A return to the Zone

The good thing about the post-Xmas period is having a bit of time to go back and cover titles warranting more detailed reviews (or long and windy examinations, depending on one’s reactions to this prosiage).

Case in point: Twilight Zone: The Movie [TZTM]. Made in 1983 and among the few productions related to Rod Serling’s original series not available on DVD, Warner Bros. did the only thing they could with this hot potato – release it quietly, and without any extras beyond a teaser trailer.

It’s been 24 years since the film’s production ground to a halt when a helicopter was offset by an unexpectedly large pyrotechnics charge, causing it to tumble onto actor Vic Morrow and two children during a night shoot for a sequence originally being filmed for John Landis’ segment of the four-part anthology film. The sick irony is how Landis’ segment still flowed without the missing sequence, making the deaths of the actors all the more pointless.

With a lengthy court case, legal wrangling, and bad karma coming from the tragedy, it’s unsurprising there’s no useful extras on the disc. TZTM was among the most requested films by series fans for a DVD release (a few smart-asses posted noxious hopes about the inclusion of the helicopter footage as a special feature), so at the very least, it’s good the film is presented in a crisp anamorphic transfer with a decent Dolby 5.1 mix.

When the film was announced in the early eighties, it came at a time when I was thoroughly hooked on the show, which was being aired on Toronto’s CityTV (Channel 79 back then) on weekends in hour-long blocks; with a VCR, it was easy to archive the entire 5-year run within a few months, as each of the 30 and 60 min. episodes were shown in chorological order – edited slightly for syndication, but nowhere as badly when new transfers from 35mm prints replaced the worn 16mm prints.

(This was around the time when syndication firms applied an evil time-compression device named The Lexicon to squash the running time of their product that was already chopped down to accommodate more commercial space. The actors ‘voices were somewhat equalized to offset the speed-up of classic TV shows, but one could tell something was very wrong in the way they walked across a room, or the way smoke from a cigarette wafted unnaturally fast. At its worst, the technology was heavily applied by Turner on their monotonously programmed Super Station, which crunched rare TV movies – including a few directed by Steven Spielberg - into over-cranked comedies.)

The Written Zone

The early eighties was in fact an amazing time to drown oneself in Everything Twilight Zone, and I did so with vigor. Besides the TV airings of the show (minus the handful of episodes clipped from the syndication package), in 1982 Marc Scott Zicree published his superb series guide, The Twilight Zone Companion (which came as a bonus with the first pressing of Image Entertainment’s Definite Twilight Zone Season 1 DVD box); there were 5 LPs of original score recordings from the TV series from Varese Sarabande (later culled into a wan pair of best-of CDs before Japan’s SLC label released the quintet with additional music, followed by Silva Screen’s definitive boxed set); a one-time airing of three syndication-MIA episodes in a TV special; and the books and short stories from which the series writers crafted some amazing episodes.

From Rod Serling’s end, his published work never wholly disappeared, and it was easy to find originals and reprints of the three volumes from Bantam Books that contained Serling’s own short stories adapted from his teleplays: Stories from The Twilight Zone, New Stories from The Twilight Zone, and More Stories from the Twilight Zone. There was also a pair of books from Tempo which collected most of the tales originally published in hardback; and Serling’s long association with Bantam that resulted in reprints of older works – including novelizations (I think) of some classic teleplays, and a few anthology books, including Night Gallery, which contained the three stories that were used as the basis for the 1969 TV movie which kick-started Steven Spielberg’s professional directorial career, and spawned the odd-ball 1970-1973 TV series.

The writing of series contributor Charles Beaumont also appeared under the Bantam brand via several anthologies, and during the eighties the late author’s colleagues badgered the publisher to follow through with a planned anthology, Best of Beaumont, which was announced and then delayed until the thick paperback was given a discrete publication. (At least that’s the reason I was told about the book’s delay, as I recall seeing an ad for the anthology and waited what seemed like a few years before I found it one day on the bottom shelf at an old WH Smith shop across from the Eaton’s Center.)

Unlike Beaumont, whose work had fallen out of print soon after his untimely death, the short stories of co-contributor Richard Matheson tended to stay in print partly because the still-prolific author had written several genre classics – such as the novels I Am Legend, and The Incredible Shrinking Man – and myriad short stories which were reprinted over many years. The easiest to find at the time were the three Shock volumes, reprinted in the eighties by Berkley Books.

Part of this digression from film to TV to books is to give some detail of the materials that were happily available at the time when the way to find neat stuff wasn’t on Amazon but in the many used book shops that populated a stretch of Queen Street in Toronto that’s since been heavily gentrified by trendy shops in what slowly became a high-rent strip in the city.

Queen Street had his chunk of two blocks where one could find many amazing books dirt cheap, and a few collector shops that were squeezed out after several years of residing in eeny-weeny locations.

My luck struck gold when a friend referred me to Passages Books, once located in the back-end room of the building opposite of CityTV’s Queen Street headquarters, right on the south west corner. The owner (I think Brian was his name) had a list of clients, and he had enough people randomly dropping off old books that he could actually fulfill wish lists, so within a short handful of years I did in fact gather a fair chunk of collections from which the Twilight Zone’s writers adapted teleplays.

That led to discovering the show’s writers, checking out their prior work, and getting a feel for the style and genre of fantasy, sci-fi and horror writing that was popular at the time, and discovering a few gems along the way.

The favourite remains Beaumont’s The Intruder, a great novel dealing with a racist agitator who travels the deep South to stir up trouble. Brian once had a very fine copy of a first edition hardback, but I was lucky to get my hands on a paperback edition. The book, long forgotten, is one of Beaumont’s best works, and was made into a great movie by Roger Corman in 1962. Also titled The Intruder (and later re-titled as I Hate Your Guts), it starred a very young & dashing William Shatner, and was the director’s only real attempt to make a message film, which he still regards as one of his best works, and pegs as the only film he made that ever lost money during its run.


I never got into the spin-off Twilight Zone magazine – the subscription rate was above my budget and I just wanted the works of the show’s original writers – but the eighties was a great period to find a lot of material and appreciate the wealth of imagination that went into writing so many episodes during the show’s five-year run.

Serling wrote most of the scripts and tweaked many others when he was a heavily hands-on creator/show runner during the show’s first two years, and the brutal schedule and tasks undoubtedly aged him, particularly when the show and its Emmy Award-winning episodes made him a hot property for the second time in his career.

The first wave of accolades came during his years in live TV, writing benchmarks in TV drama: Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and The Comedian. Each of these were later repackaged in 1981 as part of a KCET/Sonny Fox Productions PBS series, The Golden Age of Television, and included some wonderful interviews with surviving actors & directors, and intros that placed each teleplay in its historical context. The series was later rebroadcast in the nineties on Canada’s Bravo, but sadly remains unavailable on DVD, although some of Serling’s teleplays have appeared on public domain DVDs, some of which we’ll review very soon.

When you’re hot, you gotta take advantage of the opportunities, and that’s what Serling did, having known lean years in the past. In 1963, Serling gave an interview to Gamma magazine, where he addressed his tough writing life. The interview appeared in the first issue of the short-lived mag, and can be read HERE.

Among his feature film scripts were Seven Days in May (remade rather clumsily in 1994 as The Enemy Within) and Planet of the Apes (with co-credited writer Michael Wilson), and although his post-Twilight Zone shows include Night Gallery (available on DVD) and a few short-lived series, none had the cultural impact of his classic ‘Zone.

Warner Bros. therefore knew they had a hot property with TZTM, and so did the producers of the 1985-1989 TV series, which attempted to capture the magic of the original show in spite of dwindling production budgets, lots of disappointing episodes, and some truly bad special effects. The limitations of the original series gave the show a B-movie feel, but maybe due to the addition of colour and primordial computer effects, it kinda looked cheap.

I never caught the 2002-2003 series because, having experienced the boredom of the first effort to update the original show’s concept, remake some episodes, and try out some new ones, I figured it was all pointless.

Time is also precious when there’s an obscene amount of material currently available – new to DVD, extant releases, new productions, and rare stuff recorded on vintage VHS tapes when a T-120 cost $20 a tape (or up tp $35 in 1983!) – and apparently the new series was targeted for a younger set, a major shift from Serling’s concept which maintained intelligent scripts, and attracted viewers of different ages, and varying brain power.

The Nostalgia

Everyone has a favourite episode, and that’s one of the key elements the 1983 film exploited. John Landis’ prologue played with extant nostalgia, punctuated by a cheap shock one would expect from the writer/director of An American Werewolf in London. That goofy jab bled into the main titles, and it was a thrilling experience to see elements of a beloved show – Rene Garriguenc’s main theme, Serling’s famous verbal intro that every fan knows by heart (seasons 1 + two) – thrown against a theatre screen in wide Panavision, plus a superb sound mix.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score was one of his best, and as was typical at the time, most soundtracks were not given domestic releases in Canada. The 5 LPs of original series music from Varese were imports, and so was Warner Bros.’ platter of the film score.

It took pestering and a quick dip into Detroit to snap up the film score, whereas the TV scores were carried by a Toronto chain called Cheapies, a company (according to several ex-employees I knew) that was designed to lose money and be some perfect tax write-off, except they had the misfortune of hiring an amazing buyer who knew a rich & diverse selection priced very sweet was the key to success, which ran contrary to the chain’s secret credo. (What happened to Cheapies is another story worthy of a detailed blog about greed, stupidity, and corporate suicide.)

To this day, the soundtrack album has yet to receive a North American CD release, but it was released in Germany and Japan. No big surprise there, but we've got a review of the album HERE.

Once again, Passages Books came to the rescue when I discovered studios sent out things called Press Kits (new buzz-word then), and Brian had one for TZTM, and while the kit made no mention of the tragedy (an obvious omission, although among the film’s four segments, apparently just two stills were provided for Landis’), it was an instant time capsule of a studio’s attempt to ignite a new franchise that stumbled badly.

In addition to stills, included in the kit were bios of actors Dan Aykroyd and Richard Brooks; directors Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller, and Steven Spielberg; executive producer Frank Marshall; composer Jerry Goldsmith; and writers Rod Serling and Richard Matheson.

The film did get a home video release in the eighties, but it disappeared from the radar and took a long time – 24 years – to reappear, happily on a clean DVD release.

As our review of the disc and several fan sites attest, there’s a lot of material that could’ve been placed on this basic, bare bones disc without directly drawing attention to the tragedy, so it’s yet another fumble that robs fans of some ephemeral goodies, and doesn’t do anything to attract new fans to Serling’s timeless concept of creating bright entertainment, with the occasional moral play woven into a teleplay’s fabric.


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