DVD Review: The Horror At 37,000 Feet

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MSRP $19.99
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The Pitch

Enough is enough! I’ve HAD it with this motherfuckin’ eldritch horror on this motherfuckin’ plane!

The Humans

William Shatner, Jane Merrow, Tammy Grimes, Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Conners, Lynn Loring, Fran Nuyen, Roy Thines, Paul Winfield, Will Hutchins

The Nutshell

Fly the not-so-friendly skies in this frightening tale of survival at 37,000 feet! On a flight from London to Los Angeles, a wealthy architect and his wife have rented out a jumbo jet’s entire cargo hold to transport a precious artifact — an altar from an ancient abbey. But they’re unaware of its deadly secret.

The Lowdown

Movie trends are cyclical. We may have just finished a cycle of disaster movie obsession and demons are the new big thing, but we’re not nearly as obsessed with either of those things as our 60s and 70s counterparts were. How much did they love these seemingly disparate genres? Enough that CBS did a TV movie whose basic premise was “The Exorcist on a plane.”

The movie concerns Sheila and Alan O’Neill (Jane Merrow and Roy Thines), an adversarial married couple traveling from London to Los Angeles with a chunk of an Abbey the size of a Volkswagen Microbus jammed into the cargo hold of a 747. The Abbey has been in Sheila’s family for generations and her and Alan are bringing it back to the states to rebuild because that is the kind of nutty shit that white people with a lot of money do.

Since the O’Neills have weighed down the plane something fierce, there are only nine other passengers on the plane: There’s a goofy looking cowboy (Will Hutchins), a defrocked Priest with a lack of faith and a drinking problem (William Shatner), his short-haired… companion of some sort (Lynn Loring), a J.R. Ewing-esque industrial millionaire (The Beverly Hillbillies’ own Jed Clampett, Buddy Ebsen), a fashion model (France Nuyen), an aloof and sage doctor (Paul Winfield), a cute pigtailed little girl (Mia Bendixsen), and the woman who is suing the O’Neills for tearing up the abbey (Tammy Grimes). There are also two flight attendants and a three person flight crew (with lantern-jawed Chuck Conners as the pilot).

As contrived circumstances would have it, Sheila’s ancestor was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Apparently this wasn’t an unfounded accusation as the abbey’s pulpit contains a stone that is apparently a conduit of the elder gods. The stone has power on the eve of the summer solstice, which is of course the night on which this movie takes place. The invisible demon escapes the cargo hold, freezes a man and a dog, stops the plane in midair, and then oozes green sludge out of a hole in the floor of the cabin. As the fuel gets lower, the passengers become more and more desperate to find a way to stop the demon, even if it means giving it what it wants: Sheila.

Pictured: The 70s.

Everything about The Horror at 37,000 Feet is practically tailor made to hook 70s disaster movie fans. The entire opening seems to have been lifted straight out of Airport, to the point that it looks to be exactly what Airplane was parodying in its own 70s-style opening. William Shatner’s character is basically just a combination of Gene Hackman’s character from The Poseidon Adventure and Father Karras from The Exorcist (the movie wouldn’t be released until a few months after The Horror at 37,000 Feet but it kind of feels like the writer at least took a peek at Blatty’s novel before doing this movie). Even the casting of Shatner himself seems to be trolling for nostalgic memories of the episode of The Twilight Zone he starred in that was based on Richard Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (an obvious inspiration for the title of the movie itself).

And since the good folks at CBS needed to appeal to the Satanic Panic crowd, they hired Tammy Grimes to play a wild-eyed smirking harpy who sews discord among the passengers and tries to convince Sheila to sacrifice herself to the demon. At one point she even sits down with Sheila to explain that the old gods are bros and she should totally just do it because it will be awesome. Of course, her witchery has given her a fear of fire (this must make the modern world Hell to her) which inspires the passengers to build a bonfire on the plane to keep the demon at bay (this is only after their only slightly less stupid plan of gluing Sheila’s hair and fingernails to a make-up smeared baby doll and offering it as a sacrifice ends with predictable results).

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be clownish man-whores.

There are fifteen major characters in this movie, but unfortunately that is about twelve more than the screenwriter seems able to handle. Most of the characters fall into one-note roles (if they’re even allowed to speak at all) after a solid introduction where we learn everyone’s back-stories and motivations. The flight attendants run around screaming ineffectually, the flight crew grimly remind us that the plane still isn’t working right every few minutes, Sheila’s husband all but disappears, as does France Nuyen’s character, the little girl looks frightened, Buddy Ebsen and Will Hutchins are the muscular portion of our ever-increasing unruly mob, Lynn Loring’s character comes up with terrible ideas and convinces everyone they’re good, Sheila looks shell-shocked, Tammy Grimes acts smiles cruelly and calls people fools whenever they suggest anything other than sacrificing Sheila, and Paul Winfield (the ghost of Chiwetel Ejiofor yet to come) spouts out doctor jargon and sage magic black man advice in kind whilst smiling sardonically and chuckling to himself. If I’m being honest, this movie is 85% William Shatner bitterly mumbling platitudes and drinking scotch.

Speaking of Shatner, he gives the most William Shatner-ish performance of his career. This is the first time I have ever seen the man perform as badly as all the parodies other people do of him being a bad actor. His delivery (and physical mannerisms) alternate between a man performing Shakespeare and a b-movie actor who may no longer be pretending to be drunk. Part of me wonders if the writers didn’t add the character’s alcoholism into the script once they realized that they couldn’t get Shatner to stop drinking on set.

I could go into minute detail about the rest of the cast, but I think my next sentence tells you all you need to know. William Shatner is the most nuanced member of the cast; I am not kidding. Every single line is spoken in the most broad scenery-chewing manner possible. Ignore the synopsis, this is a movie about a group of people devouring a 747 over the course of an hour and thirteen minutes, tearing giant chunks from the fuselage with their teeth like ravenous jungle cats.

I was not alive in the 70s, did flight attendants actually dress like characters in the porn parody of Buck Rogers?

I suffer under no delusions that this is a well-made or even particularly good movie; it is hokey as shit. The plot seems to have been created in a Mad Libs book, the acting is bad, and the plot resolves itself in an extremely boring way. Yet, if you compare The Horror at 37,000 Feet to other TV movies (particularly early 70’s TV horror movies), it’s a cut above its peers. I have seen feature films in these genres from this era that weren’t as good as this movie.

There are points where the movie defies its own abilities and actually turns out to be fairly creepy and atmospheric. For all The Horror at 37,000 Feet’s bugfuck silliness, it’s actually quite enjoyable so long as you remind yourself of the caliber of film-making involved. If any movie deserves a big budget remake done by a competent director/writer, it’s this one.

The Package

This disc has no special features but given that it’s a TV movie from the early 70s and that a good chunk of its cast is dead at this point that should really come as no surprise. Since this is a made-for-TV movie it is naturally presented in full-screen (4:3) with mono audio. The disc has subtitles.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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