Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie of the Week Blogathon: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973)


A film that deftly weaves together those twin 1970’s obsessions--the airplane-in-distress movie and the supernatural thriller. HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is a thoroughly entertaining movie with eminent rewatchability. On Midsummer’s Eve a jet airplane travels from England to America carrying a dozen passengers and ominously the stone chapel of Grove Abbey, site of human sacrifices and home to a Druid sacrificial stone. Adding insult to injury, the decadent architect intends to use the rebuilt abbey as a bar on Long Island. Strange and stranger things immediately begin happening aboard this hellbound flight.

This CBS-produced movie aired on Tuesday, February 13, 1973. Two strengths are its brisk running time of 73 minutes. The action never lags. Second, aside from the opening scene at the Heathrow Airport ticket desk where we meet some key players, the entirety of the movie’s action unfolds aboard the jet.

But what really puts this film over the top is the cast. William Shatner, Roy Thinnes, Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Connors, Will Hutchins, Paul Winfield, Tammy Grimes, the Professor and Elaan of Troyius! For fans of 1960’s television it was a treat to see sci-fi series stars Captain Kirk of STAR TREK and David Vincent of THE INVADERS together. Buddy Ebsen, erstwhile Clampett clan chief, had just a month earlier premiered his folksy detective BARNABY JONES. [And interestingly, the second episode of that series broadcast a week before this movie boasted guest stars William Shatner and Darleen Carr!]

Shatner’s brooding defrocked priest Paul Kovalik was the film’s protagonist and bright light. He shined in every scene, with a highlight being his conversation about faith and fear with Jane Merrow in the bar.  His character had the greatest depth and experienced the greatest change over the course of the story. It was also a restrained performance by Shatner (I compare it favorably with Richard Burton's defrocked priest in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA). Wholly unbelievable, however, was the idea that scholarly Paul would ever have thrown it all away for the elfin guitar-plucking hippie Lyn Loring.  Her nagging, shrieking and hysterical panicking made her increasingly loathsome as the story progressed. I suspected their relationship died when Loring masterminded the ill-fated voodoo doll ruse while Shatner simmered with contempt.

Another highlight in a cast of luminaries was Paul Winfield’s refined and British-accented Doctor Enkalla. He was impeccably played and rose to a prominent role early on.  A short six months after this film was broadcast, Winfield was on the big screen headlining the blaxploitation classic GORDON’S WAR. One just has to admire this actor’s range. And of course Winfield would memorably appear alongside Shatner nine years later in STAR TREK II.

I was unfamiliar with Tammy Grimes, but she was enchanting as the druidess Mrs. Pinder secretly relishing her demonic deity’s onslaught upon the passengers. She was perfectly cast and played a formidable foil to Roy Thinnes’ apathetic architect Alan O’Neill (no David Vincent he). Alas, evil knows no loyalty, and learning later that her beloved dog Daemon was flash frozen by the entity appeared to have sent her cascading into a faith crisis.

Speaking of faith, the film has a recurring religious theme that is especially evident in the climactic ending. Paul’s horror at seeing the desperate passengers were about to offer Jane Merrow as a human sacrifice, coupled with the tearful pleading of a child, lead Paul to reembrace his faith (implied by the quick cut to him wearing his priestly collar). Hutchins’ yelling, “I see the sun!” had a striking parallel in Paul seeing the Son through eyes of faith. Paul’s being blasted through the airplane door was not the horrible death it appeared—which would make no sense in light of the victory he just achieved over evil—but rather his being assumed into heaven like Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus himself, a reward for his act of faith and sacrifice. 

Mine is perhaps an eccentric interpretation, but such religiously symbolic endings were not uncommon in this era (cf. the ending of THE OMEGA MAN). And it seems fitting in what was essentially a good vs. evil plot.

But the most important thing about HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is that it's just a lot of fun to watch and watch again. Make it a Midsummer's Eve tradition! And the film is available in a beautiful print on DVD or free on YouTube.

What Else Was Cool:

  • Buddy Ebsen’s businessman dressing down Roy Thinnes for not knowing what he was paying to transport the accursed abbey.
  • Mrs. Pinder referring to “The Old Ones,” which pricked up the ears of this Lovecraft fan.

What Was Fool: 

  • Will Hutchins not receiving an up-front credit. His bombastic Western actor Steve Holcomb was a key player. And a decade earlier Hutchins had his own series, SUGARFOOT, and later played sidekick to Elvis Presley in a couple movies. Creds a’plently for front billing.
  • Underutilized actors Russell Johnson and H.M. Wynant, though Wynant gets one of the movie’s best lines: “You can’t burn the plane to save it!”  France Nuyen was wasted, too.
  • The stewardesses’ outfits. Yeah, a lot of fans love them—hats and go-go boots—but to me they were just ridiculous.  They looked like something from a Gerry Anderson production.


After rewatching HORROR AT 37,000 FEET in anticipation of this blog post, YouTube kindly recommended to me a 1976 TV movie with a strikingly similar name--MAYDAY AT 40,000 FEET. Once I saw it starred David Janssen, Christopher George, and Dandy Don Meredith I was hopelessly hooked! So please stand by and watch this space for a complementary review of another mid-70's airplane-in-distress movie-of-the-week.


This review was just one of over twenty TV movie reviews posted today as part of the Classic Film & TV Café Movie of the Week Blogathon. Check out the full roster at Classic Film & TV Cafe.


  1. Yeah. What's all this disrespect to Will Hutchins!

    Thanks for the reminder to keep away from airplanes and Druids.

  2. Well, it is a hokey at times, but the cast puts their all into the performances--especially Shatner. I agree that he comes off best as the defrocked priest who ultimately takes matters into his own hands. The unlikely premise has a certain wacky charm and I do admit that I'm partial to movies that take place almost entirely in confined spaces. (Great Gerry Anderson reference, by the way!)

  3. I heard of this film, but I never watched it. You definitely make it sound like a lot of fun. I remember Tammy Grimes mostly as a Broadway musical star. She appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and what I found most distinctive was her deep baritone voice.

  4. I was always a big fan of H.M. Wynant and wondered why he never became a more well known actor. But such are the vagaries of Hollywood fame. :)

    I'd never heard of this film, so thank for the intro. It does sound like a lot of fun.

    France Nuyen, coincidentally, starred in one of my very favorite Star Trek episodes alongside William Shatner. She played a princess of royal (alien) blood whose tears would drive men mad with desire. Yeah. Good times.

  5. Put William Shatner on an airplane, sit back and enjoy!
    Great job! Loved the review.
    Almost as much fun as the movie!
    BTW, the flick is available on DVD at Amazon or you can watch it on YouTube:

  6. I'm a sucker for these kinds of airplane movies, whether they're big budget or not. I'll be adding this one to my list. Thanks!