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

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

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

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

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:

There have been many films about aliens made by Steven Spielberg (E.T., Close Encounters, Men in Black, War of the Worlds) and George Lucas (Howard The Duck, Captain EO, The Ewok Adventure) but never have they made a film about aliens TOGETHER… until now. Of course the trailer misleadingly doesn’t tell us it’s about aliens, and it isn’t really, until it goes all M. Night on us towards the end, thanks to a story by Jeff Nathanson (Speed 2: Cruise Control) and screenplay by David Koepp (Death Becomes Her, Zathura).

Solid cinematography by Spielberg’s usual guy Janusz Kaminski (who also shot Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Cool As Ice). Editing by Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s main man for the last thirty years. These two along with S.S. give the movie its only interesting quality, the occasional feeling that this is good ol’ classic filmmaking, not a 2008 Hollywood blockbuster but something produced back when complicated shots couldn’t be corrected digitally in post, and when scenes were edited for clarity and not for “energy”. Of course, the scene of Shia The Beouf swinging on jungle vines with commie-hatin’ digital monkeys spoils that, but it’s a nice feeling while it lasts.

The story is a bunch of silliness… Indiana is kidnapped by commies and forced to lead ’em to the titular skull, which is an actual alien skull, one of thirteen from the peruvian lost city of gold. Skull is returned, lost city turns into a spaceship and flies off. Oh and Shia The Beouf is Indy’s son, which I saw coming as far back as the trailer.

Better than following the story is to follow the touchstones… the pointed references to history and past Indy movies. I haven’t seen a movie more desperate to establish its setting (1950’s America! 1950’s America!) since the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future. From little things like college-town diner gang rumbles between The Wild One-attired Beouf and some preppie kids, and comments on how large and thick refrigerators used to be (also done in BTTF 3) to big boys like nuclear bomb testing and anti-communist blacklists. Then we’ve got the presence (and child and climactic marriage) of Marion from Raiders and loving tributes to dead former collaborators Dr. Brody (Denholm Elliott, actually dead) and Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery, alive but retired), that theme music, Wilhelm screams, references to Indy hating snakes, nazi-like villains (hot chick-in-uniform Cate Blanchett) getting their faces melted Raiders-style by supernaturally powerful artifacts, the actual Ark of the Covenant in a comic cameo, and so much more. This, not the story, is the true reason the movie was made… to make us remember how much we loved Raiders in an attempt to make us love this one by association. Too much association!

H. Ford lacks some of his former charm and either his speech is slowing or he’s overplaying the old-man angle. The Beouf, a decent leading man, is really going places after this and Transformers. Nice to see Cate B., Ray Winstone from Sexy Beast, and Karen Allen who was apparently in In The Bedroom. Ringers Jim Broadbent and John Hurt (best of the bunch) round out a cast overqualified for an action flick, but not for a Spielberg action flick.