11 Freaky Movies That Owe Their Existence To The Twilight Zone
By Chris Tilly on
From The Truman Show and Final Destination to The Box and Ex Machina.
The Twilight Zone is back. Rod Serling's acclaimed anthology series recently received a new lease on life thanks to Jordan Peele and Simon Kinberg, who have overseen a reboot that launched on CBS All Access in April.
Prior to this revival, however, The Twilight Zone spawned all manner of spin-offs, from books and radio shows to theme park attractions and films. There have even been multiple reboots on CBS, the first in 1985 and the last in 2002.
The show has also inspired moviemakers to craft features that--while not carrying the "Twilight Zone" name--employ its essence, themes, and warped spirit.
The original series, which aired for five seasons from 1959 to 1964, was largely science fiction, but also ventured into horror, drama, thriller, and fantasy, via socially conscious episodes that often examined the human condition, and frequently ended with a macabre twist that caused the viewer to question everything that had gone before.
This high-concept storytelling has provided the building blocks for countless features since, with writers and directors who grew up on the show wanting to tell their own twisted "Twilight" tales, resulting in some of the most original, challenging and exciting films of the last few decades.
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1. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
This 1990 psychological thriller isn't just inspired by the general concept of The Twilight Zone; it's loosely based on a specific episode. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was a French short that won awards in Cannes and at the Academy Awards, prompting the Twilight Zone team to purchase the film for broadcast. Its plot revolves around an imprisoned man who escapes just as he is about to be hanged, only it turns out said escape is a vision he has moments before his neck snaps.
Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin was clearly a fan, as Jacob's Ladder follows that template, the film focussing on a Vietnam veteran--played by Tim Robbins--who experiences flashbacks to the horrors of the war in his past, and hallucinations of monstrous goings-on in his present. Sadly, that present is nothing of the sort, as during the war, Jacob's battalion was given an experimental drug that resulted in them turning on each other, with Jacob being killed by one of his own squadron. The entire tragic tale is a vision Jacob has just before death.
2. The Truman Show (1998)
The Truman Show is perhaps the most prophetic film on this list, predicting the reality TV craze (Big Brother launched just a year later) and the proliferation of 24-hour CCTV recording of our everyday lives. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, an unwanted child who becomes the first baby to be bought by a corporation. Since that day, and unbeknownst to him, Truman has lived in an artificial city on a reality show, surrounded by actors and cameras, his every word and action broadcast to the world.
Written by Andrew Niccol, it's a smart media satire that also tackles religion via the show's god-like, and ultimately misguided producer Christof (Ed Harris). But like several films on this list, its roots can be found in The Twilight Zone; Niccol's script is similar to the 1989 episode "Special Delivery," in which David Naughton plays John, a man whose life is also being broadcast to the world. However, while Truman eventually escapes from his TV prison, John decides that he's better off inside and onscreen.
3. Final Destination (2000)
Final Destination started life as a spec script for The X-Files, a show that very much followed in the footsteps of The Twilight Zone. And it's the ultimate in high-concept horror, revolving around a teenager who has a premonition that the plane he has boarded is about to explode, and insists he and his friends disembark. Minutes later that explosion occurs, meaning that the teens have cheated death--which results in the grim reaper hunting them down and killing the kids in ever-more creative ways.
A novel twist on the slasher sub-genre, it was followed by a series of sequels, the best of which was Final Destination 5--which, in a twist that would have done the Twilight Zone proud, takes the story back to the start, with the protagonists boarding that aforementioned flight and dying in the explosion that kicked the series off.
4. The Happening (2008)
This list could be all M. Night Shyamalan, as the man writes and directs features that are celebrated for their Twilight Zone-esque twists. The Sixth Sense is the most famous example, while the likes of Unbreakable, The Village and Split have all shocked and surprised audiences in their final few scenes. But we're here to talk about The Happening, one of Shyamalan's worst flicks, but thanks to its environmental message, the film that most closely follows the Twilight Zone template.
Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher--which might be the film's most ridiculous flight of fancy--who springs into action when people start committing suicide en masse. Initially thought to be a terrorist attack, the cause of the deaths ends up being plants, who are releasing deadly neurotoxins because humans have become a threat to the planet. It's a concept that results in very few scares, but the movie did gift us with the absurd sight of Wahlberg trying to reason with a shrub.
5. Moon (2009)
In an acting tour de force, Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a miner collecting a fuel called helium-3 on the far side of the moon. Bell is coming to the end of his three-year contract, but days before he is due to return home--and with his physical and mental health deteriorating--Sam crashes his lunar rover and falls unconscious. When he wakes up, our confused hero realizes that there are in fact two Sam Bells, and must figure out where his doppelganger came from, and whether or not he is friend or foe.
It's an existential crisis brought to life onscreen, but in the hands of writer Nathan Parker and director Duncan Jones, Sam's story is told with great care and sensitivity, turning Moon into a timely examination of the dangers of cloning, and a thought-provoking rumination on what it means to be human.
6. Knowing (2009)
Knowing has a fantastic setup, but one that sadly fails to fully pay off. In 1959, a schoolgirl writes a series of numbers on a piece of paper, which then gets placed in a time capsule. In the present, that time-capsule is opened, and those numbers are found to reference the dates and death tolls of disasters in the intervening years. And there are more numbers, detailing disasters yet to happen, including an "Extinction Level Event" that signifies the apocalypse.
It makes for a pretty gripping journey, particularly as the ever-watchable Nicolas Cage plays the astrophysicist investigating the mystery. However, while Knowing has the beginnings of a great Twilight Zone episode, it doesn't stick the landing, the film collapsing under the weight of its own ambitions, and becoming laughable when a spaceship shows up to take a portion of the planet's children away.
7. The Box (2009)
This sci-fi thriller has a past that's nearly as complicated as its plot. In 1970, frequent Twilight Zone contributor Richard Matheson wrote a short story for Playboy called "Button Button," about a poor couple who are given a box that contains a button, and told that if pushed, they will receive $200,000, but someone they don't know will die. It was turned into a radio play in 1974, and formed the basis of a Twilight Zone episode in 1989, though Matheson was unhappy with the changes made to his plot and so had his name removed from the credits.
The story nevertheless inspired Richard Kelly to make The Box, about a couple who receive the same offer, with the wife deciding to press the button. What follows is a paranoid thriller that ends with the pair discovering that the box/button was a test to see if the human race is worth preserving. This time around, Matheson liked the ways in which Kelly expanded the premise, and gave the project his blessing.
8. Ruby Sparks (2012)
An underseen gem that's basically the Twilight Zone version of Weird Science, Ruby Sparks is a high-concept romantic comedy that confronts everything from the fragility of the male ego and the cruelty of the male gaze to the pain of the creative process. Paul Dano plays Calvin, a novelist struggling with writer's block, whose therapist challenges him to create a brand-new character.
Ruby Sparks soon appears on the page, and then somehow in real life, via the film's writer, Zoe Kazan. Calvin immediately falls for Ruby, but the course of love does not run smooth. Which is unsurprising as Ruby will do or feel whatever Calvin writes, which leaves her at something of a disadvantage, and emphasizes his unhealthy controlling behavior. Calvin ultimately learns his lesson, however, freeing Ruby from his hold so she can live her own life.
9. Ex Machina (2014)
A smart, self-contained three-hander about the potential for Artificial Intelligence to achieve consciousness, Ex Machina was written and directed by Alex Garland, whose work on the likes of Sunshine, Dredd, and Annihilation have made him the go-to-guy for celluloid sci-fi right now.
The film revolves around genius Nathan, Ava, the AI he has created, and Caleb, a computer programmer whom Nathan tasks with judging whether Ava could pass as human. It's a film that asks tough questions of its characters, and as a by-product the audience, and as the power dynamics shift onscreen, so our sympathies change off it. It all results in a dark, cautionary tale that hints at a potentially terrifying future ahead.
10. The One I Love (2014)
The One I Love went under the radar in 2014, but if you're a fan of dark romantic comedy, it's well worth a look. Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are experiencing marital problems and visit a therapist, who in turn advises them to stay at a special secluded retreat. The pair give it a go, and Sophie is soon having sex with Ethan in the guest house. Only when she later reminds Ethan of their tryst, he has no recollection. Ethan then has a similarly strange encounter with Sophie in said guest house, which ends with her cooking bacon, something she's never done before.
If this all sounds a bit Moon, it is, as Ethan and Sophie have dopplegangers of their own. Though where that film was interested in examining the nature of humanity, The One I Love is concerned with holding a mirror up to marriage and relationships. It's an inventive story, and the two leads deliver a pair of superb performances, but thanks to the film's sometimes cynical take on love, and a darkly ambiguous ending, it's maybe not the best date movie.
11. Get Out (2017)
Before he revived The Twilight Zone, Jordan Peele made his directorial debut with a film that plays like an extended episode of the classic show. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, an African American man who agrees to meet his white girlfriend's parents. But as soon as he arrives at their beautiful house in the country, something seems awry. Their awkward interactions are initially played for laughs, but as Get Out progresses, events take a sinister turn, with Chris auctioned, hypnotized, and waking up strapped to a chair, his brain about to be replaced by that of a white person's.
It's a twisted, blackly comic tale that functions as a fantastic horror flick on the surface. But dig deeper and what emerges is a film about modern-day slavery, the marginalization of black people, the racism of the prison industrial complex, and even the appalling way in which African American characters are treated in horror. There's a lot going on, all of it perfect Twilight Zone material, making Peele very much the right man to bring the show back.