Altitude is an old fashioned horror movie. It isn’t feigning retro aesthetics or retro filmmaking techniques, but take away the swearing and the beer, put the men in some suits and hats, and this very easily could’ve been a William Castle picture.
The film opens in the recent past with a family (mother, father, son) as passengers in a small single engine plane. The young son, terrified of flying, clutches an issue of Weird Tales (an EC-like anthology series), as the parents tell the female pilot about their son’s overactive imagination. Then, out of nowhere, another plane collides with theirs. We jump forward to the present where Sara (Jessica Lowndes) is getting ready for a trip to a rock concert. Sara is the daughter of the pilot from the opening scene, and has grown up haunted by the loss of her mother and obsessed with becoming a pilot herself. Her father doesn’t approve of her flying, so she lies to him – saying that she and her friends are taking a road trip to the concert, when in fact Sara has rented a plane she will be piloting. Along for the ride is her film student friend, Mel, (Friday the 13th’s perfect nipple placement hottie, Julianna Guill), Mel’s obnoxious drunk jock boyfriend, Sal (Jake Weary), Sara’s musician cousin Cory (Ryan Donowho), and Sara’s wet-blanket introverted boyfriend, Bruce (Landon Liboiron), who is incredibly afraid of flying and acting extremely cagey and suspicious…
Unless you’ve never seen a movie before, it should be immediately apparent that Bruce is the kid from the opening (who miraculously survived). If you couldn’t guess this from the get go, you’d have to be at least functionally retarded not to realize it when Sara gives Bruce a special present: an issue of Weird Tales. (I bet that isn’t going anywhere)
At first the flight is going smoothly, until the plane malfunctions and gets caught in an altitude climb. Then they enter a gigantic storm cloud, and things move from scary to bizarre. Despite their climb, they never rise above the storm cloud, nor do they pop out the other side. It simply goes on forever. With no way to control the plane and no way to radio for help, they’re stuck. The threat of in-fighting or running out of gas soon gives way to a problem even the most paranoid of fliers would never expect… a giant evil sky octopus.
Despite the film’s advertising logically pimping the presence of the sky kraken, the creature doesn’t actually have a huge presence in the film, and I mean that in terms of screen time and story importance (those hoping for something Lovecraftian will be gravely disappointed). Aside from pure technicality, I wouldn’t even call Altitude a monster movie. This is Hitchock’s Lifeboat by way of anthology genre television. Conceptually the story would be right at home on the Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories or in the pages of an EC comic. And while, yes, the film does feel like an overblown episode of such a show, while we’re still stuck in the mire of torture-porn fallout, endless remakes, and 80’s retro-wannabe-misfires, I really don’t see that as a bad thing. Altitude has no gore, no blood, no boobs or bras, but as great as those things are, they’re also crutches for poorly made horror films. Well-crafted horror stories don’t need boobs and blood to float.
Paul A. Birkett’s script is tight and well paced, and considering that 85% of the film takes place inside a cramped plane, Kaare Andrews frankly does wonders with keeping things fresh and flowing. The performances are all extremely solid too, which is thankful because the characters themselves are frankly terrible. It is a horror movie staple that the group of friends we’re watching take a vacation together always seem to hate each other, but when such a group is confined to a plane (so they can’t separate at any point), it became a little tiresome and kept the question of “Why are these people friends?” stuck in my mind. Sal, the drunk jock, is such a relentless asshole to everyone it pushes the cliché of the character type too far. Everyone is so mean to Bruce it is almost unbelievable (Sal rips up part of the Weird Tales Sara bought Bruce right in Bruce’s face, and Sara barely even responds!). Yet Bruce fucking sucks, so I only felt marginally bad for him. He’s such a clingy Emo wiener that it frankly makes Sara’s character less interesting to know that this is her boyfriend. And the character of Mel…
I have a particular pet peeve with filmmaker characters in movies. It is an on-going struggle for writer’s to fight the urge to make their protagonists writers too. That’s the life a writer knows best, unless they were a lawyer for half their life like John Grisham or something. Some filmmakers have to fight a similar battle it seems. If the story warrants it, making a film about a filmmaker can be great. But making a random character within your larger group of characters a filmmaker seems distractingly pointless to me. Generally it is done with self-reflexive obnoxiousness, especially when the character wants to make horror movies too and is constantly talking about horror movies in the horror movie we’re watching (I’m annoyed just thinking about that one). Very often the creation of such a character is also an excuse to have parts of the movie seen through the lens of the filmmaker character’s camera. This was a clever idea at first, but has been done to death over the years. The funny thing about Mel is that neither of these bad examples hold true. In fact, it is weird just how pointless Mel’s filmmaker status is. She is constantly filming everything, like Thierry Guetta from Exit Through the Gift Shop, but this never pays off in the narrative – she never re-examines her footage to get a look at the sky kraken, for example. As is, Mel being a filmmaker just serves to make her annoying and a walking gimmick.
The characters finally start to click into place when Bruce freaks out and Sal is forced to knock him out. This begins the phase of the film where our characters get proactive and stop merely spazzing out on each other. By the end of the film Andrews and Birkett find an equilibrium for the character conflicts, and our annoying characters start to find some traction (it also helps that they start dying too). In particular, the relationship between Sara and Bruce, which began so perplexingly limp, gets more intriguing as the truth about certain things comes to light.
The film will really test your suspension of disbelief with some of the things our characters to do fix the plane, but the film has an incredibly limiting location, so a certain amount of imagination was required to keep the story lively. For such a low-budget film, the FX work is all mostly invisible and effective – I’m talking about making us believe we’re in a plane in the sky, not the sky kraken (which looks fine). I don’t think any of the performances really call out for individual praise or blame (other than the smokin’ Julianna Guill as the world’s least plausible film dork, but this is a movie after all). And the film builds up to an ending that, while predictable on a few levels, still managed to sneak in some surprises for me.
Altitude would’ve had to be a truly amazing film to completely overcome a lot of the restrictions of its own concept. It isn’t an amazing film, but it is still a good film. Gore hounds might want stay away, but those who can appreciate a good old fashioned “weird tale” will find plenty to appreciate here, I think.