The Horror at 37,000 Feet

(1973, not rated) Chuck Connors (Cpt. Ernie Slade), Buddy Ebsen (Glen Farley), Tammy Grimes (Mrs. Pinder), Lyn Loring (Manya), Jane Merrow (Sheila O’Neill), France Nuyen (Annalique), William Shatner (Paul Kovalik), Roy Thinnes (Alan O’Neill), Paul Winfield (Dr. Enkala), Russell Johnson (Jim Hawley, flight engineer), Will Hutchins (Steve Holcomb), Darleen Carr (Margot), Brende Benet (Sally), H. M. Wynant (Frank Driscoll, co-pilot). Music: Morton Stevens. Screenplay: Ron Austin & James Bucchanan (story by V. X. Appleton). Director: David Lowell Rich. 76 minutes.

Tags: Horror, Made-For-TV, Druids

Notable: Music by The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and  Hawaii Five-O’s Morton Stevens

Rating: ★★★★☆

A chartered 747 jet departs Heathrow airport bearing ten passengers, a crew of five, and 11,000 pounds of “architectural features” — part of an English abbey being transported back to the U.S. Small mysteries grow larger as the plane appears to be facing a 600mph headwind, stuck in mid-air as if held there, and the passengers and crew are struck by invisible tormentors. It is the night of the summer solstice, the altar stone of the abbey was once part of a site where Drudic ritual sacrifices were held… and the ancient spirits are demanding their due.

Of the myriad made-for-TV films that poured relentlessly from the Big Three networks during the 1970s, this one stands out as memorable for several reasons. First, as I was but a wee nip of a high-school pup at the time, the story gave me a few things to grow nightmares out of. For another, it got a fair portion of the pagan/druidic mythology correct (for a change). Also, as I look back with a slightly more jaundiced eye, I can see the plethora of “70s actors” that it contains, including Ebsen, Shatner, Thinnes, Connors, and even Paul Winfield, who managed to survive what was arguably the decade’s worst film, Damnation Alley (1977). We also get to see one more of the roles that Russell Johnson used to distance himself from Gilligan’s Island; the man was underrated.

This is a tale of a haunting aboard a jet liner, which is the modern equivalent of being on a deserted island — suspended between nowhere and nowhere-else in the depths of an inky night sky. The date of the summer solstice is no accident; it’s vital to the nature-based mythology that is central to the plot. I also like that what is supposed to be a Christian religious artifact (the remains of an abbey, including the altar) contains at least one major stone that was used for ritual human sacrifice. (Scholars differ on whether or not the Druids performed human sacrifices, but it is something associated with the early Celts, at least according to the writings of Strabo [64/63 BCE – 21 CE].) The Christians of Olde Europe and Britain attempted to quash paganism by, quite literally, absorbing it. In this case, they might have been wise to have visited a different quarry.

Perhaps the most interesting twist in this story is that it isn’t really about a battle between good and evil, in their most recognized forms; it is instead a battle between rational thought and the fear borne of ignorance. The best dialog exchange occurs between Dr. Enkala (Winfield), the voice of reason, and ex-priest Kovalik (Shatner), the voice of faded faith. As they watch their fellow passengers descend into fear-filled madness to fight the demons, Shatner judges them with a single word:

KOVALIK: Savages.

ENKALA: Yes. Frightened savages, waiting to be led. And they will be led — into darkness or into light.

KOVALIK: Be my guest.

ENKALA: Would that I had that strength of purpose. But I have only words, and they are far beyond that now.

Other delightful tidbits of terror in this film include: An unconscious woman reciting the words of a black mass, in Latin; a child’s doll being offered as a voodoo substitute for the human sacrifice that the evil demands; and some genuinely creepy bits of suspense-building that I won’t spoil for you. Watch Tammy Grimes’ performance; she makes quite the “wicked witch,” in her quietly English way.

Writers Austin and Bucchanan are familiar to me as the team behind Paper Man, another above-average MFTV tale from only a year before (as I recall). I give them bonus points for an intelligent script that has a couple of thoughts that dive below the mere surface of the commonplace.

All in all, worth watching. Pass the popcorn.

(I hate to mention that you might be able to find the entire film on YouTube or elsewhere on line. Clean copies do exist on DVD from various online sources, including the Great Satan Amazon.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *