“You don't need a priest, Mr. Farlee. You need a parachute.” – Paul Kovalik
If there’s one thing that movies and TV have taught us, it’s never to board a plane set to fly at 37,000 feet if William Shatner is also on board. Bad things will happen.
Another is that despite the near identical title, this has absolutely nothing to do with the classic Twilight Zone episode in which Shatner starred. There are no gremlins on the wing, destroying the engines. But the threat here is just as menacing.
The Horror at 37,000 Feet is another of those great made for TV movies that popped up in the early seventies, along with Gargoyles which I covered earlier. They were low budget, filmed in 4:3 ratio and usually starred either film stars who weren’t quite on the A-list, or just past their prime. They were also a good showcase for TV stars who were between shows. Most of the films were quickly forgotten, but a few were outstanding and are fondly remembered. Duel, Trilogy of Terror and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are all classics of this time.
So, with an all-star-for-its-time cast of TV alumni, The Horror at 37,000 Feet debuted on American TV on February 13, 1973. The film takes place on a sparsely occupied Boeing 747 going from Heathrow Airport to New York. The pilot is Captain Ernie Slade (played by TV cowboy Chuck Connors). The cargo hold has been chartered by millionaire architect Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes, star of The Invaders). He’s taking the parts of a chapel from an ancient abbey to America, for use in a new build he’s working on. Also on board is a local crazy who’s even been to court to try and stop him, Mrs Pinder (Tammy Grimes) and O’Neill’s tense and tetchy wife (Jane Merrow).
Other passengers include a self-made millionaire named Farlee (Buddy Ebsen) an annoying western film star Steve Holcomb (Will Hutchins) a model played by France Nuyen who appeared in the title role in the Elaan of Troyus episode of Star Trek and of course Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner as of all things, a defrocked priest who has lost his faith but gained an alcohol problem, Paul Kovalik.
And as it’s pretty much in the Airport movie vibe, there’s a lone little girl passenger – there always is. Has to be. It’s a standard trope.
There’s another passenger on board too – before the Abbey was an Abbey, it was used by druids to offer human sacrifices to their ancient gods, the old ones. And the evening the aircraft takes off happens to be the summer solstice, when such forces are at their most powerful. And they’re beginning to stir in the aircraft’s cargo hold. They hold the aircraft in position, so it’s literally going nowhere. They flash freeze Mrs Pinder’s dog Damon, who’s being kept there for the journey.
The chanting voices of the druids can be heard through the passenger headphones, and a poor air hostess almost meets the same fate as the poor hound. Reporting a possible hull breach, Captain Slade and the flight engineer go and investigate. Only the Captain makes it out alive, and he’s burned with cold. (The engineer’s a popsicle).
Mrs Pinder knows what’s going on. She knows the full history of the Abbey and knows exactly what they’ve got on board. In fact, Mrs Pinder does an amazing subtly done transformation during the run of the film, from bookish nerd with glasses and her hair up, to full-on druidess (if that’s even a word) with her hair down and small changes to her make-up.
Mrs O’Neill is temporarily possessed and starts to speak Latin, Kovalik seems to know what’s going on, but being faithless, he offers no help and is tactlessly cynical. Farlee demands that someone take charge and “DO something” as the evil force manifests itself as a foul green sludge, bursting through the floor.
They decide that the thing to do is to offer the force a sacrifice. And to this end, they take the little girl’s doll and cut some of Mrs O’Neill’s hair and nails to try and give it the appearance of a real person. (As plans go, this one is weak to say the least) Of course it doesn’t work – demonic forces can’t be THAT dumb.
In the final reel, it’s up to William Shatner to save the day. Well, who else could? As he regains his faith in his final moments and confronts the demon with his righteous and pious goodness. (To be fair, Shatner has been restrained throughout the film until his big scene, where he lets go)
While Shatner casts out the demon, and gets sucked out of the suddenly and inexplicably open hatch, the pilots increase the plane’s altitude, literally meeting the dawn so the night of the demon’s power is at an end.
A taut seventy-five or so minute film that’s actually more effective than a made-for-TV hybrid of Airport and The Exorcist should be. They don’t go all-out, and that’s its power. It leaves a lot to the imagination. Plus, Shatner as a priest – who’d have thought?
Next time – the spirits are a little bit closer to Earth.
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