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.
oh god, don’t even get me started on the Lidsville opening.Â I used to watch that show every week, and for some reason, I kept hoping the beginning would be different.Â I kept thinking, “No, don’t go back in there!Â Don’t touch the hat!Â DON’T CLIMB UP ON THE HAT!Â ARRRGH!”Â The opening was the scariest part of the entire show, maybe because you knew you were getting your LAST GLIMPSE of the normal world, before everythingÂ becomes insane.
“Easter Island-faced CHUCK CONNERS” That is hilarious! I laughed so hard at that! Unkle L, you always brighten my day!Â
First of all, thanks for the linkage guys! I love this movie, and it’s one of many TV horror movie reasons why I’m so rabid about the genre. It’s a ton of chaotic fun.
I love this review and find it kind of odd that yesterday I posted a review of a non-horror tv movie with a double-decker plane. I was not aware that these actually existed and they made for such great settings in TV movies (Murder on Flight 502, anyone?). Good times full of good, fun movies.
How I miss those days.
Btw, Shatner’s demise was a DEFINITE kindertrauma for me. It’s an image I never forgot.
Hmm, I believe Tammy Grimes is mom to Scott Grimes, of “ER” and “American Dad”…I could be wrong about that.
Anyhoo, I do agree with that “Lidsville” opening. Down a disturbing rabbit hole with creepy imagery to a psychadellic land of talking hats and a crazy magician.
Hey, while we’re on the subject, anyone remember the stop motion shorts on “Pinwheel” where it was a blatant “Lidsville” ripoff? It was European, I believe, and focused on the hat people rather than having any other beings in there… Anyone remember it?
and what of the Guy’s Big Jim hung out with? One guy had a metal fist.Â
Lidsville, along with HR Pufnstuf, had to be done by “creators” smoking copious amounts of weed. And anything with Shatner in it is scary just for that reason!
I don’t think I was old enough to be truly traumatized by this film, but I do remember it. I decided to look it up on google and voila – all I remembered was that it was a TV Movie from the early 70’s and that Tammy Grimes was in it. So nice to read the complete synopsis and look at the stills. All I clearly remember is that Tammy Grimes could somehow, telepathically communicate with the entity and the fabulous doll sacrifice scene, which I will never forget.