The film remade three classic episodes of the original series and included one original story. John Landis directed the prologue and the first segment, Spielberg directed the second, Joe Dante the third, and George Miller directed the final segment.
The film is perhaps best known for the helicopter accident which took the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two illegally-hired child actors during the filming of Landis' segment. The deaths led to high-profile legal action, although in the subsequent trial no one was held criminally culpable for the accident.
You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into...The Twilight Zone.
You're about to meet an angry man: Mr. William Connor, who carries on his shoulder a chip the size of the national debt. This is a sour man, a lonely man, who's tired of waiting for the breaks that come to others, but never to him. Mr. William Connor, whose own blind hatred is about to catapault him into the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.
The only original segment was the first, directed by John Landis. It is loosely based on the original Twilight Zone episode "A Quality of Mercy" and slightly "Deaths-Head Revisited". Vic Morrow plays an outspoken bigot named Bill who goes to a bar after work to have a drink with his friends. Bill is angry because he was passed over for a promotion for which he worked extremely hard. The promotion was given to a Jewish man. At the bar, he begins making racial slurs towards Jews, blacks, and Asians. He speaks derisively about the Jewish man to whom the promotion was given several times; he also makes racial remarks stating it's difficult to earn a living because of Jews, blacks, and orientals. Although his friends try to calm him down, Bill is adamant about his hate-filled emotions. He even attracts unwanted attention by a group of black men sitting near them who, of course, strongly resent his racist comments. Bill leaves the bar very angry. When he walks outside, however, he is not in the parking lot and finds himself in Vichy France during World War II. He is ironically seen through the eyes of Nazi police as a Jewish man whom they chase around the city. While trying to escape, Bill time travel jumps to a 1950's southern town where he is seen through the eyes of the Ku Klux Klan as an African-American about to be hanged. Bill is scared and confused and vehemently tries to tell them he's white. While trying to escape the Ku Klux Klan members, he time travels into the Vietnam War where he is a Vietnamese man nearly blown to bits by U.S. soldiers; Bill has become the selected ethnicities of the people whom he always was prejudiced against. The grenade thrown by the soldiers blasts him back to Nazi Germany, where he is captured and arrested by Nazi soldiers and put into an enclosed railroad freight car, along with other Jewish holocaust prisoners. He is shipped off along with them, with no possibility of redemption or being saved, and futilely screaming out for help as the train pulls away, off to its destination.
It is sometimes said that where there is no hope, there is no life. Case in point: the residents of Sunnyvale Rest Home, where hope is just a memory. But hope just checked into Sunnyvale, disguised as an elderly optimist, who carries his magic in a shiny tin can.
The second segment is directed by Spielberg and is a remake of the episode "Kick the Can." Scatman Crothers plays an old man named Mr. Bloom who has just moved into his new home at Sunnyvale Retirement Home. Upon his arrival, he sits around kindly and smiles as he listens to the other elders reminisce about the joys they experienced in their days as youths. Mr. Bloom implies to them just because they're old doesn't mean they cannot enjoy life anymore and that feeling young and active has to do with your attitude not your age. However, a grumpy man named Bill Conroy who is fairly skeptical in his outlook on life disagrees, saying that now that they are all old they cannot engage in physical activity and play the games they once did as children. That night, Mr. Bloom gathers the rest of the optimistic residents outside and plays a game of kick the can. They are all ultimately transformed back into child versions of themselves. Although they are extremely ecstatic to be young again and engage in the activities they once enjoyed so long ago, they also realize that being young again means you not only experience the good aspects of life again but also the bad. They request to be old again, which Mr. Bloom grants to them. Bill Conroy witnesses one resident that still remains young and says that he wants to go with him before the boy magically takes off. Conroy realizes that he doesn't have to stop enjoying life because of his old age. The segment ends with Mr. Bloom leaving to another retirement home, and Conroy is outside happily kicking a can around the yard, for he has learned being young at heart is what really matters.
Portrait of a woman in transit. Helen Foley, age 27. Occupation: schoolteacher. Up until now, the pattern of her life has been one of unrelenting sameness, waiting for something different to happen. Helen Foley doesn't know it yet, but her waiting has just ended.
The third segment, a remake of the episode "It's a Good Life," is directed by Joe Dante.
Kathleen Quinlan plays a mild-mannered school teacher named Helen Foley who is traveling to her new teaching job. While visiting a bar for a quick drink, she witnesses a young boy being accosted by a group of rowdy drunks for "accidentally" turning off the tv they were watching. Soon after, Helen decides to leave. Not paying attention, she backs into the boy with her car in the parking lot, knocking him from his bike. Helen offers her sincere apology and offers Anthony a ride home. They eventually get to Anthony's house, which is an immense home in the country. When Helen arrives, she meets some people whom Anthony tells her are his family, his Uncle Walt (Kevin McCarthy) and his sister Ethel (Nancy Cartwright). Also included in the family are Anthony's parents. Helen notices that the family seems extremely apprehensive, though she dismisses it. After satisfying her promise of taking Anthony home, Helen attempts to leave; she then discovers Anthony is no ordinary boy, for he possesses unexplained powers that allow him to do practically anything he desires, including making cartoon characters appear in real life and making people disappear all together. The people inform her they aren't his real family and that they were brought to the house under false pretense by Anthony, as she was. They also explain that they cannot leave. After the family has angered Anthony by making it obvious being with him is a complete nightmare, he instantly makes them and the house disappear, leaving himself and Helen in a limbo-like state surrounded by literal nothingness. Helen talks to Anthony and makes him realize the error of his ways and that she will be his true friend unlike the other people if he agrees not to abuse his power anymore. Anthony realizes the abuse of his supernatural powers have done nothing but bad; he agrees to become a good person, and he and Helen ride off together to her new home in a much nicer car after he returns the world.
What you're looking at could be the end of a particularly terrifying nightmare. It isn't. It's the beginning. Introducing Mr. John Valentine, air traveller. His destination: the Twilight Zone.
The fourth segment is a remake of the "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" episode, and is directed by George Miller. John Lithgow plays the highly-nervous and stressed out airline passenger Mr. John Valentine. Mr. Valentine slowly emerges from the bathroom after flight attendants repeatedly ask if he's okay. Mr. Valentine was most likely recovering from a panic attack. Although not mentioned during the segment, it is most likely Mr. Valentine suffers from severe anxiety, claustrophobia, and acrophobia. Mr. Valentine is repeatedly assured by the flight attendants that everything is going to be alright, and there's nothing to worry about, while attracting some occasional gawking from other airline passengers who also become somewhat nervous due to his behavior. When Mr. Valentine notices a hideous gremlin on the wing of the plane from his window, he begins to spiral into severe panic. He witnesses the diminutive, but vile creature, ripping apart wires and bolts from the plane's engine. Unfortunately, no one believes Mr. Valentine. Upon witnessing the creature causing further damage, he snaps and grabs the air marshall's hand gun, breaks the glass (which causes a breach in the pressurized cabin), and begins firing at the creature. The gremlin grabs his face for a second and waves his finger in a "no, no" manner and flies off. The airplane then makes an emergency landing. The police, crew, and passengers rule him out as just another claustrophobic nut case. He is then carried off in an ambulance that is taking him to an asylum wrapped in a straight jacket. The maintenance crew then discovers the unexplained damage to the plane's engines.
There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
The accident led to legal action against the filmmakers which lasted nearly a decade, and changed the regulations involving children working on movie sets at night and during special effects-heavy scenes. Hollywood also avoided helicopter-related stunts for many years, until the CGI revolution of the 1990s made it possible to use digital versions. As a result of the accident, one second assistant director had his name removed from the credits and replaced with the pseudonymous Alan Smithee. The incident also ended the friendship between director Landis and producer Spielberg.
The Nightmare segment was widely praised, with John Lithgow's performance often singled out, but the other segments were less popular. Many critics accused Spielberg's Kick the Can of excessive sentimentality. The film was very much hurt by the controversy of the infamous helicopter accident, and the box office results showed lukewarm public interest.
According to boxofficemojo.com, it grossed $6,614,366 in its opening weekend at 1,275 theaters. It later expanded to 1,288 theaters and ended up grossing $29,450,919. It was not the enormous hit which executives were looking for, but it remains the number one grossing anthology film in cinema history and helped stir enough interest for CBS to give the go-ahead to the 1980s TV version of The Twilight Zone.