Altitude is a tightly wound, surprisingly effective horror movie set on a two-propeller passenger plane. Call it an airborne version of Hitchcock's Lifeboat as adapted by H.P. Lovecraft for EC Comics. Five teenagers pack into a rented plane to head off for a weekend getaway. At the controls is Sara (Jessica Lowndes from 90210), whose freshly minted pilot's license is like a bad omen out of Greek tragedy. She has kept her flight lessons a secret from her father (Mike Dopud), an Air Force colonel, who understandably might not dig his little girl heading into the unfriendly skies. Her mother was a pilot and died flying a prop plane when Sara was just a little girl.
On the plane with her that day is her best friend Mel (Julianna Guill), Mel's doltish jock boyfriend Sal (Jake Weary), Sara's would-be-rock-star cousin Cory (Ryan Donowho), and her semi-creepy and quiet boyfriend Bruce (Landon Liboiro). As friends go, these kids have an odd dynamic, but then, teenaged friends often do. Sal is a raging testosterone case, Cory flirts with Mel, Mel refuses to put down her video camera, and no one shuts up long enough for Sara to do her job. By the end of the first act, you're more than ready for something to start picking these kids off. Which is exactly as it should be.
Filmed from a script by Paul A. Birkett, Altitude has a genuine three-act structure. The first act is taking to the air and getting to know the teens. The second act is things going wrong. After Sara gives Bruce the controls and he freezes up, she finds she can't get the plane to stop accelerating. Something has happened to cause the tail flap to lock. There is panicking and arguing and one fairly implausible act of selfless daring. In the midst of this, a drunk Sal keeps thinking he sees something in the dark clouds that have engulfed the little plane. The others think he is crazy, but since we've seen the flashes of tentacles out there, and also seen the box art, we know he's not.
That means the third act is the appearance of the sky monster. You have to give director Kaare Andrews credit for holding back his Cthulu-like creature for a full hour, and even then, using it sparingly until it matters most. At the same time, he manages to make the scenes before the monster gut twisting and tense. He uses the very cramped space extremely well, somehow finding enough differing angles and excuses to move through the cabin that it never feels like he's limited by the setting. Since Andrews is best known as a comic book artist (most recently he collaborated on an Astonishing X-Men miniseries with writer Warren Ellis), I suppose it shouldn't be that big of a surprise that he should be adept at switching things up within a limited frame. Comics are all about boxes and borders, after all. He and cinematographer Norm Li cook up a moody color palette, surrounding the tiny aircraft with bruised clouds and thunder flashes, so that we'll never forget that this is a monster movie. They also manage to create some pretty good special effects, including bodies flying through the air and some quick shock attacks. Altitude got two fairly decent jumps out of me.
Andrews is also aided by an extremely capable young cast. All of the actors have plenty of television and B-movies under their belt, and they have no problem dealing with the extreme ups and downs of the story. Lowndes in particular gives an assured performance in the lead. She's not just a pretty face, she is actually convincing as someone who could fly a plane--which sounds like a dig, but when you consider how often slasher films use their female leads as empty-headed props, you'll see it's really not. All the actors here are playing "types," but they eventually move past them to something more real.
In fact, the whole story grows in a very natural way. For the most part, the plot twists in Altitude don't feel arbitrary, but instead work as building blocks for the narrative. The revelation of what is actually causing this supernatural disaster to happen to this particular group comes a little out of left field, but as the information settles in, it starts to make more and more sense. Altitude fits into a tradition of horror stories where the threat is fueled by adolescent anxiety. The squirmy thing out in the clouds is basically squirmy hormones come to life. Don't you see, kid, you did this to yourself! Things tie up neatly, but thanks to a couple of surprises, in a way that isn't at all bothersome. Coming out of these clouds ends up being a relief rather than being cheesy.
Altitude hits Blu-Ray with a 2.40:1 anamorphic 1080p transfer. It looks fantastic, with a nice grain and excellent rendering on all the colors. Mood and lighting are so important to a movie like this, and the gradation on the grays and the black shadows is as effective as they were designed to be. Skin tones look great, as do the contrasts and changes when the actors get sweaty and/or bloody as the narrative escalates. There were no problems with enhancement or other digital bugaboos.
For a tight-space thriller like this, sound is so very important, and the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix replicates the feeling of containment, with the voices of the actors moving through the speakers to match their placement in the plane and the surrounding chaos of the storm filling the room so it feels like it's all around you. Music and other sound effects come through strong, hitting their intended pitch.
Subtitles are available in English for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, as well as in Spanish.
The BD for Altitude leads with a director's commentary by Kaare Andrews accessed via the set-up menu. Andrews talks extensively about the various challenges in this movie, how things were brought together, and the thought process behind a lot of the decisions. It's an honest chat, admitting to a few warts, and doesn't suffer from trailing off or repetition.
A 50-minute making-of "Altitude: Behind the Scenes" takes us through the full production, from conception to completion. It's actually pretty informative, going beyond the normal talking heads of a standard EPK, and includes a look at the way things were handled on-set. The documentary is broken up into three parts--pre/production/post--and can be watched in sections or all at once. Be warned, though, you see the ending of the movie less than ten minutes into this, so enter only after you've watched the main feature.
"Green Storm" is a ten-minute featurette showing raw footage from the extensive green screen work. There were over 600 effects shots in Altitude. Essentially, the entire film was shot on a big green soundstage, and the storm and sky was added in post. Andrews explains via voiceover how the work was done. For some reason, this feature played as a tiny box in my upper left-hand corner, not as a full screen program. I restarted it several times, and even reloaded the disc; it never played right.
The "Original Concepts Gallery" offers an extensive look at storyboards, concept art, props work (including the comic we see in the movie), poster design, and before-and-after effects comparisons.
Altitude's trailer is included. Also, a total of six, count 'em, six trailers play as your disc loads, and you must bypass each one individually. Because apparently after all these years of home entertainment, movie studios have assumed we have nowhere else to go for this stuff and must suffer their commercials.
People looking for a scary movie have their work cut out for them these days. Every time I turn around, it seems like there is another pile of direct-to-DVD fright fests landing in the review pile, each one another anonymous clone of the last. I'm glad I took a chance on Kaare Andrews' Altitude, it turned out to be a nice surprise. This smartly realized thriller keeps its story compact, but not its ambitions. The story of five kids on a private plane trip from Hell, Altitude sculpts its characters while slowly introducing its threat, creating tension and pulling a few surprises and scares out of the maelstrom. Book a night with this one. Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.