Two of my comic/horror heroes, John Landis and Joe Dante, make a Twilight Zone movie alone with Steven “Raiders/E.T.” Spielberg and George “Mad Max” Miller. The result could’ve been a masterpiece, but you know how anthology films always turn out… nobody does their best work, and half the episodes are always weak.

John Landis’s untitled episode has a very unlikeable Vic Morrow getting his supernatural comeuppance, becoming a Jew in nazi germany, a black man at a klan rally, a victim of the vietnam war, then back to germany, after making racist, hateful comments to his buddies (both of whom have been in John Carpenter films). It’s a grimy, unpleasant episode, a bad way to start the series, and of course it’s incomplete due to the untimely decapitation-by-helicopter of the lead actor during shooting. Landis was tried and acquitted for Morrow’s death, as well as an assistant director who Alan Smithee’d himself in the credits. Landis’s intro to the movie almost makes up for the Morrow segment – Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks in a car singing TV theme songs for seven long minutes while the audience wonders if they’re in the wrong theater. If they’d have gone from that part right into the Spielberg, we would’ve had an improved 75-minute movie, and Landis’s longer piece would’ve achieved legendary status. Better that everyone wonders about a possible lost masterpiece than get to see the disappointing reality.

Vic Morrow: last known photo
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Spielberg offers nothing but a big name to sell tickets and some Scatman Crothers. Explores the young-again themes he’d later revisit with Hook – Scatman gets some old folks to play kick the can at midnight and they turn young again – most opt to go back the way they were, but the British guy stays young and runs off into the night. Bill Quinn (of Dead & Buried, which I should be watching right now but I’ve stupidly turned on Organ which I don’t think I’ll finish) looks sadly after him wishing he’d gone out to play and turned young instead of being an old grump. Overly saccharine flick, maybe meant as an antidote to the unrelenting hatred of the previous piece, but maybe we’d have been better off with neither. Hmmm, but then we’ve got a great 50-minute movie, too short for theaters.

Murray Matheson in his final role, with the Scatman three years after The Shining
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Dante had made The Howling and Piranha, but not yet the creatures-and-cartoons Explorers or Gremlins, so this was a sign of things to come. SFX master Rob Bottin, fresh off John Carpenter’s The Thing, created the ‘toon extravaganza at the end. Dante’s segment has the most sinister ending here – the woman and the kid drive off into the world to unleash unknown havoc. Unlike Spielberg, Dante has actual malice and danger behind the cute TV-and-toon-influenced worlds he creates. Anthony’s sister played by Nancy Cartwright (in her film debut), who would be a saturday morning cartoon regular three years later, followed by a 20+ year stint as Bart Simpson, plays the sister who gets beamed into the television. Kathleen Quinlan (later oscar-nom for Apollo 13) was the teacher, and Jeremy Licht (who spent six years on a Jason Bateman TV show) played Anthony. Dante faves Dick Miller and Kevin McCarthy show up as a scuzzy diner operator and Anthony’s terrified “uncle”.

I wonder what happens to Kevin McCarthy after the kid leaves the house
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George Miller tries to go over the top of the Joe Dante piece, and maybe even succeeds, with Nightmare at 20,000 Feet starring John Lithgow. Lightning and wind, loopy camera angles, a plane monster, and an outrageous performance by Lithgow (as good as Raising Cain) keep this one humming. I forgot Lithgow ends up being taken away by an ambulance driven by Dan Aykroyd, ha.

Lithgow, acting sane while the stewardess is watching
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I must’ve watched this a whole lot of times on HBO in the 80’s – I remembered almost all of it. DVD quality isn’t great, or maybe the film quality wasn’t all that to begin with. Half the movie looks dingy, slightly under-lit. The sound was nice though, and I cranked it. Good thing the disc has chapter stops – I think next time I’ll go from the intro straight to Good Life and 20,000 Feet – two stories which were also well done on The Simpsons, coincidentally.

Seemed like a good time to watch the season 3 episode of the original Twilight Zone starring Buster Keaton, “Once Upon a Time” from 1961, the final credited work directed by Norman McLeod (who worked with Marx Bros., Lloyd and Keaton), written by Richard Matheson (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet). Keaton, a scientist’s janitor in 1890, tired of noise and inflation, uses a time-helmet to transport to the year 1960, where he meets another scientist (Stanley Adams of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and High School Big Shot) who desperately wants to live in the past, a simpler time. The helmet is stolen, broken and repaired, while Keaton steals some new pants and discovers traffic, television and vacuum cleaners. They both travel to 1890, where the scientist is miserable for lack of transistors and TV dinners. Pretty nice episode, obviously not creepy in any way, but then neither was that Spielberg thing.

His first good role in nine years:
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First saw this when I was seven. Mostly memorable for being the only (?) movie I ever watched with aunt Nora. Otherwise I remember it being a pretty cool, very weird space movie which no other kids would discuss with me when I got back home to Texas because no one else had seen it.

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Little did I know I was witnessing the feature film debuts by two new stars, Ethan Hawke (left) and River Phoenix (with the glasses).

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Also this kid, Jason Presson, who was just as good but never got as far as his costars in the movie world (despite a cameo in Gremlins 2).

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And Ethan’s love interest Amanda Peterson, who got her own romantic comedy starring role two years later before disappearing from the screen. She was barely in this movie, the token female character. Ethan kisses her at the end in the above cloud-flying dream-sequence, to show that he has grown up a little bit from his adventures, and to show that despite all this fooling around in basements with his boy friends, he sure ain’t gay. River still might be.

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There’s a schoolyard villain, 17-yr-old Bobby Fite, but the coolest character is of course Dick Miller (above) as a helicopter pilot who sees the kids’ spaceship and single-mindedly tracks them down. A villain, perhaps, a stuffy adult authority figure come to put an end to their fun, but when he arrives at the clearing and sees them taking off in the ship, his reaction is unexpectedly sweet… he just smiles and stays behind the trees.

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Computer effects by ILM, makeup by Rob Bottin (fresh off The Thing), music by Jerry Goldsmith, with James Cromwell as River’s absentminded father… a respectable crew. Not at all a bad movie, but I have a hard time summoning up much excitement for it… just a cute little journey with a refreshingly unexpected conclusion.

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Nerdy German kid River is friends with picked-on dreamer Ethan. They love drive-ins, sci-fi and horror movies (hello, Joe Dante). Both begin to have a shared dream (the circuit board above), so River builds the board to the dream’s specs and has himself a computer-controlled floating forcefield. After teaming up with bully-baiting Jason, a tough loner kid from an unhappy home, they build a ship (called the Thunder Road, using a seat from a tilt-a-whirl) and test it out, surrounding it with the force field and buzzing their town, using alien technology to peep through Amanda’s window. After another dream which reveals the circuitry for a magical oxygen-generation board (?), they head out to infinity and beyond. Some wacky shenanigans with a giant spider aboard the alien craft that captures them, then they meet the aliens, a boy and a girl. Kids first lines: “I’ve waited all my life to say this… we come in peace.” A stunner from the aliens: “ehhh, what’s up doc?” Cartoony sound effects everywhere, kids don’t seem to know what’s going on, layers of TV shows and static all over the screen. Finally the alien craft is captured by a much much huger alien craft piloted by the parents of the TV-addict earth-meddling kid aliens who first met our heroes, and River’s gang returns to earth vaguely disillusioned. But we end on the kissing cloud dream, so it’s alright.

Bad science: “It was airtight – I couldn’t feel myself speed up or slow down.”

“They’re heeeere” reference to Poltergeist, which Goldsmith and ILM also worked on.

“He was dead before he was killed, which medically makes him a zombie.”

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Fourth-season Halloween episode of “CSI: New York”. Whoa, I’ve never watched this show. Forgot about The Who theme song and star Gary Sinise. Written by staff writers of this show (also of “24” and “Demolition Man”)

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Opens with Bruce Dern telling spooky stories and being attacked by a zombie. Lots of sudden zooms into wounds. The CSI team’s job and hi-tech equipment look fun. There’s a zombie walk, or “zombie flash mob”.

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I am very disappointed that there was no unexplained supernatural activity in this episode. Guy fakes his own death for insurance, only to be whacked by his wife with a cricket bat after crawling out of the coffin. And family murder/suicide turns out to be just murder, ex-resident returned to the house + whacked ’em all.

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Made me more upset/queasy than any episode since “Cigarette Burns”, and includes possibly the worst stabbing scene I’ve ever watched. No sense of humor here, it’s a dark, pure horror, sort of unexpected from the usually jolly Joe Dante. Definitely the most successful movie from this season so far (still got 5 episodes to go), more so than the relatively lighthearted “Right To Die”.

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Elliott Gould (of American History X and the Oceans movies) and Jason Priestly 90210 are scientists called in by the military to explain/study a spreading phenomenon of mass murders by men against women, seemingly tied to a hormonal virus similar to that manufactured to exterminate the screwfly. The disease spreads, seen through the eyes of Priestly’s wife Anne, until she’s one of the only surviving women, catching a glimpse in northern Canada of the “angels” that started it all.

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Really a dreadful and well-made little apocalyptic movie, a mini masterpiece up there with “Homecoming” and “Cigarette Burns”.

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In my 23 years of watching Joe Dante movies (and 3 years of actually knowing who Joe Dante is, heh) I don’t think I’ve seen a better one. Maybe it’s just a dreamy first impression thing, and I’d be saying the same if I’d just watched “The ‘burbs” for the first time. We’ll see. Anyway, great movie.

Set in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis at the height of cold war fever, John Goodman is a monster-movie peddler (based on William Castle of “The Tingler” fame) who’s literally coming up with new ways to shock people. I thought he’d be the movie’s lead, but not really, it’s this kid who just moved into a Florida town with a father (who we never see except in photos) who’s part of the Naval blockade of Cuba and a mom and a little brother and, if he can manage it, a girlfriend at school (a budding leftist). Kid’s new friend is trying to date a girl with a dangerous ex-boyfriend who ends up getting a job running the special effects during the MANT screening and seeing the two of them together. Oh, and the nervous theater manager has a bomb shelter in the basement. Hilarity ensues.

Movie is exciting and funny and intelligent while remaining entirely wholesome (rated PG). It’s all about the love of horror films without ever trying to be a horror film… and about growing up with the movies, the way they can reflect and affect people’s moods.

The great Kevin McCarthy as a general fighting the MANT:
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Left: our kid. Right: Dick Miller, whose cohort was played by John Sayles.
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Reportedly William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock shared mutual respect… no, really.
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MANT escapes from the screen, takes a hostage:
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Apocalyptic ending:
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One of the very best movies of the eighties (forget that it missed the 80’s by six months). A slightly-too-slow buildup places the action in a state-of-the-art technological office building, brings back Billy and Kate, brings back the Futtermans, closes down the shop where the Gremlins came from and puts Gizmo in the hands of corporate scientist Christopher Lee. Then all fucking hell breaks loose and it’s a hilarious, gonzo 45 minutes of action and comedy and movie references. I love it.

Don & Dan Stanton from Terminator 2 with Christopher Lee:
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Zack and Phoebe Cates, who has gotten cuter since part 1:
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My favorite gag, again:
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Hulk out:
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The electric-gremlin death of Christopher Lee:
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“I guess they pushed him too far”:
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A great movie that does not get enough credit. Completely successful as a comedy, a horror, an action/effects popcorn flick, even a kids movie. I’ve loved it since I was 7.

The dog (“mushroom”) is amazing. In the commentary, Joe Dante says he loved the dog and little Corey Feldman, ’cause they were the only two actors that believed the gremlins were real. Apparently the whole production was a puppeteering nightmare, compounded when Spielberg decided (correctly, you’d think) to NOT kill off Gizmo halfway through the movie… hence little cheats in the second half, like carrying him in Billy’s backpack, and having him ride the toy car.

The black man’s the first one to die, of course. Dante fave Dick Miller plays xenophobic Mr. Futterman, who coins the term gremlins for our beasties. Dante wanted to play the old warner WWII cartoon short about gremlins before the feature, but they wouldn’t let him… too bad. Judge Reinhold has a small part, Chuck Jones has a cameo, Spielberg & Goldsmith & Robbie the Robot get cameos, and Howie Mandel is the voice of Gizmo.

Zach, Corey Feldman, and a lotta mogwai:
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When mogwai go bad:
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My favorite gag:
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Definitely a spoof on Jaws. Actually makes a stronger case of “don’t go in the water” than Jaws. Piranha came three years later. Writer John Sayles’ first movie! Exec-produced by Roger Corman. Remade twice, for some reason, once starring William Katt from House. Sequel was of course Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron’s first movie.

I’m on a Joe Dante kick. Obviously influenced by the film critics’ strange love of his work, a nostalgic desire to see Gremlins again, and the just-learned fact that Dante was born in Morristown and grew up in Parsippany.

Kevin McCarthy was great as the crazy scientist who secretly continues an army experiment to breed ravenous fresh-and-salt-water piranha. Wish I’d gotten a screen shot of him before returning the DVD.

Ambitious is the movie with a drunken, antisocial, bearded mountain man as protagonist (Bradford Dillman: Briggs in Dirty Harry 4). He and missing persons detective Heather Menzies (of the 1979 Captain America) must warn the world of the killer piranha that they themselves accidentally unleashed… and quickly, before the fish eat Bradford’s daughter at a camp downstream. Italian horror star Barbara Steele is the crazy scientist’s ex, who tries to thwart our heroes, along with Joe Dante fave Dick Miller (of the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors), Death Race 2000 director Paul Bartel, and some army guys. I didn’t notice, but Keenan Wynn of Clonus and Laserblast also appeared. The two fail to stop the fish, but at least the daughter is saved.

Movie amazingly did not suck, was more funny than anything else. Gore/action/creature effects could’ve been edited more tightly, but I guess they wanted to show off what little they had.

Reporter is stalked by serial killer who turns out to be a werewolf. Then to recover from all that, she’s sent to a retreat which turns out to be a werewolf cult. Bad news!

Her doctor is a werewolf. The stalker’s family are werewolves. Her friend is killed by a werewolf. Her husband falls for a werewolf. Her husband becomes a werewolf. Your sister is a werewolf.

Your werewolf:
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Your sister:
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Another friend buys silver bullets from an antique bookstore owner (Dante regular Dick Miller), goes to the country and whups some werewolf ass, locks everyone in the barn, sets fire to it, and has a close escape… TOO close, cuz the reporter gets bitten! They expose their story by having her wolf-out live on her next newscast (to the horror of her boss, Dante fave Kevin McCarthy), then her friend shoots her and we end.

You should’ve seen him in “Piranha”:
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Keeps silver bullets in stock:
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Fun werewolf effects, movie manages to be a little scary, is less funny than the others… mostly just a good time. Star Dee Wallace-Stone (later star of Critters and Cujo, mom in E.T., Jake Busey’s co-killer in The Frighteners) has got a good scream on her. Her buddy Dennis Dugan is currently gathering bit parts in Adam Sandler movies. Her hairy husband Chris Stone was also in Cujo (he must be the Stone in Wallace-Stone). Another Dante fave, Robert Picardo (Mark Dark in 976-EVIL), is the serial killer Eddie Quist. Elisabeth Brooks is the goth hottie. John Carradine (of The Return of Frank James, Man Hunt, and Red Zone Cuba) must’ve been the old man wandering the werewolf camp, and Slim Pickens was the sheriff.

Cujo:
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Carradine?
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