In the 1980s, the TV spin off movie was relatively rare. Star Trek: the Motion Picture and its sequel The Wrath of Khan had been moderately successful but in general TV stayed where it was. The idea of a portmanteau film likewise wasn't hugely popular. Grand Hotel had launched the genre in 1932 but with the exception of the British horror film Dead of Night, there were few glowing examples. So a TV spin off and a portmanteau film? It sounds like a bad idea, right? Well, things were to get much worse.
On July 23, 1982, at around 2:30 a.m., actor Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le (age 7) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (age 6) were killed when a helicopter, having been hit by a special effects explosion crashed into them as they crossed a lake. The accident was preventable and although no criminal liability was ever established, no one came out of the affair with much honor. John Landis had hired his child actors paying them under the table and getting them to hide when an inspector came round so he could circumvent a law that prevented child actors working at night. Morrow had voiced doubts about the stunt work he was being asked to do and when someone on set brought up safety Landis joked 'maybe we'll lose a helicopter.' None of this was Steven Spielberg's fault, although as a producer of the whole film some responsibility does belong to him.
It also meant that he changed his choice of episode which was yet to be filmed. Kick the Can was a saccharine tale, with none of the darkness of the other episodes. Scatman Crothers plays Mr. Bloom a dreamy optimistic old man who on arriving in a retirement home tries to perk up the other inhabitants with his tale of a childhood game kick the can. He plans to play the game again with them that night. When all but one join him, they are magically transformed into children once more and, delighted, climb trees, dance and pretend to be Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as they once had. But soon they worry about the consequences of their wishes coming true and decide to return to old age, refreshed and rejuvenated by the glimpse they have had of youth. All except one again. The boy - like Peter Pan - wants to be young forever.
As a TV episode Kick the Can would hardly pass muster. It's more Waltons than Twilight Zone. Obviously, Spielberg enjoys working with older actors - as an upcoming TV director he was proud of being able to coax a performance out of Joan Crawford, adeptly handling the aging diva. But there's very little to recommend the segment. The episode is bathed in a golden light which literally suggests autumn but also Jurassic amber or, if I was being really cruel, sunshine through urine. The story is trite and predictable; the characters no more than broad types at the service of the plot.
Joe Dante's next episode is immediately more interesting and George Miller's recreation of 'Terror at 20,000 Feet' is miles ahead and the only episode which justifies the time and effort (but not the deaths, obviously) .
Spielberg will return to more solid ground for his next film. Having despised the idea of sequels, following both Jaws and ET, and perhaps chastened by the bruising experience of Twilight Zone, Spielberg was finally ready to take a double dip and film a follow up.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.