- Michael Rickard II
"'The Horror at 37,000 Feet': Carpet Chewing by an All-Star TV Cast."
CBS rounded up every 1960's film star they could find.
If the idea of a supernatural force terrorizing a jet flight full of guest stars ranging from Chuck Connors, Buddy Ebsen, William Shatner, Roy Thinnes, Russell Johnson, to Paul Winfield isn’t enough to grab your attention, then it’s hard to think of anything that will. The Horror at 37,000 Feet is a vintage made-for-television movie with an unbelievable line-up of 60’s TV stars battling for their very survival. With the Shat leading an all-star cast, this one created must-see TV, long before NBC.
You'd think the Shat would have learned his lesson about airline travel.
While ABC’s The ABC Movie of the Week was known for some classic made-for-television movies dealing with the supernatural, its competitors got in on the act once they saw the ratings benefits of the made-for-television film. CBS’ The Horror at 37,000 Feet (Horror) features some of TV’s biggest names in one of its most bizarre (but deliciously fun) horror films.
This delight originally aired on CBS on February 13, 1973, which makes you wonder who programmed this the day before Valentine’s Day? Love Story this isn’t, but despite the questionable day to air it, The Horror at 37,000 Feet is a lot of fun as everyone chews up the scenery in this airline epic.
To pretend he's scared, Russell Johnson thinks of having to appear on Gilligan's Planet.
Set in the days when first class airfare seemingly meant a fully stocked luxury box the size of a football field, the film incorporates the melodrama of the Airport movies (every passenger is dealing with some personal problem before they all deal with the problem of croaking in the friendly skies) and the unexpected menace that awaits them (although in this case, it’s a supernatural creature). Unlike Airport and its many sequels, Horror showcases your favorite TV stars rather than your favorite film stars.
Quite frankly, Horror has some iconic stars from 60’s TV shows. You’ve got The Shat at the head of the pack, playing a disillusioned priest (the only kind you saw in the 70’s), Buddy Ebsen (The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones) playing a ruthless businessman (a deconstructionalist take on Jeb Clampett after OPEC?) , Roy Thinnes (of the cult sci-fi classic The Invaders) as an architect with a hidden agenda, Russell Johnson (Gilligan’s Island) a co-pilot who realizes he should have stayed on that deserted island), Paul Winfield (who co-starred with the Shat in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), and last, but not least, Chuck Connors (aka The Rifleman) playing the airline pilot trying to figure out what the heck is going on (much as the screenwriters did).
Paul Winfield is awestruck by the Shat's latest rug.
Part of the film’s beauty is watching its stars play roles outside of their range. Ebsen is terrific as he plays a jerk who’s consumed by the power wealth brings him while Johnson just seems happy to have found work after Gilligan’s Island (and to be fair, the talented actor did find more than a few roles on TV) The Shat plays one of his many roles where he tried to step away from his role as Captain Kirk by portraying someone unusual. Here, he’s clearly having fun as a washed-up priest who enjoys his booze. Like any Shatner role from the 70’s, he’s wearing a toupee that defies description and that seems ready to walk off his head at any moment. Finally, Chuck Connors gets to do something different than stare menacingly with a rifle in his hand. Okay, he stares menacingly without a rifle, but he does wear a pilot’s uniform.
The plot is short on details, but there’s something funny going on in the storage compartment and since this is 1973, it’s not snakes (Snakes on a Plane) or zombies (Flight of the Living Dead), but some supernatural menace that’s sprung loose. In this case, an unexplained phenomenon from a druid altar that threatens the lives of everyone on board the flight. CBS threw some money into the sets and effects, but apparently not much into the story. No one seems to be certain what is threatening them or how to kill it. All we know is that the Shat decides to slip back into his priest duds and do his best to kill the supernatural force, before it wipes out some of the 1960’s biggest TV legends.
The Horror at 37,000 Feet isn’t a good movie by any standards. Even if you accept it’s over 40 years old, the plot is barer than the Shat’s scalp. The only thing this film has going for it is the sheer amount of carpet chewing by its collective cast. In that respect, it’s worth watching, particularly if you grew up watching the film’s stars during their respective heydays. The film isn’t scary but it will make you laugh, particularly if you like giving films the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.
How many more years until Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
Marill, Alvin. Movies Made for Television: The Telefeature and the Mini-Series: 1964-1986. New York Zoetrope, 1987.
McKenna, Michael. The ABC Movie of the Week: Big Movies for the Small Screen. Scarecrow Press, 2013.
Reyes, Amanda. Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999.