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Home » Culture and Criticism

Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case

Submitted by on September 29, 2008 – 11:05 AM25 Comments

Prior to reading the book, my primary association with Twilight Zone: The Movie was the profoundly creepy third segment, especially the shot of the sister with no mouth; I made the mistake of watching the movie on HBO as a kid, and that image has stayed with me since.(I don’t think I knew until looking it up just now that she’s played by Cherie Currie, which is a neat bit of casting.)Most other people remember John Lithgow’s segment, based on a story from the original series that featured William Shatner.

Vic Morrow’s death and those of the two children have receded in the public memory; I’ve had two dozen conversations in which Brandon Lee came up, and maybe one about the tragedy on the TZ set.I don’t remember having any contemporary awareness of the trial, either, which I guess is a function of my age at the time but also probably proceeds from our living in a different world now.In 2008, the footage would go up all over the internet within the week, and public opinion would play a far larger role in the trial.I don’t think John Landis could have kept working, which he did; I don’t think a jury could have let him off.It’s kind of shocking that a helicopter could fall on, and end, three people, two of them grade-schoolers, and then the justice system would have such difficulty apportioning responsibility — but life isn’t a Law & Order episode (more’s the pity at times), and the authors do an excellent job examining why and how this is true without leaning on overly simplistic power-of-celebrity explanations.

The book itself is quite good — it goes overboard with the SAT words in spots, but it moves a complex narrative along at a healthy clip and draws its conclusions carefully.(Some of it is a bit dated, through no fault of its own — the observations about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s career, accurate at the time of publication, land like bricks now — but you’ll recognize a majority of the players.)

And as fun as it is for those of us who enjoy that type of behind-the-scenes look at a Hollywood bomb in progress — I’ve probably read The Devil’s Candy four times — it also raises larger questions about how important we as a culture should make storytelling.You can defend Landis, up to a point and in the abstract, for insisting on realism despite the evident dangers and for breaking the rules in the pursuit of that realism.But the critical distinction here, the difference a calculated risk and tunnel vision that excludes safety or even listening to a different opinion, isn’t one Landis made.I do think that film is important, that good stories should mean as much as they do, but to not even pretend to value human life above a bitchin’ special-effects shot…there’s important, and there’s self-important.

It’s an interesting, disturbing series of events; it’s even more so because it’s not very well known.




  • tulip says:

    I read a little bit about this when I was in high school, though not much due to limitations of the time (no internet etc…). I’ll have to pick it up.

    I’m glad someone else has nightmares about that 3rd segment. The no mouth sister is something I still have trouble shaking off. The looks on everyone’s face of terrified forced happiness was also super scary to me too.

  • Rinaldo says:

    I think maybe it IS a function of one’s age. Because if someone were to mention “horrible on-location moviemaking tragedy,” the TWILIGHT ZONE incident is the first one I would think of. Even as I think back to it now, it seems so pointless and sickening (and avoidable, if only…).

    Clearly I need to read this book. Thanks for alerting me.

  • Jaybird says:

    Ugh, the horrible evil bunny and the hopping googly-faced monster. I had nightmares about those for YEARS. The no-mouth sister didn’t register w/me so much. Hmm.

  • Annie says:

    I’ve always meant to track down a copy of this book. I think I’ve had at least as many conversations about the TZ tragedy as the whole Brandon Lee thing. I dug The Devil’s Candy too — I was just talking about that book (and Melanie Griffith’s decision to get breast implants during production, really screwing up the boob continuity) the other day.

    I think you’re right — it’s hard to imagine the court case playing out the way it did today. And I think a lot more would have been made of John Landis and company’s attitude about the whole incident, which was “shit happens, now back to work, I’m sure that’s what our dead colleagues would want.”

  • Molly says:

    I had no idea this book existed! I’ll have to see if my library has it. I’ve not actually seen the movie, but I’m familiar with what happened on the set. Sounds like a must-read.

  • aks says:

    Oh my gosh, the only thing I remember from that movie is the image of the girl with no mouth. I STILL get totally freaked out by any image like that, all these years later. I just about could not watch the episode of the new Doctor Who in which people had their faces erased.

  • k says:

    I also wonder – would the stunt be as dangerous today? With increased CGI looking good-edness – I don’t know the right word – I just wonder if something like this would have happened in 2000, even, given what we can do now.

  • attica says:

    I read this when it came out (hoo-boy, that was a long time ago, eh?) and I remember being completely astonished that Landis continued to get work. I remember thinking that even if there wasn’t criminal consequence, he’d be run out of town for budget excess and other bottom-line unworthinesses.

    I often do not understand the Hollywood brain.

    Devil’s Candy? That book is so much fun, I can’t even stand it. Delicious schadenfreude on every blessed page.

  • Jen M. says:

    I’ve read this book several times over. I came away with the opinion (still held) that John Landis is a dangerous wingnut who should never have been allowed to direct a movie, ever again.

  • Jeanne says:

    I was barely even born yet when this all went down, so I wasn’t even aware that it’d happened at all until fairly recently. When I did hear about it I lost any respect for Landis that I might’ve had. All I can think of when I hear his name now is “Murderer.” It’s seriously tainted any movies of his that I like, even Blues Brothers.

  • KAB says:

    Man, do I ever hate it when the boob continuity gets screwed up! (Sorry, Annie, that just really made me giggle.)

    I, too, was freaked out by the third segment of that movie. When I saw the Black Hole Sun video by Soundgarden for the first time, I completely flashed back to that movie. Was there something about their faces being all stretchy as well or was I just putting the “happy faces, here he comes, HAPPY FACES!!” vibe onto the video? Either way, so creepy.

  • Margaret in CO says:

    Here’s a link to the Landis story: Those poor kids.

    TZ was the creepiest of the creepy TV shows, in my opinion. I liked Outer Limits, and Night Gallery too, but for goosebumps & nightmares & sleeping with a flashlight clutched in your fist, give me Twilight Zone!

  • The only segment I remember is the John Lithgow segment, though you intrigued me with the mouthless sister comments. I asked Google to tell me more, and it turns out the mouthless sister was played by Nancy Cartwright, aka Bart Simpson, which makes it even funnier that they spoofed that same story on a Simpsons Halloween special.

    …ok, maybe everyone else already knew that, but I thought it was interesting!

  • John A says:

    Just to clarify about the mouthed and the mouthless:

    Nancy Cartwright is in the segment, filling the more prominent role of the sister who is clashes with the powerful boy and is ultimately (*spoiler*) banished into the world of cartoons — prescient, huh? As Sars points out, Cherie Curie plays the secluded mouthless sister, so doomed prior to the events of the story, I believe.

  • evier says:

    OK, now my brain is hurting. There was a reference to this in a movie I saw (possibly a TV show, but I think a movie). There was a death on set and then a “blah blah would want us to continue filming” scene. I read later that it was in reference to what happened during the filming of The Twilight Zone movie. Does anyone remember what that was? It’s driving me nuts now.

    And also makes me want to read this book.

  • Soylent Green says:

    Thanks for the review, I so have to read the book.

    And count me in as someone who was traumatised by the mouthless sister. Well at least until I watched the movie as an adult and saw how fake it looked.

    Didn’t someone also die making Blue Brothers 2000? Not a great track record.

  • Rachel says:

    Ugh, mouthess sister creeped me out then and still sends me screaming from the room however many years later. Can. Not. Deal.

  • Cat says:

    @ evier – I know there’s a scene like that in an episode of Supernatural called “Hollywood Babylon,” where they’re investigating an apparently-haunted horror movie set. If it’s not that, I’m not sure.

  • Jackie says:

    Okay, am I the only one who thinks of this movie whenever they hear a Credence Clearwater Revival song? I just remember Dan Ackroyd with his “Credence, I love Credence” line. Oh, and “Do you want to see something really scary?” I unpack that line ALL the time.

  • dodsonic says:

    @evier– The new King Kong remake has the director character voicing similar sentiments after the deaths of 2 separate crew members.

  • Jaybird says:

    @Jackie: I can’t listen to ANY Creedence song without thinking of Lithgow’s blissed-out face. Totally ruins “Green River” and “Hey, Tonight”, and I grew up listening to those songs.

    @Soylent Green: Even if nobody died making that movie, I wanted to die while watching it, so it evens out. Feh.

  • John A says:


    The most jarring thing to me in the movie was easily the “do you want to see something really scary” segment. As a kid at that time, I had no frame of reference for Dan Aykroyd or Albert Brooks(!), so for me it was just two guys driving at night, cranking some tunes. The surprise turn gave me a good scare! I’m thinking the foley guy twisting on some bone-crunching celery contributed, too.

  • Lori says:

    Funny, I barely remember the mouthless girl, but that helicopter crash stayed with me … and almost the worst of it was that, after killing three people, the crash didn’t even look real in the film. It looked like someone dropped a toy helicopter onto a miniature set. WHICH IS WHAT THEY BLOODY WELL SHOULD HAVE BLOODY WELL DONE IN THE BLOODY FIRST PLACE.

  • CJB says:

    I CANNOT BELIEVE there are others who were as freaked out by that one random shot of the mouthless sister as I was. That image flashed in my head when I couldn’t sleep for YEARS. I always had the impression it was thought of as basically a dumb, unscary movie (and I was and am a HUGE wuss when it comes to scary movies in general), so I felt like an idiot that I was so traumatized by it. Now I feel all justified and stuff.

    I just hunted it down on YouTube ( if anyone wants to subject themselves to it) and I had to watch it with part of the screen covered with my hand. Heh.

    I also can’t believe it never clicked for me that the other sister was Nancy Cartwright. I know what Nancy Cartwright looks like, I can remember that sister as clear as day, I just never held them next to each other in my brain before.

    I had never heard about the on-set deaths, believe it or not — I want to read the book now too.

  • T.G. says:

    After all these years, I’ve never changed my opinion that Landis bears some criminal responsibility for the deaths of three people in the making of TZ: The Movie. Since from the perspective of today or even back then, it’s almost impossible to imagine an actor (Vic Morrow) along with two other children work not more than 25 feet from under the spinning blades of a helicopter while explosive charges are going off. Just defies all common sense.
    Also, I gather as well that one of the jurors has gone on to say that the jury members as a whole got the judge’s instructions wrong on what constitutes criminal responsibility. From Landis and others having some suspicion of the inherent dangers to actually having direct knowledge but proceeding anyway. And so, how can anyone have direct knowledge of an outcome from a planned stunt?
    So Landis and others should have been convicted and made to serve time for involuntary manslaughter. Just as the rest of us would have done without the millions of dollars to spend for lawyers. Because this kind of negligence speaks volumes. Mostly to his eagerness to capitalize of the lives of others for financial gain.

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