September 7, 2019

Dracula vs. the Hippies: Special '70s Hammer Horror Edition, Part Two

Poster - Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Now Playing: Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

Pros: Peter Cushing’s gravitas offsets some of the cringe-inducing aspects of the film; Stephanie Beacham is very good as Cushing’s granddaughter, Jessica Van Helsing.
Cons: The film’s attempt to capture the look and lingo of ‘70s London youth culture descends to near-parody.

In part one of my examination of Hammer’s early ‘70s attempt to crack the youth market, I reviewed Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). Despite the lurid title, the film was a not-so-subtle dig at the establishment, what with almost all the adult characters being corrupt or incompetent, and a climax that had the young protagonists saving the day without any help from their useless elders.

Just a little over two years after Taste the Blood, Hammer released Dracula A.D. 1972, which on the surface looked to be an extreme concession to the youth market, set in the (then) present day and full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. And yet, the underlying message is a mirror image to the previous film’s -- this time, it’s the younger generation’s turn to be almost uniformly corrupt and/or incompetent, and the old guard’s turn to save their butts from the evil they’ve unwittingly released.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) scores his first victim in Dracula A.D. 1972
"Hmmm, dense and full-bodied, with overtones of weed,
barbiturates and vodka, and just a hint of espresso..."
As for resurrecting Dracula, by 1972 Hammer had boiled it down to a few simple steps.

“Bloody Dracula” Recipe (with apologies to Bloody Mary)

1 vial of Dracula’s ashes
Liberal amount of blood from an acolyte or sacrificial victim
1 de-sanctified church
A group of bored, corruptible disciples
1 Black Mass
Optional: Dracula’s cape or ring


Mix the first two ingredients while celebrating the Black Mass with your disciples in the de-sanctified church. Wearing Dracula’s cape and/or ring is not required, but it looks cooler. Skol!

The creepy instigator in A.D. 1972 is Johnny Alucard (hmmm, that name seems familiar somehow), played by Christopher Neame. Johnny is part of a group of “with it” kids who have grown bored with their usual routine of crashing adult parties, smoking pot, and hanging out at bars until the wee hours.

Johnny proposes that they do something “way, way out,” by celebrating a black mass at the local abandoned, de-sanctified church. Most of the group thinks it might be good for some “giggles,” but Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) and her boyfriend Bob (Philip Miller) are leery of playing around at something so dark and twisted. Still, they relent and everyone agrees to meet at midnight at the church.

Little do they know that Johnny is a deadly serious descendant of a disciple of Dracula’s, and intends to resurrect the Count on the 100th anniversary of the battle between the vampire and Lawrence Van Helsing that resulted in both their deaths.

Jessica and Bob are even more weirded out when they discover Van Helsing’s grave marker in the churchyard (Jessica is a great-granddaughter), and realize the significance of the date. But, peer pressure being what it is, they participate anyway.

Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) presides over the Black Mass, Dracula A.D. 1972
Johnny violates the laws of God and Man, and London's
regulations banning smoking in public places.
In this 1972 version of the Black Mass, Alucard, wearing a monk’s cowl (and Dracula’s ring!), presides to the accompaniment of weird music playing on a tape deck. His band of unwitting disciples are sitting around a pentagram drawn on the floor, swaying to the primeval beat. In one of the film's more embarrassing moments, Johnny exhorts them to “Dig the music kids!”

Johnny wants Jessica to come to the altar to complete the ritual, but she freezes like a deer in the headlights, knowing that something is definitely not right. Jessica’s friend Laura (Caroline Munro), gets caught up in the moment and enthusiastically volunteers (a decision she will very quickly regret).

Before you can say “Alucard,” there is the glint of the ritual knife, pouring blood, and Dracula’s ashes boiling up like an infernal stew. When Johnny pours the bloody mess all over Laura’s heaving chest, the other kids scatter to the four winds. Jessica doesn’t want to leave the sobbing Laura behind, but Bob’s self-preservation instincts win out and he drags her away.

Johnny delivers the coup-de-grace when he removes the stake (the splintered carriage spoke that killed Dracula a century before) from the Count’s remains, which were surreptitiously buried on the church grounds near Van Helsing’s.

Laura learns an important life lesson -- never voluntarily lie on a de-sanctified altar during a Black Mass -- but unfortunately it goes to waste as she becomes the revivified Count’s first victim. Her body, drained of blood, is discovered at a construction site near the church. Meanwhile, Johnny, who witnessed her demise, coolly tells his friends that she’s gone off to visit family.

Lorrimer (Peter Cushing) and Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) have a heart-to-heart talk in Dracula A.D. 1972
Jessica tells her grandfather all about the peer pressure
to smoke, drink, do drugs, and conduct ritual sacrifices.
To investigators, a body drained of blood and dumped near a de-sanctified church has all the earmarks of a cult ritual killing. When they identify the victim and connect the dots to her friends, Jessica’s name pops up. Lead Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) is intrigued, recalling that Lorrimer, Jessica’s grandfather and a respected anthropologist and expert on the occult (Peter Cushing), had helped Scotland Yard previously on a case involving modern-day witchcraft. Jessica and Lorrimer suddenly become persons-of-interest.

The inspectors interview Lorrimer first, who, upon learning that Laura’s body was drained, schools the skeptical policemen on the “positive proof” of vampires and his own grandfather’s battle with Dracula. “There are dark corners, horrors almost impossible to imagine, even in our worst nightmares,” he informs them. However, Lorrimer’s academic interest in a possible case of vampirism turns into real concern when he learns that his granddaughter is involved.

Scotland Yard turns out to be the least of their concerns, as Dracula, with the aid of disciple Johnny, begins hunting down the kids with the ultimate aim of wreaking vengeance on all living Van Helsings.

In Taste the Blood of Dracula, the young Londoners were both the instrument of Dracula’s revenge and his undoing. The corrupt, hypocritical Victorian establishment was responsible for the Count’s resurrection, and only incorruptible youth could save the day. Fast forward to 1972, and it’s now the establishment’s turn (in the form of Scotland Yard and the astute, scholarly Lorrimer Van Helsing) to save London from the actions of clueless youngsters.

Bar scene in Dracula A.D. 1972
Sex, drugs and black masses don't seem to be doing the
trick for the callow youths of London.

In both films, Dracula is the dark, merciless Karma that catches up with the hypocritical hedonists of the leisure class, young and old. Both are subversive in the sense that, in spite of the obvious suffering of the victims, there’s a little piece of us (or maybe a big piece) thinking that they're getting what they deserve.

A.D. 1972’s counter-counterculture message is that the kids are definitely not alright, that in their selfishness and hedonism they are nothing but spoiled lambs to the slaughter in the face of evil -- with the exception of Jessica of course, who after all, is a Van Helsing. Jessica’s head and heart are in the right place, but she has problems resisting peer pressure.

Stephanie Beacham is very natural and authentic portraying a girl torn between pleasing her less cautious, less intelligent friends and living up to her grandfather’s faith in her. Peter Cushing is a delight as usual as the refined, empathetic Lorrimer, surrounded by books and artifacts accumulated over a long academic career, yet willing to step up and be a man of action when the circumstances call for it. Their scenes together -- he, the doting, concerned grandfather; she, grateful for the concern but also feisty and wanting to live life on her own terms -- save the film from being just a cheesy horror genre rip on youth culture.

** SPOILERS: PROCEED WITH CAUTION! **

A.D. 1972 once again calls for Van Helsing to put aside his books and gentlemanly manner and become a man of geri-action. Since Cushing was pushing 60 at the time, he wasn’t required to get quite as physical as in earlier roles, but in vampire hunter mode he still is stabbed with a switchblade, chased up the old church stairs, and generally thrown around like a rag doll (okay, so I'm sure there was a stunt man involved, but still...).

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) confronts Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) in Dracula A.D. 1972
Johnny is upset about missing his morning nap.
Of course, as every vampire slayer knows, you kill ‘em with brains, not brawn. Disciple Johnny, who by this point has been turned into a vampire, is first on the list. After Johnny stabs Van Helsing in the arm with a switchblade (I guess new vampires often revert to the tools they know rather than relying on their super-strength or sharp canines), it looks bad for the vampire hunter. But as the morning sun’s rays stream through the curtains of Johnny’s apartment, Lorrimer cleverly throws a bible and cross into his coffin, then uses a makeup mirror (vain boy, that Johnny) to direct the light onto the hapless lad and force him into the bathroom, where there is plenty of sunlight and clear, running water from the shower to dispense with him.

Sidebar: At the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA this past June, Christopher Neame was asked about his experiences on the set of A.D. 1972. Being only 23 at the time, he recalled that the slender, self-effacing Cushing was as "strong as an ox,” during filming of the fight scenes. He also laughed about his death scene. Back in the day, English film crews observed strict union rules and hours. Once the director yelled cut, everyone cleared out, leaving him soaked and in full makeup.

With one disciple down, Van Helsing must confront Dracula in his lair, the abandoned church, where Jessica is hypnotized and laid out on the altar. Before it’s all over, he will have to pull out all the stops and all his vampire-fighting tools, including holy water, a silver-bladed knife, and a special surprise trap in the churchyard. The coup-de-grace he administers to Dracula is particularly brutal.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) is repulsed by the silver cross Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) is wearing in Dracula A.D. 1972
Jessica Van Helsing does her best imitation of the lady
on all those truck mudflaps.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is a competent, traditional Hammer vampire story wrapped up in Mod packaging in a fairly cynical attempt to keep the kids flocking to the theaters and drive-ins. The depiction of London youth culture is as phony as a three-dollar bill (or should I say three pound note?), dreamed up by middle-aged writers and producers who seem to have done their research looking at tabloids and bad TV shows.

Still, if you can get past the cringey pandering, there are good performances (especially Cushing and Meacham), touching scenes between grandfather and granddaughter, and exciting action sequences.

As mentioned previously, Christopher Neame was a newcomer at the time, having only appeared in a small role in Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire (1971) and a couple of TV series before scoring as pasty-faced Johnny Alucard. He since has done dozens of movies and TV series, including stints on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. He’s still working, having recently made the Hammer homage House of the Gorgon (2019) with scream-queen icons Caroline Munroe, Veronica Carlson, and Martine Beswick and independent filmmaker Jamie Kennedy.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee go at it in the final confrontation of Dracula A.D. 1972
"Look here Van Helsing, this is how you do the Monster Mash!"
Stephanie Beacham is also still working, with a similarly lengthy list of TV shows and movies on her eclectic resume, including Pete Walker's Schizo (1976), Horrorplanet (aka Inseminoid; 1981), and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I’ll leave the final word with Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, the “biographers” of Hammer Films:
“[T]he film has long-suffered a reputation as a monumental misjudgement. … Dracula A.D. 1972 gets more entertaining with the passing of time, and is perhaps best enjoyed as an endearing, if naive, picture of an era that never was.” The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 157.
Where to find it: Dracula A.D. 1972 shares space with Taste the Blood of Dracula on a disc in the 4 Film Favorites: Draculas collection, available here.

August 27, 2019

Dracula Exploits the Generation Gap: Special ‘70s Hammer Horror Edition, Part One

Poster - Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Now Playing: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Pros: The backdrop of Victorian-era vice and hypocrisy is different and engaging; Ralph Bates is wonderfully hammy as a depraved aristocrat
Cons: The final confrontation with Dracula is something of a letdown
Generation Gap. Noun. : the differences in opinions, values, etc., between younger people and older people
-- Merriam-Webster.com
Merriam (may I call you Merriam?) further elaborates:
“The most famous generation gap is the baby boomers, many of whom came of age in the 1960s, and their parents, who grew up around the Great Depression and tended to have traditional values.

This generation gap was clearly evident in the rapid evolution of music during the 1950s and 1960s, when rock music, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam war forced many of America's young people to question many basic values. The beginnings of the women's movement, civil rights and the growth in birth control reinforced the baby boomers' controversial sense of self-determination that changed the course of the next several decades.”
As a boomer who was alive and somewhat sentient in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I can attest to that “controversial sense of self-determination.” We were gonna end the war, man, and shed all those bogus hang-ups, man, and live in peace, love and flower power, dig it?

Christopher Lee's first appearance in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
The youthful rebels of the late '60s and early '70s
had the establishment seeing red.
Then, as the ‘70s wore on and the bloom came off the counterculture rose, some of us looked around and realized that all that we’d accomplished was to participate in the greatest fashion catastrophe of all time, with its hideous polyester shirts, bell-bottoms, mini-skirts, go-go boots, and platform shoes. I challenge anyone my age to look at photos of themselves from that period and not wince at least a little.

At first The Man made fun of all those long-haired freaky people, but then realized he could pick their bell-bottom pockets just as easily as their parents’. Of course, all those regrettable clothes were a gold mine. On the entertainment front, pics like Beach Blanket Bingo and The Horror of Party Beach gave way to full-on youth rebellion stuff like the Hells Angels on Wheels and The Trip on drive-in screens.

Across the pond, Hammer Films, the birthplace of technicolor Gothic horror, was a little slow on the uptake. Motorcycle gangs and LSD trips weren’t their cup of tea, and were never going to be. But they did see the youth market’s writing on the wall, and gradually acknowledged it without abandoning the horror genre for which they were famous.

Taste the Blood of Dracula is set in Victorian-era London and is replete with Hammer’s signature costumes and mannered acting, but it also has a counterculture, don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 vibe to it. William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen) is an upper-crust patriarch who rules his home with an iron fist. He’s particularly hard on his sweet, innocent daughter Alice (Linda Hayden), having taken a visceral dislike to her intended suitor Paul (Anthony Higgins). He keeps her under practical house arrest to prevent the two from seeing each other.

The snake dance scene from Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Hargood and his friends are busy doing their "charity" work
rescuing orphaned boa constrictors.
Although appearing to be a grim paragon of rectitude, Hargood leads a double-life. On the pretense of doing charity work, he and two other outwardly respectable partners in vice, Samuel Paxton and Jonathan Secker (Peter Sallis and John Carson) go slumming periodically in the brothels of London’s East End.

But alas, after all the debauched binging, the trio have become jaded and bored. Not even watching a voluptuous exotic dancer (Mailaika Martin) and her pet boa constrictor can properly wax their mustaches, if you know what I mean. Enter Lord Courtly (Ralph Bates), a dissolute libertine who’s been disowned by his aristocrat father and mooches off of his equally corrupt friends.

A drunken Courtly barges into the trio’s private brothel room during the snake dance. After some initial outrage, the glib Courtly piques Hargood’s and his friends’ curiosity when he promises an experience beyond their wildest imaginations. He takes them to a shady merchant (Roy Kinnear) who has the infamous Dracula’s cape and ring, and a vial of his powdered blood. Courtly convinces his new-found wealthy friends to purchase the items for a small fortune, which they will use to celebrate a black mass -- everyone’s favorite way to stave off boredom.

They find an abandoned, de-consecrated church to conduct the ceremony. Officiating at the altar, Courtly, wearing Dracula’s cape, cuts open his hand and bleeds into his and the other men’s chalices, each containing a portion of the powdered blood. As the cups begin to boil like witches’ cauldrons he rails at the cowards to drink up.

Ralph Bates leads the Black Mass in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
It's happy hour at the old de-consecrated church, with two-for-one Bloody Marys.

It’s all too much for Hargood and his crew, who refuse to partake of the bloody concoction. After Courtly lustily downs his brew he collapses to the floor, gagging and flailing. Disgusted, the wealthy reprobates beat him to death with their canes and hightail it out of there.

That’s not the end of it for the trio, as Courtly’s body transmutes into Dracula, who once again is dead-alive and kicking and looking to exact retribution on the wealthy slummers for killing his acolyte. (On the other hand, Courtly’s body was the mechanism for Dracula’s resurrection, so maybe they did him a favor.) Dracula goes after the men one by one, using their own children to seal their doom.

The film gives more than a passing nod to the era’s youth rebellion zeitgeist. All the adults -- with the exception of Hargood’s well-meaning wife Martha, played by Gwen Watford -- are either corrupt hypocrites, actual monsters, or officious incompetents. Most of the young cast are victims drafted into Dracula’s small army of revenge -- Alice is seduced by Dracula and held in his thrall; Lucy Paxton (Isla Blair) and Jeremy Secker (Martin Jarvis) are outright turned into vampires. Only Paul is left to combat the evil that has seized his upper-crust world.

Paul Higgins and Michael Ripper in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Cobb is a graduate of the Inspector Clouseau
Detective Academy.
There is no cool, collected Van Helsing to save the day. The cops are worse than useless. When Alice goes missing, Inspector Cobb (played by veteran Hammer character actor Michael Ripper) dismisses Paul’s concerns with girls-will-be-girls flippancy.

** CAUTION: SPOILERS (SORT-OF) **

Ultimately it’s the kids, Paul and Alice (conveniently rescued at the last minute from Dracula’s spell), who save their little corner of London armed with only youthful purity and a cross. Unfortunately, the fateful climax in the abandoned church is one of the film’s disappointments. Without going into detail, dispatching the centuries-old Count is surprisingly easy. Dracula is reduced to throwing objects from the balcony like a toddler having a temper tantrum.

Another big head-scratcher is Dracula’s failure to turn sweet Alice into a vampire. He has two opportunities, but is distracted each time before he can do the deed. In his thrall, she has committed one murder for him and helped in another. I suppose a hypnotized human assistant is as good as vampire for a lot of things, but his lack of follow-through comes back to bite him in the end.

Linda Hayden and Christopher Lee in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
"You are completely under my spell Alice. Now go
and detail my car. Here are the keys."
On the plus side, Ralph Bates’ few minutes of screen time as the degenerate wastrel Courtly is a treat. Courtly is blithely arrogant, yet smooth enough to talk Hargood and his buddies into turning over vast sums of cash in order to finance their kinky predilections. At the Black Mass, Bates positively chews the scenery (in a good way) as he browbeats the faltering men to drink from their cups of blood.

According to Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes (The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 1997), when a reluctant Christopher Lee demanded a share of the gross to do yet another stint as Dracula, Hammer decided to turn the youthful Bates, only 29 at the time, into a new vampiric menace. Bates had a few TV series under his belt, but had yet to do a feature film.

The American distributor balked at the substitution, pointing out that they had co-financed the picture on the condition that Lee return as Dracula. Hammer execs had to backtrack and convince Lee to do the film. As a result, Bates’ role was drastically scaled back. (pp. 130-131)

Linda Hayden and Anthony Higgins (billed as Anthony Corlan) are fine as the young lovers. Hayden’s ‘70s horror resume includes The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), Night Watch (with Elizabeth Taylor, 1973), and Madhouse (with Vincent Price, 1974). Higgins/Corlan would go on to star in the excellent Vampire Circus (1972) as a handsome shape-shifting bloodsucker (see my review here).

Linda Hayden and Anthony Higgins at the climax of Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
"Alice, did you remember to bring the wooden stake? Alice?..."

James Bond fans will probably recognize Geoffrey Keen (Hargood) as the Defence Minister who appeared in 6 Bond films over the course of a decade, starting with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and ending with The Living Daylights (1987).

Although Lee vowed this would be his last movie for Hammer, he was dragged back 3 more times to portray the evil count for the studio: Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974). Scars is a throwback to Hammer’s signature 19th century, Central European setting. But A.D. 1972 is set in (then) present-day London, and takes the youth culture themes that Taste the Blood dabbled with and explodes them into a generational war: Dracula vs. the hippies.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where we will dig up more generational conflicts in Dracula A.D. 1972.

Where to find it: The 4 Film Favorites: Draculas collection, including Taste the Blood of Dracula and Dracula A.D. 1972 is available here

August 12, 2019

Fear of Flying: Special TV Movie Double Feature Edition

They say that for many things in life, it’s better not to know how the sausage gets made. That may be doubly true if you find yourself in a jetliner 5 miles up, cruising along at 500 mph. All the little headaches that are a standard part of flying these days are probably a blessing in disguise. If you’re distracted by the guy on your right who snores like a jumbo jet revving up, and by the old lady’s “comfort” dog on your left that nips at you every time you move in your cramped seat, then you probably don’t have time to dwell on the fact that U.S. jet manufacturers are allowed to “self-certify” that their planes meet FAA safety standards, and that many airlines outsource their aircraft maintenance to uncertified mechanics in places like Mexico and China.

Poster - The High and the Mighty (1954)
The desire to avoid thinking about how safety gets fed into the industry meat-grinder perhaps explains why we don’t see too many airliner-based disaster movies these days. It’s interesting that during the heyday of air travel, when it was as well-regulated, safe and comfortable as it’s ever going to be, Hollywood brought out so many hair-raising airplane movies.

Way back in 1954 John Wayne got the ball rolling (or should I say the crippled plane flying?) with his production of The High and the Mighty, about a disgraced co-pilot (Wayne) who has to step up when the airliner he’s on loses an engine mid-way through their Hawaii to California run, and the pilot (Robert Stack) loses his marbles. With an all-star cast of characters and more dramatic backstories than you can count, the film eventually set the stage for a whole host of 70’s disaster epics, especially the Airport series that began with the megahit Airport in 1970 and ended on a flat note with The Concorde: Airport ‘79. The cycle would return to its roots when Airplane! (1980) directly parodied The High and the Mighty to hilarious effect (and as an added homage included Robert Stack in its all-star supporting cast).

Before audience demand for airplane disaster flicks crashed and burned, TV producers decided to get in on the act. For some people, the idea of a machine weighing several hundred tons flying miles above the earth seems unnatural, if not downright uncanny. Here are two TV movies from the ‘70s that add supernatural horror to an already uncanny, unnerving situation.

DVD cover art - The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Now Playing: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

Pros: Features an "all-star" cast of familiar faces from the '60s and '70s
Cons: The “horror” is a big letdown

This CBS TV movie starts out like so many disaster pictures of the period, with an assortment of passengers from different walks of life (an architect, an ex-priest, a businessman, an actor, a doctor, etc.) assembling at London’s Heathrow airport to board a special red-eye flight to New York. There are only about 10 passengers sharing the very spacious 747 cabin, as it’s mainly a cargo flight.

As some of the characters' backstories are explored, we learn that most of the cargo hold contains pieces of an old abbey that wealthy architect Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) and his English wife Sheila (Jane Merrow) are transporting to New York to reassemble at their mansion (the abbey was part of Sheila’s ancestral estate). Also on the flight is Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes), an English busybody who opposed the O’Neill’s plans to break up the abbey, and who threatens to sue them in U.S. court in a last ditch effort.

Russell Johnson in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Flight engineer Hawley doesn't like the selection
of frozen entrees.
Mrs. Pinder ominously warns the O’Neills that they’ll be sorry they ever touched the old ruins, and sure enough, things start to get very weird very fast. First, the flight crew headed by Captain Ernie Slade (Chuck Connors) finds that the 747 is caught in the biggest headwinds ever, and the plane is making no progress at all over the Atlantic. When they try to turn around to head back to Heathrow, there’s still no progress, as if they’re caught in a whirlwind that’s keeping them stationary.

The next shoe to drop is in the cargo hold, where things are loudly banging around. A stewardess (Darleen Carr) who is preparing passenger meals in the galley next to the cargo hold is freaked out by strange noises, electrical power surges, and ice forming next to the cargo hatch. When the Captain and the flight engineer (Russell Johnson) go down to investigate, all heck breaks loose.

The problem with The Horror is that it’s not all that horrible, or even very spooky. Given the made-for-TV budget limitations, what we get is some weird music, some disembodied chanting, freezing ice, and something that looks like liquified silly putty that bubbles up from the plane’s lower decks.

William Shatner, Roy Thinnes and Jane Merrow in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Paul toasts his fellow passengers for joining Satan's
Mile High Club.
Midway through, Mrs. Pinder turns extra creepy. She gleefully tells the O’Neills that the part of the abbey they’re shipping was built over an altar used by ancient Druids for unspeakable sacrifices to “the Old Ones.” To make things more interesting, it’s the Summer Solstice, when witches and all manner of evil entities are unleashed to run riot over the earth. Apparently the spirits attached to the abbey like to play with the thermostat and their own version of silly putty.

The other problem with The Horror is that it shamelessly telegraphs its climax. When we learn that Paul Kovalik (William Shatner) is a defrocked priest who has lost his faith and prefers anesthetizing himself with alcohol to facing his inner demons, we know for certain that he will have to redeem himself by facing the actual demons that have taken over the plane.

Paul Winfield is also on hand as the prim Dr. Enkala, the requisite voice of science and reason. His role is to hem, haw, look concerned, and be pretty much useless as panic takes over.

Buddy Ebsen, Lynn Loring and France Nuyen in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
"Oh Mighty Old Ones, we humbly offer up this Chatty Cathy
to you... A $29.99 value at finer department stores!"
The rest of the cast -- Buddy Ebsen as a no-nonsense businessman, Lynn Loring as sad-sack Paul’s companion, Will Hutchins as a B-list Hollywood actor, France Nuyen as a beautiful, sophisticated model, and Mia Bendixsen as an innocent little girl traveling on her own (!?) -- are set pieces to demonstrate in dramatic fashion how perfectly normal, rational people can degenerate into blithering, superstitious idiots in the face of supernatural evil.

In an odd scene, the desperate group decides that their only chance is to offer a sacrifice to the Old Ones to get them to back off. At first it looks as if they’re going to go after the helpless little girl, but instead snatch her doll away to dress it up in a scarf and a lock of Mrs. O’Neill’s hair. Then they offer it up to the bubbling green slime to propitiate the evil entities. Yikes!

The writers were obviously trying to elevate the proceedings with a serious message about the weakness of science and reason in the absence of faith, or something like that, but at this particular point their credibility with me bubbled away like so much demonic silly putty. They needed to invest a little less in the cliched message and a little more in a scarier supernatural menace. But that’s just me -- your results may vary.

Where to find it: A decent streaming upload can be found here, or the DVD here.


Video cover art for The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
Now Playing: The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)

Pros: Generates nail-biting suspense in recreating a real-life airliner crash; Cast is top-notch
Cons: The ghostly scenes are creepy, but too brief; Much of the movie centers around various employees trying to convince the airline executive played by Gary Lockwood that the hauntings are real

Ghost aired on NBC in February of 1978. Based on the book by John G. Fuller, it is based on the real life crash of Eastern Airlines flight 401 in the Florida Everglades on December 29, 1972. The pilots and flight engineer were all killed, but 8 out of the 10 attendants and 67 (out of 163) passengers survived.

While the producers changed the name of the airline and many of the characters for the movie, it provides a nail-biting and apparently pretty accurate depiction of the run up to and aftermath of the crash. In this case, something very small -- an indicator light for the nose landing gear -- caused an enormous tragedy. When it fails to light up on their approach into Miami International Airport, the Captain (played by Russell Johnson in his second TV air disaster/horror movie of the decade) dispatches flight engineer Dom Cimoli (Ernest Borgnine) to the “hellhole” underneath the cockpit to try to visually determine if the gear is deployed or not.

Kim Basinger in The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
Kim Basinger appears as flight attendant Prissy Frasier
With the flight engineer busy below and the pilot and co-pilot obsessed with troubleshooting the indicator panel, they fail to notice that the autopilot has been disengaged in their holding pattern and the plane is steadily losing altitude.

The movie also accurately depicts the heroic efforts of an airboat operator (Robert "Bud" Marquis in real life) who was out hunting frogs in the vicinity, and who rescued many of the passengers.

Somehow Cimoli survives the initial crash but dies of his injuries later at the hospital. Borgnine as Cimoli adds poignancy to the story, portraying a very likeable, selfless colleague (he trades with another engineer for the fatal flight) and a loving husband. Carol Rossen is also effective as Cimoli’s wife, who has a bad feeling about the upcoming flight, but can’t talk her straight-arrow husband into calling in sick.

Most of the post-crash part of the movie is Gary Lockwood’s, playing Jordan Evanhower, a former pilot, close friend of the Cimolis, and an executive with the airline. Evanhower is a man caught between loyalty to his bosses and his good friends when those friends -- attendants and even experienced pilots -- report that Cimoli is still reporting for duty on various flights.

Ernest Borgnine in The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
The ghost of Dom Cimoli reports for duty with an
important message about the virtues of recycling.
Evanhower’s skepticism and company loyalty are tested when it appears that Cimoli is showing up on airplanes that have been fitted with recycled parts from the crashed plane. Even by the end of the movie, when he’s attending a seance aimed at trying to put Cimoli’s ghost to rest (held by a fellow pilot and spirit medium, no less!), Evanhower is battling conflicting emotions.

Fans of straight out horror may not find that much to whet their appetites here, as the ghost makes only a few brief (but effective) appearances. Much of the movie is about company politics and Evanhower’s soul-searching. Still, it provides some very suspenseful scenes of a disaster in the making, and the ostensibly true story is intriguing.

A posting in IMDb’s Trivia section maintains that the claims made in John G. Fuller’s source book have all been debunked. Other user posts on the movie’s page assert otherwise. Whatever you believe, The Ghost of Flight 401 is a tight drama with some very good performances and a couple of genuine chills thrown in for good measure.

Where to find it: A watchable streaming upload can be found here.