Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s.
This week’s entry heads to the skies for an intercontinental flight through hell itself! Okay, it’s just a trip across the Atlantic ocean, but for the ten passengers, five crew members, and one unfortunate pupsicle aboard, it’s a flight filled with danger, death, and other devilish tomfoolery. Now join me as we take a trip back to the 1970s with a TV movie about the dangers of flying in coach. And in first class. And at all. It’s time we look skyward towards… The Horror at 37,000 Feet!
When: February 13th, 1973
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the departures gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of love and kindness, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that evil is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there — fathers killing their sons, mothers sucker punching their daughters, husbands and wives doing each other dirty over their boyfriends and girlfriends, old friends subscribing to terrible magazines in each other’s names. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that evil actually is all around. And on this particular night at Heathrow, some of it is boarding a flight bound for New York City.
Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) is a renowned architect — he can’t tell you he’s a necessarily good one, but he’s definitely successful — and he’s chartered this off-schedule flight for the sole purpose of carrying an old altar back to NY to use as the centerpiece in a cool new bar he’s designing. His wife Sheila’s (Jane Merrow) along for the ride, as is a woman named Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes) whose distaste and hatred for O’Neill has led her to book a ticket on the same flight. The remainder of the sparse passenger manifest includes a bitter ex-preacher (William Shatner) prone to angry poetry, his guitar-playing lady friend (Darleen Carr), a boastful businessman (Buddy Ebsen), a wannabe Rick Dalton (Will Hutchins), a model (France Nuyen), an unnecessarily British Paul Winfield, and a little blond girl inexplicably flying alone. Rounding out the human occupants are a pair of flight attendants and a three-man cockpit which includes Chuck Connors and the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. The cargo hold is where the action’s at, though, as in addition to a fur baby named Damon there’s an angry demon fighting its way out from an altar that once played host to human sacrifices.
They’re barely out over the ocean when the plane seems to freeze in place. “We’re caught in a wind like none there ever was,” says the fairly eloquent captain, and he’s not kidding. Except this wind? It’s coming from inside the plane! It reeks of evil and patchouli, its touch can freeze flesh solid, and its slow move through the plane’s cabin comes paired with bubbly mud and voices only Sheila can hear. Most of these people are seemingly intelligent and modern, but when the evidence suggests that something wicked is afoot they quickly panic and turn to superstition and fear to guide their next move. You guessed it… the demon must be sated with a human sacrifice.
In case the presence of Shatner as a rebellious and lecherous ex-priest in a tasteful jacket/sweater combo didn’t give it away, yes, The Horror at 37,000 Feet has some cheesy fun up its otherwise fairly mundane sleeves. Director David Lowell Rich had a nearly forty year career on television with some of his better known efforts including 1973’s Satan’s School for Girls — Rich helmed a whopping eight TV movies in 1973 — and episodes of The Twilight Zone, Route 66, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Writers Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan were equally busy on the boob tube with one of their previous efforts, 1971’s Paper Man, being the very first film covered in this column. A better variation of this tale hit US shores nine months later with the arrival of Horror Express, a feature film that traps a bunch of name talents on a train carrying something ancient and evil that subsequently gets loose and hungry for homicide, but this spooky plane ride still finds ways to entertain on the small screen.
And by “ways” I do mostly mean William freaking Shatner who presumably hasn’t flown again since that time ten years prior when he had a nightmare at 20,000 feet.
70s TV movie budgets being what they were, the effects here are kept to a real minimum. Exterior shots of the plane are clearly a model, the demon is never glimpsed in any form beyond ice, mud, and a dude in a robe — we’ll get to him shortly — and it’s instead probable that most of that meager budget went to attracting this cast. I kid, but both Shatner and Connors are big guns delivering the big performances you expect. The former shifts moods constantly but never wavers in intensity meaning lines like “The grotesque practices of a primitive cult that was stamped out by the coming of Christ” and “You don’t want a priest Mr. Farlee, you want a parachute” are delivered with equal gusto.
There’s definite fun to be had with dialogue and facial expressions, and yes, Shatner wins on that second count with a real doozy at the end. It’s ultimately an entertaining 73 minute watch, but its biggest issue is that even with a small cast the death toll is ridiculously low. As in two dead people. Two! I’d say this demon is just pretty bad at its job, but it’s more likely the fault of the script that spends so much time setting up false threats before finally deciding to go the route of “crazy mob fueled by religious fear” that something like The Mist (2007) handles so much better. Not enough time is given to it before Ebsen’s cranky businessman and the young western actor decide their only option is to toss someone to the devil sludge. They take a practice stab with the little girl’s doll by dressing it up whore-like (?) and securing Sheila’s hair and fingernail clippings to it, but the demon isn’t having it obviously.
Instead of offing various characters like it should have, the script teases relevance that never comes. The creepy dog owner — who also happens to be the one furious that the altar is on board — asks the Captain to go down and talk to her dog Damon, and as he walks away she smiles even more creepily. What’s up with that? Winfield and his British accent suggests something mysterious with his brief contributions to conversation, but that goes nowhere fast too. What’s Shatner’s beef with the church that turned him into such a booze-hungry, sanctimonious prick (who tells his girlfriend that he’s thinking of becoming a doctor because of the “power they have over women”)? Why is Sheila the only one hearing voices? If it’s a demon in the stone altar why does an actual Druid show up in the end to give Shatner a case of the hilarious heebie jeebies? Hell, why don’t we ever even see the damn altar?!
The Horror at 37,000 Feet would have been greatly improved by either paying some of those questions off or by killing more people. Seriously, two deaths? Shameful. (Hell, I would have even settled with Shatner whispering that he saw something on the wing…) Still, as it stands this is a fun little watch for fans of what 70s TV horror often did best — collecting familiar TV faces in a single location and then unleashing budget appropriate hell.
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Related Topics: 4:3 & Forgotten, William Shatner