11 Great Independent Movies That Play Like Extended Twilight Zone Episodes
Who doesn’t love The Twilight Zone? Whilst not the first of its type, The Twilight Zone television series, which consisted of unrelated stories from various genres like science fiction, horror, mystery, fantasy, suspense and thrillers, remains the most popular amongst these types of anthology series.
Starting with the original television series, which ran from 1959 to 1964, the show has had enormous success and was followed by two more television shows in the eighties and noughties, a feature film adaptation from 1983 with contributions by Steven Spielberg, George Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller, as well as a radio show and various comics, books and magazines, which all took their inspiration from the show.
The films listed here, however, are not directly related to The Twilight Zone franchise at all but certainly have the same spirit and probably owe more than a bit of inspiration to many of The Twilight Zone’s classic episodes. I have tried to stick to smaller independent features for two main reasons.
First of all, it increases the chances that you’ll come across a suggestion which you might not know yet. Secondly, smaller productions seem to have more in common with the spirit of the source material, as part of the charm of the television series were the smaller television budgets, which forced the makers to focus on original story lines and twists as well as creative and limited use of visuals effects and production value.
All the films listed here have some sort of fantastical element to them without the use of large scale set pieces an expensive special effects. Most of them are set in basically one location, often to stay within budget restrictions. And all of them explore their fantastical premise through quality screen writing, characterisation, dialogue and clever plot twists.
Whilst applying the term Twilight Zone-like to non-Twilight Zone properties might be fairly subjective, we hope that fans of the series will find some smaller unknown gems here to quench their appetite for further trips down the dimension of imagination.
11. Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2012)
A fantasy comedy-drama from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who previously directed Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks was written by Zoe Kazan who also plays the titular character alongside Paul Dano as the writer who creates her.
Ruby Sparks tells the story of author Calvin (Dano), whose earlier success in the literary scene has made way for self-doubt. Spurred on by his therapist (Elliot Gould), he creates a new character, Ruby (Kazan), which he bases on his idea of the perfect girl, and from the moment he does so, Calvin starts to feel inspired again.
But when a week later Ruby actually materialises in his apartment, Calvin initially thinks he has gone mad until he realises the girl somehow is the real deal and that he can control her every move by just writing about her. At first Calvin thinks he has hit the jackpot, but he soon comes to realise how hard it is to actually be in full control over somebody else’s fate.
Ruby Sparks benefits greatly from its impressive cast. Dano is solid as ever and complimented nicely by Zoe Kazan as Ruby (who also wrote the screenplay) whilst also being supported by Elliott Gould, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as his therapist, mum and her boyfriend respectively.
Well written, witty and with plenty of charm, Ruby Sparks is worth checking out if you liked Little Miss Sunshine, any of the great cast or just a nice little romantic comedy with some fantastical elements. The film won Zoe Kazan a Breakthrough Artist Award from the Detroit Film Critic Society and she also received a nomination for Best Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards for her work.
10. Cheap Thrills (E.L. Katz, 2013)
E.L. Katz, who started his career in the film industry as a writer, producer and collaborator of acclaimed horror director Adam Wingard, delivered his own directorial debut with Cheap Thrills, a darkly comedic thriller which saw its premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin Texas in 2013 although the film didn’t get an official release until the following year.
Cheap Thrills tells the story of two old friends, Vince and Craig (Ethan Embry and Pat Healy), who by chance meet each other in a bar one night. Craig has just lost his job as a mechanic and when the two are approached by a rich couple, Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton), to participate in some dares for money to provide entertainment for Violet’s birthday , they can’t resist the money on offer.
What starts off as a simply dare to see who can drink their drink fastest, quickly escalates into more dangerous and outrageous challenges as Colin keeps increasing the offered payout. Soon the two old friends find themselves at the rich couple’s home and tensions rise as they try outdo each other for the ever increasing amounts of money on offer and the ever increasingly sick dares.
That is until Vince tells Craig that he has seen a large sum of money in the house and the two start scheming to rob the couple blind, which of course only gets them into deeper trouble.
With a fun and clever screenplay written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga (who wrote the even more disturbing Deadgirl a few years earlier), Cheap Thrills is a seriously misanthropic thrill ride which gets the viewer drawn in from the very start and constantly keeps them guessing where this increasingly escalating twisted game is heading.
The cast is uniformly good, with David Koechner seemingly having a great time portraying his character, and if you like your entertainment dark and humorous, Cheap Thrills should be right up your alley. The film won the Audience Award for Best Midnight Film at SXSW and a bunch of other awards (mainly for Best Film and Director) at a variety of International Fantastic Film Festivals, including Fantasia, CinEuphoria and the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Fest.
9. Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij, 2011)
The first great indie flick co-written by as well as starring Brit Marling on this list is Sound of My Voice. And just like the other entry on this list, which we’ll get to later, Sound of My Voice also was a feature film directorial debut for its director, in this case Zal Batmanglij.
Peter and Lorna are two wannabe documentary filmmakers who have gone to great lengths to infiltrate a cult headed by a woman called Maggie (Marling) who claims to have travelled back in time from the year 2054. The two want to expose the cult and its leader as dangerous frauds but as time goes by and as they are more exposed to Maggie, Peter starts to get seduced by the enigmatic leader, causing tension between him and Lorna.
When Peter, who is a teacher during the day, is asked to bring one of his students into the cult by Maggie and is willing to grant this request, Lorna believes he has gotten himself in way too deep. She starts co-operating with the authorities, who have been trying to arrest Maggie as they claim she is wanted for a series of felonies in various states.
Sound of My Voice’s greatest strength is its ambiguity. The film walks a very fine line, where it doesn’t give any more information than it has to, and manages to always keep the viewer guessing on whether Maggie is a fraud or actually the real deal.
Zal Batmanglij manages to get a lot out of very little, infusing the whole film with an extremely unsettling atmosphere, and also manages to coach some great performances from his cast, especially from lead Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with him.
Sound of My Voice won its director the Directors to Watch Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and was nominated for Best First Feature and Best Supporting Female at the Independent Spirit Awards.
8. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, 2014)
A mix between comedy, drama, romance and a healthy dose of science-fiction, The One I Love is the 2014 feature length directorial debut of Charlie McDowell and stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as the two/four leads.
Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie (Moss) have been in a rut and it looks like their marriage might be falling apart. Trying to salvage the situation, they have decided to go into therapy and at the recommendation of their therapist (Ted Danson), the couple decides to go away for the weekend and rent a luxurious villa in the country.
Initially everything seems fine but very soon after their arrival odds things start happening and it doesn’t take long for the couple to figure out that slightly more relaxed and fun copies of themselves seem to live in the guest house, which is part of the property. And what was supposed to be a relaxing getaway in order to resolve their issues, instead becomes a bizarre conundrum, leading to far more complex relationship issues.
The One I Love’s greatest asset is once again its screenplay, which effortlessly balances comedic, dramatic, romantic and science fiction elements without ever feeling forced or unnatural.
Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are the only two actors in the film (apart from a brief appearance from Ted Danson at the very start of the movie as their therapist) and they are completely convincing as both their initial selves as well as their more upbeat and hip copies, thereby making it easy for the viewer to suspend their disbelief and just go with this outrageous concept whilst also making some insightful observations about love and relationships.
Credit should also go to director Charlie McDowell, who delivers a really assured debut feature. Elisabeth Moss received an Outstanding Achievement in Acting Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival for her work on the film.
7. Predestination (The Spierig Brothers, 2014)
Based on the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein, Predestination is an Australian science fiction film directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, aka The Spierig Brothers. The two had already made two previous features together, but Predestination marks the point where they really start getting into their own and actually provide a fresh and original take on the time travel genre.
The whole point of the narrative is its intricate web of time travel conundrums. Suffice to say that the film deals with an organisation known as The Temporal Bureau which sends its “temporal agents” through time to prevent crimes before they occur.
The bureau is headed by Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor) who sends one of its agents (Ethan Hawke) on his last mission before he will be decommissioned, just after he has returned from a semi-successful assignment, which saw him prevent a bombing by the “Fizzle Bomber”, the only criminal to constantly elude the bureau throughout time.
This time the agent is sent to 1970 where he meets a man, who writes a column for a magazine under the guise of being a woman. The two get to talking and the man bets the agent that he can tell him the most incredible story and that if he does, he’ll be owed a bottle of whiskey.
So starts the story of Jane (Sarah Snook), an orphaned girl who grows up to be recruited for the Space Corps, until medical tests discover an anomaly, which disqualifies her and sets in motion a series of events which will have everything to do with the Fizzle Bomber, the Agent and even the Temporal Bureau itself.
Another film where a lot is achieved with relatively little, although at times the budget restrains do show, Predestination is an extremely intricate yet fresh take on the time travel concept. Without giving anything away, the film thrives on the conundrums and paradoxes of time travel and even goes out of its way to actually overcomplicate them.
Whilst that might sound as a criticism, it actually works in the film’s favour and is what makes it feel as an original take on some ideas you have seen before. Whilst it isn’t perfect movie, it’s a major step forward for the Spierig Brothers and it will be very interesting to see where they go from here.
Predestination won Best Sci-Fi Film and Best Screenplay at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, where it also received Second Prize for Best Film from the Audience Awards.
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