg was also quoted as saying “I think people are standing up much more now, than ever before, to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn’t safe, it’s the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, ‘Cut!'”
12. Spielberg directed his chapter as quickly as possible to put the whole thing behind him
As you might expect, Spielberg and co. did consider pulling the plug on Twilight Zone: The Movie altogether following the tragedy that occurred during the shooting of the first section.
However, it was ultimately decided that the film would be completed – although by all accounts Spielberg’s heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Spielberg’s Kick the Can was the last section of the movie shot, and was completed in a mere six days – an unusually short schedule for the director, who apparently just wanted to get the shoot over and done with.
The speed may explain why Kick the Can doesn’t feel like typical Spielberg: it’s flat visually, and doesn’t even feature a John Williams soundtrack.
Twilight Zone: The Movie is believed to have put Spielberg on a bleaker creative path for a time, in fact, as reflected in the darkness of 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and his plans for “horrifying” unproduced ET sequel Nocturnal Fears.
11. Kick the Can’s cast includes Spielberg’s future mother-in-law
Spielberg’s Twilight Zone chapter, Kick the Can, feels in some respects like a dry run for his later film Hook, as well as a precursor to Ron Howard’s 1985 movie Cocoon.
Kick the Can centres on the residents of an old people’s home who are given a chance to be young again by the mysterious Mr Bloom (Scatman Crothers).
The cast includes the director’s future mother-in-law, Priscilla Pointer, who plays Miss Cox, the administrator of the old people’s home.
Spielberg went on to marry Pointer’s daughter Amy Irving – also an actress, best known for Carrie – in 1985 (they would divorce in 1989, and Spielberg would marry Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom actress Kate Capshaw).
Pointer’s other credits include Carrie, Blue Velvet, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
10. It’s a Good Life contains numerous Twilight Zone TV show Easter eggs
Of all the filmmakers on Twilight Zone: The Movie, none are as synonymous with extensive film and TV references as Joe Dante, who directs third story It’s a Good Life.
While Dante’s segment is directly adapted from an existing episode of the same name, it also boasts many nods to other episodes from the TV series.
For one, the name of Kathleen Quinlan’s character, Helen Foley, comes from the episode Nightmare as a Child (reportedly, Helen Foley was the name of Rod Serling’s favourite school teacher).
Helen at one point in the segment states she is on her way to Willoughby, thus referencing another Twilight Zone episode, A Stop at Willoughby.
Helen also mentions having left the town of Homewood, featured in the episode Walking Distance; in addition there is mention of Cliffordville, a nod to the episode Of Late I Think of Cliffordville.
9. A rock star makes a silent cameo as Tim’s sister
It’s a Good Life boasts one of the creepiest images in the Twilight Zone movie: Tim’s sister Sara with her mouth removed by her brother.
This might well be director Joe Dante’s mischievous sense of humour at play, as the actress who portrays Sara is best known for her voice.
The brief cameo role is filled by Cherie Currie, former lead singer of 70s punk-rock band The Runaways.
Currie fronted the all-girl group alongside Joan Jett from 1975 to 1977, before embarking on a solo career as well as breaking into acting.
The 2010 movie The Runaways, in which Dakota Fanning portrayed the singer, was based on Currie’s autobiography Neon Angel.
8. There’s also an early appearance from Nancy ‘Bart Simpson’ Cartwright
It’s a Good Life centres on a young boy with magical wish-fulfilling powers, whose bizarre life is fuelled by his love of cartoons.
At one point, he wishes his sister Ethel into the TV, informing her she is banished to cartoon land, where she is eaten by animated monsters.
Perhaps ironically, Ethel actress Nancy Cartwright would go on to become one of the biggest cartoon stars ever, as a cast member on The Simpsons.
The Twilight Zone was Cartwright’s first film role, and four years later she would first voice Bart Simpson on The Tracey Ullman Show.
The Simpsons launched in 1989, and hasn’t stopped since, with 673 episodes produced to date.
7. William Shatner was asked to reprise his original TV role in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Twilight Zone: The Movie goes out on a high note in more ways than one with George Miller’s take on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
Written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), Nightmare remains one of the best-remembered stories of the original series, at least in part thanks to the performance of its leading man.
In the original small screen take on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the central role of the terrified airline passenger who spots a creature on the wing of the plane is played by future Star Trek actor William Shatner.
So iconic was Shatner’s turn, he was asked to play it a second time for Twilight Zone: The Movie, but had to decline due to scheduling conflicts.
Unfortunately for the Twilight Zone: The Movie crew, Shatner had been very busy in 1982, with roles in Star Trek II, Airplane II and TV’s TJ Hooker, amongst others.
6. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet inspired an in-joke on sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun
With Shatner unavailable, George Miller cast John Lithgow as the lead of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and the esteemed actor handled it beautifully.
Years later, Lithgow and Shatner appeared side by side on sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, affording them the opportunity to crack a joke about their shared role.
Lithgow headlined the popular comedy series, which ran from 1996 to 2001 and centred on a supposed family who were in fact a crew of alien astronauts sent to Earth to study human behaviour.
Shatner guest-starred in several 3rd Rock episodes as The Big Giant Head, supreme leader of the aliens – and one scene saw the crew meet him at the airport.
Shatner’s character recalls of his flight, “I saw something on the wing of the plane!”, to which Lithgow replies: “The same thing happened to me!”
5. Some critics rated each of the movie’s stories separately
Due to the nature of Twilight Zone: The Movie, some movie critics took the unusual step of reviewing each of the movie’s segments separately.
For example, Roger Ebert rated the prologue and first segment two (out of four) stars, gave the second segment one and a half stars, and the third and fourth segments both three and a half stars.
Naturally the scandal surrounding the film had an impact on critical opinion, which was distinctly mixed all around – even without considering how some critics assessed each story individually.
There was particular praise for George Miller’s closing story, which in Ebert’s estimation was “a fast comeback” after the film “almost grinds to a halt” with Spielberg’s section.
Critical opinion on Twilight Zone: The Movie remains mixed to this day; it scores 58% on Rotten Tomatoes.
4. It was adapted into a novel that missed out vital segments
A common issue with novelisations (i.e. novel adaptations of movies) is that they tend to be based on the original screenplay, as opposed to the film that is ultimately produced.
Robert Bloch, the writer tasked with adapting Twilight Zone: The Movie, was also faced with that problem.
For one, the stories play out in a different sequence in the novel (the originally intended running order specified in the script was altered in the final cut).
Moreover, Bloch didn’t include the prologue and epilogue in his novel, with the writer later claiming that no-one had even told him about their existence.
Best known for writing the novel Psycho, Bloch was also a prolific writer for pulp magazines, film and TV, although he never wrote any original Twilight Zone episodes.
3. The movie helped spark a revival of The Twilight Zone on TV
After the scandal and some lukewarm reviews, Twilight Zone: The Movie didn’t make a huge splash at the box office either, garnering just under $30 million off the back of a $10 million budget.
Even so, the film and its notoriety brought the Twilight Zone brand back into the popular consciousness, to the extent that TV network CBS decided to bring the series back.
This revival of The Twilight Zone ran from 1985 to 1989, spawning 65 episodes and attracting some major talent on both sides of the camera.
Such stars as Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman, and directors including Wes Craven and William Friedkin, were among those to work on the show.
A third iteration of The Twilight Zone followed in 2002; this one proved to have a shorter lifespan, being cancelled within a year.
2. The prologue inspired a series of comedy shorts by directors Adam Green and Joe Lynch
For many, the most memorable part of Twilight Zone: The Movie is the prologue scene, in which Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks drive along a dark highway at night.
After they’ve sung along to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Midnight Special, the conversation turns to TV, and eventually The Twilight Zone – which prompts Aykroyd to ask, “do you want to see something really scary?”
This leads to Aykroyd unexpectedly revealing himself to be a vicious monster, who promptly pounces on Brooks and kills him.
This scene made an impact on filmmakers Adam Green (Hatchet) and Joe Lynch (Mayhem), as they paid homage to it in a series of short films entitled The Road To FrightFest.
These comedy sketches were screened between films at London’s FrightFest horror film festival, and can be found on YouTube.
1. Jordan Peele’s new Twilight Zone series may have derailed a new Twilight Zone movie from Leonardo DiCaprio
There have been murmurs of a new take on The Twilight Zone for some time, with Leonardo DiCaprio having long been attached to produce another movie.
This appeared to be gaining momentum in 2017, with the hiring of writer Christine Lavaf, but it would seem another take on the property may have stalled this.
April 2019 saw the premiere of a fourth small screen take on The Twilight Zone, this time produced and hosted by Jordan Peele, the Oscar-winning writer-director of Get Out and Us.
With a largely positive response to the first 10-episode season, a second season of the rebooted Twilight Zone was ordered by network CBS almost immediately.
There has since been no further word on DiCaprio’s Twilight Zone movie, however.