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TV Terror Guide: The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)


With all the evil that ghosts do, it’s easy to forget that sometimes they’re benevolent, remaining on this earthly plane to warn others about impending doom. Their appearances can still be frightening, but if we remain calm, we may be able to understand why they’re here. The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978) effectively uses the natural terror of circumstance to tell a meaningful story.

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The film opens with Dom Cimoli (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife, Maria (Carol Eve Rossen) sleeping peacefully with his hand over hers. When they wake and she has a gut feeling that he should call in sick rather than go on the flight for which he’s scheduled, you know something bad is going to happen. You also know the movie is going to uncharacteristically spend some quiet moments with the characters and the drama.

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It's based on the true story of Eastern Airlines Flight 401, which crashed in 1972. The movie recreates the tragedy with suspense; however, focuses on the aftermath when passengers and crews on planes that used parts from the wreckage began seeing the ghost of Cimoli. This part of the true story may have come from rumors and hearsay, but the fictional story treats it as real, featuring denial by the airline (Atlantic Southeastern), an attempted cover-up, and…

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…an exorcism; well, sort of. Psychics Barton (Alan Oppenheimer) and Andrews (Eugene Roche) have a supernatural chat with Cimoli encouraging him to move on because his services were no longer needed. Again, this action isn’t taken to banish an evil spirit, but rather to provide peace for a lost spirit (and closure for his friends and family.) It’s surprisingly moving and Borgnine’s performance ranges from typical when he’s alive to subdued when he’s dead.

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My favorite thing about The Ghost of Flight 401 was the handling of the ghostly Cimoli. He often appears in reflections, then when witnesses turn, nobody is there. Or, when he is there, the camera work is so good that he seems to just materialize out of nowhere, kind of like Michael Myers when he emerges from the shadows in the original Halloween. Howard Schwartz was the cinematographer. He did work on such fun projects as Batman (1966) and Land of the Giants (1968-1969.)

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Without accusing it of being overly sentimental, I have to say the script by Robert Malcolm Young and direction by Steven Hilliard Stern is sensitive. The approach is less sensational than other movies of the like. I’ve categorized many 1970s TV-movies as “mishmashes” of genres. In this case, The Ghost of Flight 401 could have been an all-star disaster film/family drama/horror story. I suppose at its core, it is, but that’s not how it plays.

Visit the TV Terror Guide: 70's TV Movies playlist at ClassicHorrors.Club TV on YouTube to watch The Ghost of Flight 401 as well as all the great movies from this series.

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