Considering William Shatner is best known for captaining a starship, his television characters sure have bad luck with air travel. In 1963, his Robert Wilson experienced a "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," watching a shaggy gremlin rip machinery from the wing of a soaring airplane in one of the all-time great episodes of The Twilight Zone. Shatner clawed at his face and bugged his eyeballs at the frightening visions seen from his window seat.
A decade later, the Star Trek star took his airplane terrors and exaggerated Shatnerism to new heights in a made-for-TV movie called The Horror at 37,000 Feet. This time, Captain Kirk had some fellow Sixties icons along for the ride, including stars of Gilligan's Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Rifleman and The Invaders — not to mention a baby doll that looked like Mrs. Beasley oozing green slime.
The title The Horror at 37,000 Feet seemed to be a nod to that unforgettable Twilight Zone tale. Casting Shatner as a passenger certainly underlines the reference. Yet, this kooky primetime spookfest was more of a shameless blend of two Seventies trends — airline disaster flicks and occult horror films.
Airport had been the second-highest grossing film of 1970. A year later, sleepless readers tore through the pages of The Exorcist, the second-highest selling novel of 1971. Those pop culture phenomena spawned entire subgenres, from popcorn movies like Skyjacked and Terror in the Sky, to television horror such as 1972's The Night Stalker.
In some ways, the low-budget Horror at 37,000 Feet was ahead of the curve, as it first aired on CBS in February 1973. Stephen King was submitting his first novel to publishers. The Exorcist film adaptation was still in production. Airport had yet to release its many sequels. (The Horror at 37,000 Feet director David Lowell Rich would even go on to helm one of them, The Concorde ... Airport '79.)
So, at the very least, this made-for-TV B-movie could claim precedence. Even if the unintentionally amusing results came out closer to Airplane! than Airport. Where else could you hear Chuck Connors spout lines like, "What is this rim of the world jazz?!" Come to think of it, in the 1970s, that was perhaps not so abnormal.
A slew of famous faces came along for the frightening ride with Connors and Shatner. Russell Johnson, a.k.a. "The Professor" from Gilligan's Island, joined the erstwhile Rifleman in the cockpit as the flight engineer. Roy Thinnes and Buddy Ebsen were typecast as an architect and a millionaire, just as they had played on The Invaders and The Beverly Hillbillies, respectively. Tammy Grimes, the Broadway comedian who once turned down the lead role on Bewitched, portrays a concerned citizen who is flying from London to New York to protest the dismantling of a chapel.
Oh, right, we should mention that flight 19X is hauling the pieces of a medieval abbey, like massive LEGO, in its cargo hold. You see, Thinnes' architect character is transporting the sacred building across the ocean. Too bad for him that he ends up on the same flight as the woman protesting the dismantling of the abbey. Too bad for all the passengers aboard the plane, really, because that medieval stone is clearly haunted and angry about its transatlantic relocation.
Due to the special nature of the flight, the AOA Airlines (presumably Atlantic Ocean Airways, though it's never said) 747 jet carried a mere ten passengers. Checking a medieval chapel as baggage takes up a lot of the weight allowance.
It hardly takes long for the possessed chapel to flex its demonic muscle. Sheila, the architect's wife, played by Jane Merrow, hears ominous Latin chanting in her headphones. Soon, the flight attendant is trapped inside the plane's elevator (it's a swank 747, remember) and killed by a faint fog. Alas, her bizarre uniform, a hardhat with go-go boots, failed to protect her.
Then, poor Russell Johnson is frozen stiff into a popsicle when he and Connors investigate the mysterious frigid cargo hold. The single kid on the flight sees her precious doll spew green sludge from its eye sockets. Eventually, Shatner's ex-priest character lights a torch (smoking was allowed on planes in those days) to confront the spirit… only to be sucked through an emergency door. His stiff, splayed body disappears into the dawn light in a green-screen effect that barely impacted the budget.
In his 2008 autobiography Up Till Now, Shatner explained, "I get sucked out of an airplane while carrying a lit torch into the airliner's baggage compartment to try to confront a druid ghost." Yep, that sums it up. He then wrote that many of his fans cite The Horror at 37,000 Feet as his worst movie. Hey, it has a slightly higher rating on IMDb than Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (5.6 to 5.5).
But The Horror at 37,000 Feet can hardly be counted as disappointing. It is the uncut, pure essence of early 1970s made-for-TV movies. What other era could produce Buddy Ebsen barking, "Don't play games with me, honey! Regulations don't count now!" after seeing a pool of bubbling green sludge on an airplane floor?
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