Monday, March 03, 2008

The Shat at 20,000 Feet

As I reported last week, I've been (in my spare time...hah!) screening episodes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone with a special eye towards the photography and the camera set-ups (in anticipation of Season Three of The House Between). So, in the wee hours of this morning, not long after the bewitching hour, I watched The Twilight Zone's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner. It aired originally on October 11, 1963, and is one of the show's most legendary efforts. It's one of those stories that has become part of the American pop culture lexicon, and seems to have effortlessly survived the test and passage of time (and was even remade, in 1983's Twilight Zone: the Movie).

You all know the plot by now: a man named Robert Wilson (age 37), played by William Shatner, has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by "over-stress" and "under confidence." The incident that spurred his six months in a sanitarium occurred on a plane in flight...

Now, apparently well again, Bob and his wife Ruth (Christine White) take a plane ride home, returning to the scene of the crime as it were, but this time the flight's trajectory is through "the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone," and an increasingly hysterical Robert Wilson is certain he sees a man - a gremlin - walking on the wing of the plane in flight. As the plane flies into a storm and is buffeted by turbulence, the pesky gremlin rips up the cowling plate on one of the engines, leaving Wilson no choice but to take matters into his own hands...

I'll be blunt: if there is a more pitch-perfect half-hour of horror television in the medium's history, I haven't seen it. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which I've watched probably a dozen times, loses none of its power (or terror...) on repeat viewing. In fact, only seconds after the episode begins, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck one by one and you get the shivers. In a word, this episode is riveting.

I watched with a close critical eye this time, attempting to determine the precise alchemy that makes the installment transcend weak special effects (a hairy fat gremlin with padded feet!) and its original 1960s context. I came up with three points, which I suppose are obvious, but which bear examination nonetheless.

1. Matheson's screenplay. Don't get me started on my Matheson worship, because I'll be here all day. He's an incredible writer who contributed many great Twilight Zones (including the one I looked at last week, "Death Ship.") But what he has done here is authentically worth excavating. In general, the feeling of "terror" is one that is best exploited on film and television when two concepts come together in perfect unison. Those concepts are: vulnerability and universality of human experience.

Allow me to explain. Psycho is scary, because of the infamous shower scene. Why? Well, because In the shower we are all naked and therefore vulnerable. Our sight is limited because there's a curtain occluding our view of the world. And our hearing is limited too by the sound of the pounding water. We can't hear footsteps approaching. perhaps more importantly, we have all taken showers: it's a universal experience we share. Ditto with the great white shark in Jaws. The water isn't our terrain, it's the shark's (making us vulnerable) and all of us (or most of us...) have gone swimming in the ocean (so the experience is universal and common.)

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" locates another situation in which we are vulnerable or out-of-control, a "routine" air flight and once more, this is an experience the vast majority of us has shared. I'll never forget my flight back from the the 1999 Los Angeles "Breakaway" Convention. We were eastern bound over the Rockies when the plane hit five minutes of intense, unyielding turbulence. Food trays turned over, the food cart careened down the aisle into a passenger, and for what felt like an eternity there was non-stop pounding and shaking all around. It was - truly - one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Kathryn was sitting to one side of me, a woman (a stranger...) was sitting on the other, and it got so bad that we all ended up holding hands for the duration of the event. After it was over, this woman told us a story about another flight she had been on; a night-flight bound for Georgia. During the journey there was a serious storm - lightning, thunder, the whole works - and in one minute the plane plunged 10,000 feet.

Matheson's screenplay captures the universal fears associated with flying in a way that not merely makes us feel vulnerable, but which we all can relate to. The sound of the engines revving up (a kind of harbinger for tension...), the no-smoking sign, the flight attendant, the emergency exit, the seat-belts...all the facets of "routine" flight experience are here, but tweaked for maximum terror. From the moment "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" begins, we are primed for anxiety because we relate -- boy do we relate -- to Robert Wilson's situation.

2. Richard Donner's direction. I admire Donner's work tremendously and on the Zone he directed one of my favorite episodes, "Come Wander with Me." His direction of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is enormously efficient and successful without being overtly flashy. For instance, he focuses a lot on insert shots. Of those "No Smoking" lights flashing, on the instructions for releasing the emergency exit, and so forth. In other words, if this is a war, Donner is showing us the details of the battle field, of the terrain. Again, we recognize these things, we relate.

Secondly, as is often appropriate for horror, Donner deploys "tight framing" for much of the episode. We're often in close-up mode on Shatner's expressive face (glistening with sweat...) or spying him through a visual "cage" of sorts, a frame-within-a-frame (the brackets of the window looking out upon the wing). The effect of the "large" close-ups of objects and of Shatner himself is what I sometimes term the fishbowl effect. It's like we're right there, in that tin can with Shatner. It's claustrophobic and terror inducing.

There's also some nice subliminal imagery in the episode. Rod Serling offers his trademark staccato narration in front of an airport gate. Emblazoned behind him in giant letters (all caps) - stretching across the frame - is a single word: TERMINAL. Now, of course, that word carries a double meaning in this situation, doesn't it? Not just an airport terminal...but the fear we all face when we board the plane and the doors slam shut for the last time. That we are, in fact...terminal.

And last but not least...

3. The Shat. Before he portrayed Captain Kirk, William Shatner was apparently known in Hollywood for having one of the best screams in the business. This episode of the Twilight Zone, and an episode of The Outer Limits ("Cold Hands, Warm Heart") seem to support that assertion. I know this sounds weird but I mean it as a compliment: few actors -- few men, especially -- of the 1960s better express hysteria. Some may insist that Shatner goes over the top with his wide-eyed performance, but I don't think so. The part called for hysteria, and he plays that emotion brilliantly.

John Lithgow played the same part in the 1983 Twilight Zone movie and didn't do as well, frankly. It wasn't his fault, so much as the change in the nature of the role, perhaps. Lithgow played a weirdo, someone who wasn't really likable and who - even before he saw the gremlin on the wing - seemed to be a nutcase. This choice in screenplay, direction in performance undercuts my first point in this post. If we can't relate to a character, we can't feel vulnerable for him. In the case of Shatner, and the TV series version, we have a character who - despite a mental health problem - is not that different from any of us. He's a man trying to hold on to his sanity, but a man who is likable and good. We relate to Shatner in a way we don't with Lithgow.

One aspect of Shatner's performance I love is the pride he brings to the character. At one point, the flight engineer comes back to the passenger section to talk to Wilson. Wilson desperately tells him the gremlin is monkeying with the engine on the wing, and the flight engineer begins to calmly explain that he knows. He says that the pilots are aware of the problem and are working on it, and that the flight crew needs Mr. Wilson to keep quiet, so as not to alarm the passengers.

This is where Shatner's performance is utterly brilliant. In one instant - literally in seconds - his face changes from one of terror and paranoia to one of relief and vindication, and then - not a second later - changes to something else entirely. He realizes the pilot is lying to him, that he is trying to "handle" Wilson. All of this gets reflected on Shatner's face in fast succession (in close-up), and we really identify with the guy. "Get out of here," he tells the pilot. "
I'll keep quiet. I'll see us crash first..."

Now I just have to figure how to do a variation of this story on The House Between. Arlo: "There's a gremlin on the door of my oven." Not quite the same thing, but I'll keep thinking about "A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet..."


  1. Anonymous1:19 PM

    Every William Shatner fan should see his 1961 film "THE INTRUDER", written by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont and directed by Roger Corman. It's available on DVD. Shatner plays a charismastic racist on the loose in the deep south. Once you've seen this film, you'll never forget it....Shatner is utterly compelling.

  2. In response to your assertion that Shat was known for his scream back in the day, I have three words for you: MR. TAMBOURINE MAN!

    (I kid because I love.)