TV Terror Guide: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Air Date: Feb. 13, 1973 (CBS)
Production Companies: CBS Television Network
Running Time: 73 min.
Available on: DVD (Paramount)
Written by: Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan
Story by: V.X. Appleton
Directed by: David Lowell Rich
Cast: Chuck Connors, Buddy Ebsen, Tammy Grimes, Lynn Loring, Jane Merrow, France Nuyen, William Shatner, Roy Thinnes, Paul Winfield, Russell Johnson
Sometimes the more outlandish the concept, the more entertaining a movie can be. It’s The Exorcist (nearly a year before it was released) meets Airport (three years after it was released) in a TV movie directed by the man who would later make The Concorde: Airport ’79, David Lowell Rich. Some may find that it reminds them more of the comedy Airplane (1980) than the thriller Airport; nevertheless, it has its chilling moments.
Architect Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) has loaded the cargo hold of AOA flight #19X with the remains of an English abbey inherited through his wife’s, Sheila (Jane Merrow) family. Not soon after taking off from Heathrow, Captain Ernie Slade (Chuck Connors) finds his plane either facing a headwind of 600 mph (“There is no such wind”) or simply not moving. Junior stewardess, Sally (Brenda Benet) makes a startling discovery down below…
She claims there’s been a “blow out,” whatever that is, but Ernie’s gauges don’t indicate that to be the case. She cries out in the most melodramatic way, “Ice, wind... are you saying it came from inside the plane?!?” He’s not… yet. However, when he investigates himself, he’s grabbed by something so cold that it freezes a claw print into his upper arm. It’s not long, then, until he and his few passengers (because of the weight of the cargo) have accepted the obvious…
The plane is hauling a sacrificial stone from the abbey which was built upon a sacred grave of the druids. They’re back, or at least one of them is, wreaking demonic forces upon the passengers and demanding a sacrifice. Oh, and I didn’t even mention that it’s the summer solstice, the one night of the year that something like this could even happen. Someone on that plane sure has rotten luck!
In 70s disaster movie style, the characters are many and diverse. Glenn Farlee (Buddy Ebsen) is a no-nonsense businessman that once turned down a bid from Alan because it was too high. Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes) is an odd duck of a woman that becomes possessed or is just able to suddenly explain to everyone what is happening. Annalik (France Nuyen) is a model in the handful of scenes in which she participates.
Dr. Enkalla (Paul Winfield) is the doctor on board, because there always has to be a doctor on board. Steve Holcomb (Will Hutchins) is a country bumpkin entertainer (I think) who throws his remaining wad of cash on a dying bonfire built to protect them. (Yes, the built a bonfire on an airplane.) And then there’s Paul Kovalik (William Shatner), the defrocked priest who must find his faith to save everyone. If that’s a spoiler, you aren’t familiar with this kind of film at all.
Shatner is terrific, looking great and stealing the best lines. When his traveling companion, Margot (Darleen Carr) argues with him about his bad mood, he tells her, “You don’t need a priest; you need a parachute.” There’s also a moment where he peers out one of the windows, the image evoking the great The Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963.) This story takes place 17,000 feet higher and an unknown number of IQ points lower.
When Ernie realizes they’re low on fuel, Alan still manages to convince him to fly straight up in the air so they reach sunlight ahead of its regularly scheduled time, the summer solstice will be over, and the demon druid will be defeated, at least until next year. That’s after the failed attempt to fool the beast with a doll made up to look like Sheila (using her real hair and fingernails) and after the aforementioned bonfire inside an airplane.
This may be a real spoiler, but it’s too awesome not to describe (as Shatner himself has been known to do.) Shatner changes his attitude from “I’m fresh out [of help.] Don’t look to me; I have nothing. Find your own way.” to slowly marching down the narrow aisle of the plane with a torch. We see him in his collar for a clever split second. Then the demon lets out a final burst of anger, blowing open a door and sucking Shatner out into a bad special effect.
You can’t take The Horror at 37,000 Feet seriously for a minute, nor should you try. Know what you’re getting yourself into and just sit back to enjoy it. Sure, the dog and the professor from Gilligan’s Island meet horrible fates, but you also get to see thick brown liquid bubbling out of a grotesque doll and uneven patches of moss growing on the bulkheads. When it’s over, you’ll have reached a safe altitude and can remove your masks.
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