Thursday, February 4, 2016

In short: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

Clearly, not at all named with any hopes in mind people might confuse it with a certain Twilight Zone episode, oh no.

An extra flight – therefore populated with few enough characters from the disaster movie playbook we’ll get to know them all, yay! – from London to L.A. runs into a spot of trouble. Nope, it’s not just William Shatner’s acting as a defrocked priest (though it is indeed hilarious enough to be dangerous to the weak of mind – see also, Things Man Was Not Meant To Know) that’s the problem here. Part of the plane’s cargo consists of altar pieces taken from an old English abbey, and as every reader of Jamesian ghost stories knows, that sort of thing can only lead to danger. This particular altar also includes a former Druidic sacrificial slab, so soon, women are speaking in Latin, the cargo hold freezes, and the plane isn’t moving very far any more.

What follows is mostly a competition between the actors concerning who can chew the horrible 70s psycho-babble dialogue the best/worst, some moments of “people not played by Paul Winfield become utter shites when under pressure”, and a lot of wind noises with a bit of added chanting.

As far as US 70s TV horror movies go, David Lowell Rich’s epic isn’t anything special. There’s little of the cleverness and actual sense for the creepy films like Gargoyles knew on display here, with Rich fumbling every possible fright scene through his nearly improbable bland professionalism. The script buries the seeds for what could be a cool little British style ghost story - but on a plane! -, or for an interesting little film about the differences between superstition and faith and what happens when these collide with something supernatural you really shouldn’t pray to, under a few too many 70s disaster movie  clichés, the already mentioned psycho-babble (where today’s TV is inordinately fond of clever quips, the 70s just loved to pretend to psychological depth by people spouting self-help book nonsense), and a haunting so hokey it’s pretty darn impossible not to use that dreaded word “camp” (the horror!). It’s rather frustrating, really, particularly once the film gets around to theoretically incredibly resonant scenes like the passengers preparing a doll as a symbolic sacrifice, and just buries them under the all-around hokum.

That impression of camp is certainly not dispelled by half a dozen actors fighting to out-act one another as outrageously as possible, resulting in so many bugged eyes, melodramatic pauses and weird line deliveries William Shatner’s acting approach here impresses as downright subtle, something that is bound to convince even a hardened sceptic like me of the existence of the supernatural.

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