Tubular Terrors: ‘The Horror at 37,000 Feet’

Reviews / October 31, 2019

The Horror at 37,000 Feet
Directed by David Lowell Rich
CBS (1973)

There is probably something more entertaining than William Shatner devouring scenery as an alcoholic, defrocked, nihilistic priest confronting evil druidic sorcery on a double-decker 747 alongside a cast of fellow C-listers, but I can’t think of it right now. A crassly arranged marriage between two already much-abused genres—the vehicular disaster film made popular by 1970’s Airport and the occult mystery-thriller—The Horror at 37,000 Feet is nevertheless both a camp classic and, at times, a genuinely creepy chiller that anticipates subsequent and much better known theatrical scares.

Wealthy architect Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) has booked the entire cargo hold of flight 19X—departing London for New York—to stow 11,000 pounds of “the remains of an old abbey” that has been in his wife Sheila’s (Jane Merrow) family for centuries. His plan is to incorporate said remains, which include (spoiler) a “druid sacrificial stone,” into the couple’s sprawling Long Island abode. This obnoxious display of wealth is smugly justified by O’Neill as an act of historical preservation—“It’s fortunate I can afford to save something so ancient and beautiful when your family estate’s becoming condominiums and parking lots”—and it results in a trickle-down “extra flight” for a handful of (mostly wealthy) passengers, including Paul Kovalik (Shatner) and his hippy-dippy companion Manya (Lynn Loring); Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes), a deranged pro-druid “crusader” who strongly disapproves of the abbey’s removal from hallowed ground; fashion model Annalik (France Nuyen); the enigmatic Dr. Enkalla (the great Paul Winfield, Best Actor nominee for 1972’s Sounder and ear parasite host in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan); gaudily cowboy-attired Western star Steve (Western star Will Hutchins); irascible businessman Glenn Farlee (Barnaby Jones‘s Buddy Ebsen); and a doll-toting young girl (Mia Bendixsen) with a terrible British accent.

A disturbingly chilly gust sweeps the cockpit during pre-flight check, and things get even stranger after takeoff. Sheila, who is agitated by the abbey to begin with, hears an eerie, high-pitched signal coming through her headphones—very similar to the sound effect the giant ants make in 1954’s Them!—followed by a chorus of malevolent voices calling her name. The plane, despite a 600 mile-per-hour tailwind, comes to a standstill in midair. Down in the cargo hold, Mrs. Pinder’s German Shepherd (named, I kid you not, Damon) is driven mad by shrill banging coming from the massive containers holding the abbey (why Mrs. Pinder would allow her beloved dog to be caged a few feet from the ruins she knows to be cursed is not a question we’re meant to be asking). Sheila, meanwhile, hears the voices again, more of them this time, accompanied by Latin incantations; drawn to the back of the plane, where the cargo hold is, she promptly passes out. As she is being ogled back to health by Kovalik, flight attendant Margot (Darleen Carr) gets stuck in the elevator while trying to escape the ear-splitting screeches and suddenly blizzard-like temperature of the galley; yanked out by Dr. Enkalla and Steve, her hysteria finally convinces Captain Slade (Chuck Conners) and Flight Engineer Hawley (Russell Johnson) to investigate. In maybe the strongest scene of the film, they pry open the ice-encased door of the cargo hold and find, framed in the beams of their flashlights, Damon the dog frozen in mid snarl as he attempts to break out of his cage (shades of John Carpenter’s The Thing). Hawley ventures closer to the now-ruptured shipping container, instantly freezing to death and unleashing a gust of wind that blows the Captain out the door.

The truth of the strange happenings is soon revealed: it is Midsummer’s Eve, and the violated druids, the “old ones,” demand a blood sacrifice. They want Sheila, possibly even more than Kovalik does. The passengers, Lord of the Flies-like, descend into savagery, demanding that Sheila take one for the team. When Sheila selfishly refuses, now-maniacal Manya puts make-up and lipstick on Jody’s baby doll and wraps it in Sheila’s scarf, hoping to trick the druids—the same druids who have apparently survived for almost 2000 years, are telepathic, and cold enough to kill men and dogs. Goopy moss begins to spread out on the walls and ceiling (because druids like trees and damp weather?), Captain Slade drives the plane on a dangerous upwards angle to meet the dawn (which we think will kill the druids, because Mrs. Pinder doesn’t like fire?), and only when young Jody (thousands of kids in the ’70s and ’80s traveled without their parents, to the tremendous relief of both kids and parents) herself starts to go mad does Kovalik decide to grab a torch and find out if there really is a Devil at the back of the plane, and, by inference, a God above.

I will admit that a lot of the fun of The Horror at 37,000 Feet comes from touring the interior of the mostly-empty airplane and remembering what it was like when I could feel my legs and experience the consummate thrill of not sitting next to anyone. “They pay to walk around this flying hotel,” Captain Slade remarks at one point. “Let’s let ’em live a little.” The opening credits roll over Margot as she walks the length of the plane and preps for the coming flight: gathering and straightening the newspapers, securing overhead compartments, taking the elevator (yes, the elevator) down to the galley and making sure the ovens are off, checking her hair in the mirror next to the cargo hold door. There’s a bar lounge on the upper deck, lined with yellow-green swivel-chairs and wood paneling, where O’Neill flirts with Annalik and is goaded (over his obnoxious display of wealth) by Farlee, where Mrs. Pinder harasses Sheila and Kovalik berates Mrs. Pinder. Still, even on a flight with 10 passengers, the flight attendants, a united front, preserve the inviolable boundary between first class and coach (even the druids, we sense, were they to materialize, would be peremptorily led back to the lower deck, where their kind belongs). Some things never change.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet is clearly leaning on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling The Exorcist (1971), but it aired nearly a year before William Friedkin’s momentous screen adaptation, and several years before The Amityville Horror, which, given what we now know about Jay Anson’s “true story,” may indeed have borrowed some material from this low-rent but effective TV production, with a lively teleplay by writing partners Ronald Austin and James Buchanan. Still, it’s Shatner, glorious Shatner—he has repeatedly disowned The Horror at 37,000 Feet, and please remember his turn on The Twilight Zone‘s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”—who wins the day. It is an absolute delight watching and hearing him deliver lines like, “The closer to heaven, the more discordant” (after Manya remarks that her guitar is out of tune); “You don’t want a priest, you want a parachute” (when Farlee asks him for help); “I’m sorry, I’m fresh out” (when Sheila begs him for help); and “It won’t help, but it will amuse me to think of all of you back here worrying about your lives as if they were of some importance” (after telling everyone that he’s going to get another drink). The peak exchange arrives at the climactic gathering of all our passengers, where the supernatural culprits are identified. “Here we are at the last half of the 20th century,” scoffs Kovalik, “and what are we worried about? The grotesque practices of a primitive cult that was stamped out before the coming of Christ.” To which Mrs. Pinder portentously responds, “There are still druids.” And Kovalik again, for the amen: “Yes, of course there are. And there are still witches and satanists and those who believe that jimson weed can make them immortal. There’s never been any shortage of idiot things to believe in, nor idiots to make them up…”

K.E. Roberts

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