The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973, David Lowell Rich)

I should’ve realized there was no hope for The Horror at 37,000 Feet when Paul Winfield shows up the first time and he’s got an English accent but it’s probably supposed to be somewhere from previously colonial Africa. 37,000 is a TV movie from 1973; there’s a cultural context to the only Black person in the movie doing a really silly English accent and being a doctor. Winfield’s there to be a cartoon character more than a caricature. It’s Winfield, of course, so he at least manages to make it seem legit but… he’s not supposed to get to actually do anything. William Shatner, on the other hand, he gets to do something. Nothing really good, but some things. There are a couple moments when it seems like he’s actually engaged with his performance and not just on auto-pilot. No pun intended.

37,000 is a haunted house story set on an airplane. Roy Thinnes plays a rich guy architect—they were a thing in seventy-three, no doubt—who has rented out the commercial airplane to transport a bunch of English ruins back to the United States. The ruins are from wife Jane Merrow’s estate. Thinnes is just trying to be a good guy and bring them back. Because he cares about his wife’s family history even as he tries to make time with fellow passenger France Nuyen while away Merrow.

So Thinnes is a bit of a prick. Eventually he stands up for Merrow when it counts, even though it’s not particularly memorable. Maybe because most of the supporting cast is plotting to destroy Merrow; see, haunted airplane, they’ve got to make a human sacrifice.

How 37,000 isn’t more amusing after it turns Buddy Epsen into a would-be human sacrificer….

What’s weird about 37,000 is at least one of the writers—Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan—gets the whole “people in intense situations lose their grip” thing. Professional mansplainer Epsen, Spaghetti Western star Will Hutchins, Shatner groupie Lynn Loring, and supermodel France Nuyen all deciding the only rational response to the haunted airplane is to sacrifice someone? It works. Narratively speaking. Sadly the script’s crap, so it doesn’t matter if it’s got sound character development. The acting’s also crap and Rich’s direction is drab; it’s not all the script’s fault. There’s lots of fault to go around.

Though you can’t really get mad at whatever effects person said the onscreen personification of the haunting was going to be shit coming up from the floor. Bubbling shit. It’s really gross. Unfortunately, it’s a tick in the more frequently ticked narratively unsound column of the movie’s details: no one get sick seeing the bubbling shit.

There are no good performances, though there are terrible ones. Loring in particular, followed by Hutchins and Epsen. Thinnes seems like he’s going to be good, but then isn’t (he and Merrow have marital problems caused by Thinnes’s constant gaslighting and implied infidelity; it’s the early seventies so he’s also trying to have her labeled insane because she doesn’t like those behaviors). Merrow’s bad. Tammy Grimes is almost good, but not. It’s not the script, it’s Grimes. She can’t layer her performance.

Shatner’s kind of fun. When he’s not, it’s not his fault. It’s the script. As the captain, Chuck Conners gets some terrible expository lines and doesn’t really react to his plane being immobilized at 37,000 feet by ghosts realistically, but he escapes mostly unscathed. Flight attendants Brenda Benet and Darleen Carr are fine.

Again, Winfield also gets through it with some dignity, which is probably the most successful thing in the film considering how much malarky the film lobs at him.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet is most interesting as an example of when a bad movie isn’t bad in the right ways to be amusing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Lowell Rich; teleplay by Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan, based on a story by V.X. Appleton; director of photography, Earl Rath; edited by Bud S. Isaacs; music by Morton Stevens; produced by Anthony Wilson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring William Shatner (Paul Kovalik), Jane Merrow (Sheila O’Neill), Roy Thinnes (Alan O’Neill), Lynn Loring (Manya), Tammy Grimes (Mrs. Pinder), Paul Winfield (Dr. Enkalla), Buddy Ebsen (Glenn Farlee), Will Hutchins (Steve Holcomb), Darleen Carr (Margot), Brenda Benet (Sally), Mia Bendixsen (Jodi), France Nuyen (Annalik), Russell Johnson (Jim Hawley), H.M. Wynant (Frank Driscoll), and Chuck Connors (Captain Ernie Slade).


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