An airplane disaster flick from the seventies is a guilty treat all its own, but grafting a pseudo-satanic supernatural crisis upon this sub genre, in my opinion, takes it into the entertainment ambrosia zone. Directed by DAVID LOWELL RICH (who would later helm CONCORD…AIRPORT ’79) THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is a schlock-adelic, made-for-television movie from 1973 that still soars high after all these years. Put simply, it’s pure Kindertrauma gold; no adult could take it seriously and no child could ever possibly be immune to its potent dose of uncanny insanity.
Like any proper airplane movie, we are first introduced to an assortment of the cartooniest individuals imaginable all wearing their personal bugaboos upon their sleeves. Unlike most airplane movies, these stock characters soon find themselves contemplating the benefits of sacrificing humans to “the old ones.” Blame the cargo, someone thought it would be a good idea to transport ancient druid stones from an English abbey to the U.S. to be reassembled, but said stones, once utilized in black masses, beg to differ. Before you can say “Silver Shamrock!” a dog is frozen mid bark and more goopy ooze than usual is pouring down the aisle in coach.
Now, I said that no adult could take this stuff seriously, but not fitting into that category exactly myself, I have to say that THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET does indeed weave its own kind of unnerving spell. The soundtrack, mostly seventies era cicada chirps (which are eerily similar to the sounds emanating from the creature in JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING, particularly when the beast takes its first victim, a hapless caged dog) garnished with ambiguous cult-like chanting brought me right back to the television horrors of my youth (albeit between snickers). A hooded figure even appears for a brief glimpse; c’mon you don’t have to be into heavy metal to know those guys are scary!
I’m not sure there is enough room to go into how spectacular the cast is. WILLIAM SHATNER is an alcoholic priest questioning his faith, (it takes all my will power not to go on and on about the SHATNER but for the sake of my marriage, I’ll move on); BUDDY EBSEN is some kind of rich tycoon guy (I’ve always wanted to mention EBSEN on these pages so I can bring up how crazy-cool his “Jed Clampet” paintings are, CHECK THEM OUT HERE); the unsinkable TAMMY GRIMES (who is so creepy she gave birth to AMANDA PLUMMER) is on board to play a dowdy doom saying occultist; and ROY THINNES (AIRPORT 1975 and SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS) is the dude responsible for the whole mile high horror club. I could go on, but I think you’ll get the idea when I inform you that the plane is co-piloted by TOURIST TRAP‘s Easter Island-faced CHUCK CONNERS and none other than RUSSELL JOHNSON “the Professor” from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (naturally).
The best scene, out of literally dozens, involves the dumbstruck surviving passengers’ attempts to appease the evil presence on the plane with a sacrifice. Flirting with becoming a vicious mob, they grab a doll from a little girl (thank God there is always a little girl on these doomed flights) and decide to go voodoo crazy on it and repurpose it as an effigy. They glue fingernails onto the doll, hair, and even draw some kind of crazy clown face on it. It doesn’t make much sense (I’d like to think the evil was smart enough to detect the difference between a living human and a doll), but the scene is just too lunatic not to love. Further joy is found when the mock sacrifice begins to bubble with brown ooze as it is rejected by the unappeased spirits.
To say they don’t make ’em like this anymore is to put it lightly. There’s a real swingers lounge atmosphere that prevails here with much of the cast chain smoking, guzzling booze, and making chauvinistic advances to pass the time between attacks. Eventually though, it is SHATNER who has been spewing dramatic monologues about his lost faith in God and humanity who holds the key to their dilemma. Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that the presence of evil itself signifies that there is also “good” in the world and he plows forward to sacrifice himself and save the day. His cheap, unconvincing, blue-screen martyr-death resembles a Colorforms version of Ripley’s swan dive suicide in ALIEN3 combined with the opening hat plunge from SID AND MARTY KROFFT’S LIDSVILLE. It will likely be etched in my mind for all of eternity.
I thought that I had pretty much seen all the truly remarkable television horror flicks from the seventies, but I’m glad to say I was wrong yet again. One can gripe about the inconsistencies and the silliness that abounds (check out the super fake model airplane!), but THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is savvy enough to never waste any time (Let’s hear it for 73 minutes!) and personally, I found it consistently captivating in one way or another throughout. I have no problem declaring it a trash masterpiece (trash-terpiece?). I’m truly sorry I missed this one back in the day of its original airing because there’s no question in my mind that it would have freaked me out to no end and possibly had me assembling voodoo sacrifices out of my BIG JIM action figures (as with SHATNER, don’t get me started on BIG JIM‘s “The whip“!)
UNK SEZ: Read More about THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET at our pal Amanda’s MADE FOR T.V. MAYHEM!
NOTE: HORROR AT 30,000 FEET is not currently on DVD but I found this priceless film and many others HERE.