Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Shatner Week: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

This TV movie, The Horror at 37,000 Feet -- from 1973 -- has not, historically, received a lot of love from critics or audiences.  

It stars William Shatner as an alcoholic ex-priest, and even Shatner’s die-hard fans, believe that the movie is the worst production the icon has ever been associated with.

Well, I’m going to buck conventional wisdom a bit and give the telefilm a little much-needed love today.  And, of course, Shatner is great, as always, in this film.

Although it is undeniably a cheap-jack production -- with virtually no resources upon which to draw -- The Horror at 37,000 Feet does succeed in effectively generating a sense of terror. 

And it does so the old fashioned way. 

Largely by hiding the titular horror from our eyes, and letting, instead, film grammar “sell” the scares.  

First, a confession: I first saw this made-for-TV movie as a child, and it terrified me.  

I have recalled, for probably three decades, isolated moments or images from The Horror at 37,000 Feet, such as a gaudily made-up baby doll “oozing” green death, or an unlucky passenger ejected from a plane in flight into the infinite sky at dawn. 

I suspect that these images resonate, in part because director, David Lowell Rich, realized he had very few options. He had to marshal all the (meager) resources he had to create images that carried frightful impact.

There was no budget, apparently, to showcase bells and whistles. The was no budget to reveal the face of evil, to orchestrate elaborate special effects, or even afford the audience a single, solitary gaze at the “haunted” Druid altar that informs the film’s supernatural scares.

So Rich, instead, figured out, in many instances, how he could heighten suspense or anxiety utilizing visual compositions.  I’ll write about a few of those in this review. But long story short: he picks the right tools for the right job. He finds the best angles to utilize -- at key moments -- to ramp up feelings of discomfort and ambiguity.

Essentially, his approach of necessity -- not to really show anything – echoes the movie’s narrative, which concerns a plane flight wherein something dark and malevolent mysteriously suspends the laws of physics. 

It’s not clear what that force is -- Satan, Druids, or H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones -- but for one night, the summer solstice, this unseen power exerts control over one tiny corner of the human world.

Sure, the actors are mostly 1970s TV has-beens (Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Connors, Russell Johnson) and the writing is muddled at times. 

But consider that the scariest movies aren’t always the ones that make the most rational sense, or which present the clearest explanations of things.  

Sometimes the best ones are those in which “sense,” as we understand it, is almost graspable, and then, suddenly lost. We are scared by uncertainty, after all, not certainty.

Whether intentional or not, this kind of irrationality also echoes the dream language of nightmares.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet is a modest but effective little nightmare, for certain.

“The air feels funny tonight.”

AOA Flight 19X leaves Heathrow Airport by darkest night, bound for Long Island, New York.  It is a cargo flight with only a few passengers aboard.  

Among those passengers: a defrocked priest, Paul Kovalik (Shatner), a cranky business-man, Farley (Ebsen), a British physician, Dr. Enkalia (Paul Winfield), a model (France Nuyen), and an architect, O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) and his wife, Sheila (Jane Merrow)

The cargo in the hold belongs to O’Neill. He is transporting in a large crate the stones of an ancient altar found in an English abbey, from his wife’s land.  The O’Neills' decision to remove the ancient stones from their native soil is a source of controversy, especially for another passenger, Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes).

Once in flight, strange things begin to occur. 

The pilot (Connors) and flight crew are shocked when the plane appears to be suspended in air, using fuel, but not moving. At first the crew suspects a dangerous, powerful head-wind. But even upon turning around, the plane can make no progress through the skies.

Then Mrs. O’Neill faints, and after awakening, speaks words in Latin.  Paul identifies them as words used in a Satanic black mass.

The force in the cargo hold soon breaks loose, trapping an attendant on an elevator, and freezing Mrs. Pinder’s dog, Damon, solid.  It then kills a flight engineer (Johnson).

Soon, strange green ectoplasm begins appearing all over the plane in flight, and the passengers panic. 

They believe that they must sacrifice a passenger, preferably Mrs. O’Neill, to the dark forces manifesting on the jet.

But Kovalik -- who has lost his faith -- chooses to confront the terror for one just one glimpse of the supernatural world.

“We’re caught in a wind like there never was.”

I could easily make the case, as many other reviewers have done, that The Horror at 37,000 Feet is a bad movie.’:

That argument would look like this:

First, the movie is unoriginal in setting and conflict.  At heart, it’s just another a 1970s Airport movie, about a plane in flight experiencing some form of existential jeopardy. 

Been there, done that.

I could even go outside the “plane-in-flight” genre and note that as a horror production, this telefilm has superior antecedents. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a classic episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) certainly generated scares aplenty, and it also featured William Shatner in a starring role.

So I could argue, without much effort that The Horror at 37,000 Feet is overly familiar, a retread.

I might also note the film’s inherent cheapness. As I noted in my introduction to this review, we never even see the altar that is the cause of the terror. It is crated up. Hidden from the eye.  After a few scenes set an airport, we're on the plane for the whole movie. On the upside, this does generate a feeling of claustrophobia, at least.

And yes, the teleplay mixes up Devil Worship, Paganism and H.P. Lovecraft willy-nilly. All those aspects of the apparent “occult” are thrown into a cocktail blender and mixed, none-too-elegantly.

Then, finally, you have the actors chewing the (very limited) scenery, and a total lack of visual effects to back up the horror.

As Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999) once noted (of a different production) “Bad movie? You’re soaking in it.”

But let’s travel beyond surface values for a moment and dig a little deeper.  

What The Horror at 37,000 Feet truly concerns is an outbreak of the irrational and supernatural in a world explicitly of the modern, the technological, the reasonable. Something older than Christianity itself awakens and seizes control of state-of-the-art human technology, a plane in flight.

Just the sight of this thing can kill you. It can freeze your blood.

And the old, irrational force, cannot be reckoned with using science, engineering, or any “daylight” recourse. 

The flight team attempts maneuvers to escape the strange, inexplicable jetstream…all of which are (impossibly) ineffective.  The interior of the plane freezes, even though the jet’s skin or hull has not been breached.  And all over the plane, outbreaks of ectoplasm -- green goo -- sprout up.

In total, the forces of the irrational and nightmarish are infecting the plane, coming into the sunshine world of reality. It's a highly localized invasion, of a sort.

What does the Dark Force want?  The passengers become a mob and settle on human sacrifice as the best answer.  What do they sacrifice? Well, Mr. Farley burns all of his money. The wealthy businessman who has spent his life negotiating profitable deals immediately forsakes his God (capitalism) to save his life. How quickly he gives up a lifetime of greed and avarice in the face of something he can’t rationally grapple with.

But it is Paul’s journey which I find the most fascinating.  He has given up his life as a priest because he never saw one iota of the Divine. All he wanted was one second of validation for his belief system that God exists.  He never got it. And he turned to the bottle for comfort and succor.

Finally, Paul gets the opportunity to confront something beyond the concrete, beyond the rational. He dies for one peek at the “world beyond” ours. What he sees is terrifying, but also, ironically, a confirmation of the life he abandoned.  

As Dr. Enkalia notes, “If there are Devils, there must also be Gods.”

I’ve written before about the Zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s, leading up to the premiere of Star Wars (1977). It was an era of intense cynicism and doubt in America, and in the pop culture. We lost a war, we had a president resign in disgrace, and one of our most popular weekly periodicals asked the question, on its cover, no less: “Is God Dead?”

We all seemed to be brooding in a state of existential angst and uncertainty.

The horror genre responded in full force to this period of questioning, and from 1967 – 1976 we saw a slew of films raising our doubts: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and beyond.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet is preoccupied with the same questions. It is of a piece with that historical and entertainment context. As it acknowledges with its settings, we’ve created a world of amazing technology and innovation. But are we spiritual beings

And is there a spiritual order to the universe beyond the gadgets and forces we harness through science?

With no real budget to speak of, and no special effects, either, The Horror at 37,000 Feet visualizes an incursion of the supernatural realm into the realm of “reality.”  The director deploys some terrific shots to do so.

Consider the moment, for example, wherein a flight attendant becomes trapped in a rapidly freezing elevator. The window is a narrow, vertical rectangle. But the director doesn’t limit our view to the glass. Instead, he shows us the whole door, so that as the flight attendant screams for help, her visual space in the frame is constricted by a considerable amount. She is inside a box within a box, to put it another way, trapped.  

In a way, that’s a metaphor for all the passengers.  They are trapped on a plane, a box of another sort, with no possibility of escape. Science has put them there (at 37,000 Feet), but the unknown is holding them there.

Secondly, as I’ve noted above, the film is about Paul’s desire and attempt to see the forces beyond human understanding. As The Horror at 37,000 Feet nears its conclusion, the perspective switches --for the only time in the movie, if memory serves -- to a P.O.V. shot. 

Clutching a torch, and moving to the darkened back of the cabin (and the source of the terror), Paul approaches his moment of discovery.  

It quickly becomes -- through the subjective camera angle -- our moment of discovery too. We see a fleeting glimpse of a person shrouded in a cloak.

And then we get the pay-off. An extreme close-up of Paul’s face as he sees his “proof” of the other world. It is a moment not of transcendence, but utter, soul-shredding terror.  I know that many film lovers and critics love to dismiss Shatner as hammy or over-the-top in his acting choices. But it is his reaction shot, lensed in that extreme close-up that serves as the punctuation for the whole movie.  

Paul gets his wish to see the other “reality,” and what he sees is so terrible that he cannot reckon with it. 

I would say Shatner pulls this moment off with great success.

When Paul is ejected from the plane, however, terror gives way to something else.  We see him in the sky, at dawn. The sun is emerging

He will die, of course, and yet the order of the universe (the sun rising and setting) is restored. Paul paid for his glimpse of the “the Old Ones” with his life, but the next shot suggests the restoration of order, and perhaps, then, even the journey to Heaven.

Another sequence in the film is also well-shot.  Late in the story, the passengers decide to attempt to trick the Old Ones. They use a child’s baby doll as a sacrifice. They cut Sheila’s hair and fingernails, and put it on the hunk of plastic.  

Then, they give the doll to the dark force.

This sinister power sees through the trick, instantly, and green, bilious ectoplasm pours forth from the toy.  

This is a creepy moment that requires virtually nothing in terms of expense. It is dream horror at its finest, bringing the doll to life, in a sense, as the lifeblood of The Other Side boils up within it.

I don’t argue that Horror at 37,000 Feet is a great production, or one of the all-time great horror films, only that it has something that makes it effectively unsettling.  

That something, as I've hopefully pinpointed, is likely a grounding in the language of film grammar.  The shots, in some weird way, enhance the irrationality of the teleplay, and therefore bring forward the idea of an irrational horror, and a time and place where -- for a horrifying 71 minutes -- two worlds seem to collide.

I find that many 1970s TV films manage to be extremely frightening, even today. This isn’t merely because my generation experienced them in childhood. It’s because they were made in a time when American society was questioning the pillars of our nation (faith, and patriotism), and because they were cheap as Hell.

If they were to work at all, the talents making telefilms such as The Horror at 37,000 Feet had to find (cheap) ways to showcase the horror in unusual but effective ways.

On those grounds, The Horror at 37,000 Feet may be silly and muddled and hammy, but it sure as Hell sticks the landing.

1 comment:

  1. I've never seen this telefilm, but your review is sharp, as expected. The joke is now a cornucopia of visual effects could be done for very little money. But the question is: Would a pasting of VFX make this film any better?


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