We’re currently experiencing what is perhaps the best time in history for horror television programing, but what we’re missing is good TV movies. Save for the occasional miniseries or Syfy schlockfest, it’s increasingly rare to see a made-for-TV horror feature. In the ’70s and ’80s, on the other hand, major networks often premiered memorable horror films, such as Duel, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Trilogy of Terror, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and The Midnight Hour. One such TV chiller is The Horror at 37,000 Feet, which premiered on CBS in 1973. After eluding home video in the decades since, it’s finally available via Paramount.
The movie follows a small group of airplane passengers – because it’s an “extra flight,” there’s only a handful of people on board – on an ill-fated flight from London to New York. Take off is smooth and, despite some turbulence, nothing seems out of the ordinary at first… until it’s discovered the plane isn’t making any progress. Bewildering the crew and passengers alike, the flight’s position fails to change even after a full turnaround. Meanwhile, precious fuel is burning away.
After more strange occurrences – the radios go down, a woman speaks Latin despite never studying it, a pulsating goo is discovered, a dog is frozen, a voodoo doll is sacrificed – all signs point to the cargo hold. As it turns out, one of the passengers is storing an ancient, sacrificial stone aboard the flight, and its Druid gods are none to happy about its upheaval. The eclectic cast of stock characters – led by reluctant hero Paul Kovalik (the one and only William Shatner), an defrocked priest turned cynical alcoholic – must band together if they want to survive.
The story is reminiscent of a drawn-out episode of The Twilight Zone, so seeing Shater (who, of course, starred in one of the shows most memorable episodes, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a decade prior) deal with evil aboard a plane again is doubly enjoyable. He may have the juiciest role – including a memorable monologue about his loss of faith – but he’s not the actor who’s fun to watch. The cast also includes Chuck Connors (Soylent Green), Buddy Ebsen (The Beverly Hillbillies), Russell Johnson (Gilligan’s Island) and Paul Winfield (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).
With a scant 73-minute runtime, The Horror at 37,000 Feet has no trouble maintaining audience interest. Director David Lowell Rich made a career out of helming TV movies, so he knew exactly what he was doing. One of the most interesting aspects of the script, written by Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan, is that the evil force is never completely explained. Too often – as much now as back then – a reveal is met with disappoint, so the ambiguity is welcome.
The DVD quality, while not quite perfect, is innumerably better the bootlegs that have been floating around for years. The disc is bare bones – no surprise, considering it’s an obscure made-for-TV movie from the ’70s – but I’m happy to have an official release of it all the same.
The Horror at 37,000 Feet gets a bad rap – Shatner himself has been quoted as saying that many of his fans consider it his worst movie – but it’s quite enjoyable if you’re in the right mindset. Melodramatic and spotty, sure, but that was par for the course. It’s difficult not to enjoy the distinctly ’70s silliness from 37,000 feet in the air.