Helmed by prolific made for TV movie director David Lowell Rich, CBS's 1973 production of The Horror At 37,000 Feet begins in London's Heathrow Airport where a crew is preparing to deal with a late night flight to Los Angeles. As this is going to be primarily a cargo flight, the small group of passengers has got plenty of space to enjoy the flight. There are to be three pilots taking care of things: Captain Ernie Slade (Chuck Connors) and his assistants Jim Hawley (Russell Johnson) and Frank Discoll (H.M. Wynant). Also on board are two lovely flight attendants in the form of Margot (Darleen Carr) and Sally (Brenda Benet).
But what of those passengers? Well, we get a hard drinking defrocked priest named Paul Kovalik (William Shatner) and his lady friend Manya (Lynn Loring), we get a crotchety know-it-all rich guy named Glenn Farlee (Buddy Ebsen) who likes to drink and call the flight attendants ‘honey', we get a little girl named Jodi (Mia Bendixsen) and we get a potentially crazy Englishwoman named Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes) who seems to care more about her dog than anything else. We also get an exotic model named Annalik (France Nuyen), a suave black doctor named Enkalla (Paul Winfield) and married couple Alan O'Neill (Roy Thinnes) and his wife Sheila (Jane Merrow). It's this last couple that causes all the trouble for everyone. You see, Alan is an architect and he's arranged to have portions of an ancient abbey that was originally built centuries ago on his wife's family property to be put into the cargo hold so that they can bring it back to Long Island and rebuild it. Mrs. Pinder warns them against this but nobody pays her any mind and of course, shortly after leaving Heathrow the flight crew starts noticing strange things going on. It seems at first that the plane is flying into a very strong head wind but after reversing their course 180 degrees and not going anywhere, it becomes very obvious very quickly that something far more devious is at work here, and it stems from whatever it is that is in the cargo hold…
A wonderfully nonsensical mix of seventies occult themed/Satanic panic style horror movies and the disaster films that were popular around the same time, The Horror At 37,000 Feet is very much a product of its time but no less enjoyable for it. It's amusing by modern standards to see the flight attendants wandering around in mini-skirts and go-go boots being called ‘baby' by the pilot and ‘honey' by the passengers. This was an era where it was completely acceptable to talk to women like that and just as acceptable to light up a cigarette while enjoying the flight. The odd fashions of the day only cement that, yes, this is very much a product of the seventies, but don't dismiss is as nothing more than camp value because despite the fact that it was made for TV, The Horror At 37,000 Feet is an effective and weird little cinematic oddity.
The characters are, for the most part, clichés. They don't have a lot of depth and they aren't particularly original but the cast do fine with their material. Chuck Connors looks as bug eyed and crazy as ever and it's fun to see The Professor from Gilligan's Island flying alongside him. Buddy Ebson is great as the cantankerous rich dude who gets off on bossing people around while Paul Winfield's doctor is about as cool and composed as they come.
None of these guys leave much of a lasting impression, however, but the movie has one serious ace up its sleeve… an ace named William Shatner. His character has some interesting inner turmoil to deal with as he pounds the booze and rants against the futility of it all despite the protests from Loring's Manya, a calm woman who does her best to sooth the obviously angry man. As the story evolves and the cause of all of the activity reveals itself, his character actually evolves in interesting, if slightly predictable ways and Shatner is actually a lot of fun to watch here.
At just short of seventy-five minutes in length this is a pretty enjoyable and fast paced picture. There are a few interesting effects set pieces, like a convulsing doll that oozes green slime and a scene that takes place in the cargo hold itself, that help to add some visual flair while the miniatures used to depict the exterior shots of the plane are charming in their obviousness. The movie's many flaws might be as plain as day, but the cast make this worth watching and as goofy as it might all seem, the story is actually an interesting one. Again, it's a product of its time, but if you dig made for TV movies from the seventies, The Horror At 37,000 Feet is one that's well worth checking out.
The Horror At 37,000 Feet arrives on DVD from CBS in its original 1.33. fullframe aspect ratio. Image quality won't blow you away but the transfer is clean and free of any obvious print damage. Colors look pretty good, they aren't going to melt your eyeballs but they seem accurate enough as do skin tones. Black levels are sometimes more of a dark grey but all in all, if this isn't the world's greatest image quality is perfectly fine and more than watchable.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track is also fine. Range is limited by the original source material but the levels are well balanced and the dialogue is easy to understand. The effects and the score are strong enough to add tension to the movie but they never overpower the performers. There wasn't any audible hiss or distortion detected during playback and while it's a little on the flat side it sounds pretty good for an older made for TV movie. Optional English closed captioning is provided but there are no other subtitle options or language options offered.
Outside of an advertisement for Star Trek Blu-ray's and a static menu offering chapter selection, there are no extra features on this disc.
The Horror At 37,000 Feet is goofy, it's campy and it's even unintentionally comedic in spots but if nothing else, it's a whole lot of fun entertainment. Shatner steals the show here, creating a character we're interested in and delivering his performance in his own inimitable style, but the rest of the cast are fine too. Some cool effects scenes and interesting, albeit sometimes hokey, ideas at play help to build suspense and, yeah, this is fun. It's not technically ‘great' by traditional standards but for what it is, it's hard not to have a good time with it. The DVD is disappointingly barebones but it looks and sounds okay. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.