Now, of course, when you’re talking about this movie, it’s hard not to think about it being the Hollywood production that killed Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad and two child actors in a horrific helicopter accident. But put that aside for a moment and focus on the third segment of the film, “It’s a Good Life.” Directed by Gremlins guy Joe Dante, this segment is a remake of the famously creepy Twilight Zone episode of the same name, which featured Billy Mumy as Anthony, a child who holds an entire town hostage with his power to bend reality however to suit his own selfish, childish purposes. (Cloris Leachman stars as his tormented mother. If you have never seen it, do so. It’s great television.) In the movie version, Anthony is played by Jeremy Licht, the actor best-known for being one of the non-Jason Bateman Hogan Family sons. Nancy Cartwright plays Ethel, a character introduced as being Anthony’s sister, though she’s probably not; like everyone else in the “family,” she was probably beamed there by Anthony’s strange powers. Ethel’s none too happy about being Anthony’s captive, and she looks like a surly Tina Yothers.
One of the major departures from the original “It’s a Good Life” is the recurrent theme of old cartoons. Now, if you ever stop and think about old cartoons or if you ever watch them drunk and alone on some lonely weekend night, you’ll realize they’re actually quite creepy. Not sure what I mean? Watch this profoundly unsettling 1931 cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation” and you’ll quickly understand.
In truth, Sara (randomly played by Runaways frontwoman Cherie Currie) has no mouth — presumably because Anthony blinked it out of existence when she said something he didn’t like. Later, Anthony forces his uncle to perform a magic trick. When the uncle pulls the rabbit out of the hat, however, it’s a horrifying, three-dimensional version of a cartoon character, Tex Avery-style wild takes and all. Be warned: This is something that terrified me when I saw it as a kid, and it still unnerves me today.
Finally, the situation becomes unbearable for Ethel, and she tells Anthony off. Consequently, Anthony blinks Ethel into the cartoon world, where everything has a face and none of the faces look happy to see her. It’s nightmarish, and of course, it doesn’t end well, and the rest of the family helplessly watches from the living room and she dies onscreen.
(Excuse the low-quality footage, but reflect for a second that by watching the above clip, you’re watching a handheld camera pointed at a TV screen showing characters watching a TV screen, and you’re watching it all on a computer screen.)
Now — my big conclusion.
Isn’t it weirdly prophetic that Nancy Cartwright’s film debut would have her playing a character who literally gets consumed by a cartoon universe, and then she went on to be identified solely with voicing a single cartoon character? One of the most popular cartoon characters of all time? A character who’s easily better recognized than she is? Is it not especially interesting that Bart Simpson would eventually star in a later reworking of “It’s a Good Life”? Specifically that one “Treehouse of Horror” segment where superpowered Bart turns Homer into a living jack-in-the-box?
These are things I think about.