Horror at 37,000 Feet

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos




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Horror at 37,000 Feet  (TV-movie, 1972, dir: David Lowell Rich; scp: V.X. Appleton, Ron Austin, James Buchanan; cast: Chuck Connors, Buddy Ebsen, Tammy Grimes, Lynn Loring, Jane Merrow, France Nuyen, William Shatner, Roy Thinnes, Paul Winfield, Will Hutchins, Darleen Carr, Brenda Benet, Russell Johnson, H.M. Wynant, Mia Bendixsen)




Horror at 37,000 Feet can be described as a haunted house on a plane. Loopy but fun, it blends elements from two 1970s genres: supernatural horror TV (Ghost Story/Circle of Fear, The Night Stalker, Night Gallery, Trilogy of Terror, The Darkroom, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Gargoyles), and airplane disaster films.

Roy Thinnes is one of those greedy, foolish modern men who disdain the supernatural. His wife, Jane Merrow, is from a very old and rich English family, the kind with lots of spooky ancestral stuff on her estate. In her case, a Druid altar.

Thinnes charters a Boeing 747 jumbo jet to fly the altar to the US.

That's right -- an entire 747 just for him and his altar. One of those big double-decker behemoths so common to airplane disaster films. Seems the altar is so heavy, only a big plane can carry it. Odd, that Thinnes was unable to find a cargo jet capable of the job. Nor a ship. But, time is of the essence, for some flimsy reason.

Still, it serves a purpose. If you're gonna do a haunted house film, you can only have a few people, isolated in a dark environment. A 747 is pretty isolated up in the sky, but those jumbo jets normally carry 100+ passengers. That's too crowded for a haunted house. But whereas Thinnes has chartered this passenger jet, he's got it all to himself, his wife, and his altar down in cargo.

Well, there are a few other passengers.

About a dozen people, unrelated to Thinnes, also purchased tickets for the flight. Perhaps the deal was that the airline try and defray Thinnes's cost. Why so few passengers bought tickets for a popular route (London to America) is unexplained, except that it's a "special flight," not one normally scheduled. Maybe no one else planned ahead?

Whatever, it's reason enough to put a dozen or so passengers aboard the otherwise empty plane.... and then the hauntings begin!



You see, removing the altar from its ancestral location has upset the local Druid spirits. Or gods. Or whatever. So that once the plane reaches cruising altitude, it stops, and remains suspended in midair. That's odd. Planes aren't supposed to do that. The crew speculates that they're caught in some "strange wind" that's pushing the plane back as far as it's going forward.

Meanwhile, things get spookier!

A stewardess descends an elevator to where they store the crappy food and luggage. (I didn't know planes had elevators, but I guess they do.) It's freezing! She suspects a blowout. So the pilot and navigator go down: Chuck Connors and Russell Johnson (the professor from Gilligan's Island)...

And things get even spookier!!!

Someone instantaneously freezes to death, an electrical fire erupts, and green ooze bubbles up from the floor. Most of the passengers initially seek a "rational explanation" for a stationary plane with green ooze bubbling from the floor. Later, they turn to voodoo.

One critic called Horror at 37,000 Feet hilarious, and detected the actors suppressing laughter. Yes, it's a silly film, but I didn't laugh. Its effectively spooky atmosphere allows one to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the film as serious horror ... if one is willing. One must make the effort. It helps to watch it alone, in darkness, away from contagious laughter.

Nor did I detect the actors suppressing smiles. They play it admirably straight, throughout. Apart from Connors and Johnson's square-jawed heroics, there is also Buddy Ebsen as the boorish businessman, bragging about his self-made wealth. Tammy Grimes is delightful as a kooky activist/witch, hounding Thinnes after losing a lawsuit to keep the altar in England, frightening Jane Merrow, and reveling in the prospect of an onflight human sacrifice. (The Druids practiced human sacrifice).

Paul Winfield plays Dr. Enkalla, the Voice Of Reason. Because he's black, he's noble and erudite, in a Sidney Poitier sort of way. (1970s black actors are usually either jive-talking street hustlers, or virtuous sophisticates.)

William Shatner portrays an alcoholic ex-priest, traveling with a disapproving woman. (Who IS she? -- not his wife or girlfriend, since she chastises him for leaving the priesthood. A nun? She does have short hair and is conservatively dressed.) Shatner overacts, in typical Shatner hamminess, overplaying his drunken cynicism. He'd be annoying, if he weren't so much fun to watch.

You already know the sequence of events. Characters are introduced as they check-in and board. Expository dialogue establishes their broadly-painted personas. At first sign of trouble, the crew tries not to alarm anyone. But when people start dying, and the plane shuddering and belching green slime, the crew finally admit that something's "not right."

The cast exchanges their assigned clichés. Witchy Grimes mocks Shatner's Christian God. Shatner smirks and has another drink, under his scowling lady friend's chastisement. Voice Of Reason Winfield provides more foil for Grimes's Druid mysticism. Ebsen boorishly boasts of his god, Money, again reminding everyone how much he has. The pilots tighten their square jaws so as not to alarm passengers. The stewardesses flit about, trying to reassure passengers.




There's also an exotic black model, who mainly just sits around looking exotic. And a ludicrous "TV cowboy" star, the most broadly-painted caricature on the plane.

Oh yes, there's a little girl, traveling alone with her dolly. Not really relevant to anything, except for her doll. All 1970s airplane disaster films seem to have some kid flying alone. (Maybe they're what's attracting all this trouble, and should be banned?)

Thinnes insists that his precious altar has not caused the suspended plane, the cold, the green slime. But the passengers grow desperate, and Grimes's suggestion of human sacrifice begins to make sense...

Horror at 37,000 Feet is much fun. Watch it alone in the dark if you want scares. Watch it in a bright crowded room if you want laughs.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos


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