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TV Terror Guide: Terror on the 40th Floor (1974)

Air Date: Sept. 17, 1974

Production Companies: Montagne Productions, Metromedia Producers Corporation

Running Time: 97 min.

Available on: YouTube

Written by: Jack Turley

Directed by: Jerry Jameson

Cast: John Forsyth, Joseph Campanella, Lynn Carlin, Anjanette Comer, Laurie Heineman, Don Meredith, Kelly Jean Peters, Pippa Scott, Louis Guss

Rating: 6 Vintage Televisions (out of 10)

When you look at the timeline, it’s not as easy as you might think to dismissTerror on the 40th Floor (1974) as a quickie rip-off of The Towering Inferno. Although that's what it is, the former aired on television three months before the latter opened in theaters. It’s more likely there was something in the zeitgeist in the mid-70s… the kind of thing that causes movies like Dante’s Peak and Volcano, or Armageddon and Deep Impact, to be made at the same time.


Interestingly, there were two books released a year earlier. The Tower, by Richard Martin Stern was published in early 1973 (becoming the object in a Hollywood bidding war for the movie rights) and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson a few months later. Terror on the 40th Floor doesn’t claim to be based on either, but it seems more likely elements of it were taken from these books, not from the movie, The Towering Inferno.


In any case, it’s 1970s disaster film-lite, a small screen version of a big screen concept: people trapped in a tall building that’s on fire. The star-studded cast is proportional to the medium. Here, we have the likes of John Forsythe, Joseph Campanella, and Don Meredith. It’s usually the characters that add depth to a disaster movie and, if that’s the case, Terror on the 40th Floor floats in shallow waters.


Some of them are given a flashback, something that represents their life’s struggle and is intended to make us care about their survival. The selection of the characters is odd. Sure, Dan Overland (Forsythe), the executive vice-president of something, gets one, as does Howard Foster (Joseph Campanella), a salesman trying to get a promotion. But why doesn’t Kelly Freeman (Don Meredith), the other main male character, get one?


Conversely, why does Lee Parker (Lynn Carlin) get a flashback? She’s not a primary character. In fact, after a certain point, she disappears in the smoke, and I forgot she even existed. Of course, these are rhetorical questions. The flashbacks all introduce characters that will be waiting among the crowd on the street below… characters that will lovingly greet and reconcile with their partners... if they survive.


None of this means that Terror on the 40th Floor doesn’t provide some good entertainment. It has a solid set-up, introducing us to an office that’s its own microcosm of society. There’s a legitimate reason for the characters to remain after the building has closed: they don’t want the holiday party to end. There’s also some legitimate suspense, particularly one scene right out of an Irwin Allen production.


Never mind that this scene makes no sense. In a building that’s on fire with smoke rising up, why is their big attempt at escape an effort to get someone to the floor below them? Again, it’s a rhetorical question. Terror on the 40th Floor is nothing but formula. Like the characters that are never really threatened by flames, but just the smoke, the movie itself disproves the old saying. Sometimes where there’s smoke, there is no fire, and this movie just smolders.


Visit the TV Terror Guide: 70's TV Movies playlist at ClassicHorrors.Club TV on YouTube to watch Terror on the 40th Floor and other great movies from this series...

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