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.

August 1, 2019

Films From Beyond’s Public Health Alert for Summer: Stay out of the Sun!

Poster - The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Now Playing: The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)

Pros: Effective monster mask/suit; Adds an unexpected alcoholism angle to its twist on horror movie themes.
Cons: The monster doesn’t have a lot to do until the final third of the film; The protagonist is so self-destructive he becomes unsympathetic at the end.

There’s bad news for those of us with extreme melanin deficiency. The killjoys at the Food and Drug Administration report that all that sunscreen we’ve been slathering on ourselves to keep from sizzling like a ribeye on the grill may not be so good after all. It seems that all those chemicals they list on the tube in micro-sized print -- the ones that end with -zone, -lene, -phate, -oxide, etc., -- can get absorbed through the skin (duh!), fan out through your bloodstream and potentially invite cancer cells to come party with them in your body.

While the media coverage of this development has been uniform in cautioning that the harm has not been definitively established and no one is recommending throwing out all of your sunscreen (at least not yet), I do find this quote from a article a bit concerning:
“The editorial [in the Journal of the American Medical Association] also calls for sunscreen manufacturers to commit to more safety tests, claiming that industry leaders have been hesitant to do so in the past. ‘Despite multiple efforts by the FDA to persuade sunscreen manufacturers to conduct key safety studies, the manufacturers have failed to produce such data, forcing the FDA to conduct its own studies,’ the editorial states.” [Maggie O’Neill, “FDA Warning Says the Chemicals in Sunscreen Can Be Absorbed in Your Bloodstream,” May 7, 2019]
So let me get this straight. A product that Americans coat themselves with to the tune of millions (billions?) of fluid ounces every year is not officially regulated (well hey, it’s not a food and it’s not a drug, so there you go), no one outside of the industry knows if it’s really safe or not, and if anyone on the inside has a clue, they’re not saying. All the government regulators can do is ask pretty please for more data, which they’re not getting, and only now, after all the ships have sailed and all the barn animals have disappeared, are conducting their own safety tests. Forgive me while I do a slow burn.

I suppose at this point I will have to trust the corporate media and keep applying all those -zones, -lenes, -phates and -oxides to my precious skin until some authoritative source tells me to stop. I don’t have much choice. I need my sunscreen to avoid living like the world’s most pathetic vampire. I don’t exactly turn to dust and blow away in direct sunlight, but within minutes, I feel my skin gently sizzling, and in no time at all I look like the main course at a Red Lobster.

On the upside, I have what you could call a very patriotic complexion. I start out white, then I add red stripes and patches where I haven’t applied the sunscreen well enough. The network of blue veins that I’ve developed in my old age completes the effect. No matter what time of year, I’m ready for the Fourth of July.

Robert Clarke as Dr. Gilbert McKenna, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Mild-mannered scientist Gil McKenna contemplates the new
FDA report as he bakes under the summer sun.
But it could be so much worse. Like the poor protagonist in The Hideous Sun Demon, I could have been exposed to radiation causing me to transform into a reptilian monster whenever I stepped out into the sun. (And then the FDA -- or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- would politely ask the atomic lab for data about radiation that turns people into humanoid lizards, and no doubt be told to mind their own business. But I digress.)

Typical of B sci-fi of the time, Sun Demon showcases the mutating effects of radiation, but instead of amazing colossal men, radioactive dinosaurs, or giant insects, the result is a human-sized scaly monstrosity. (Of course, the very low budget in the ballpark of $50k precluded anything more sophisticated than a man in monster suit and mask.)

Although born out of atom-age fears, the Sun Demon is more closely related to the classic horse and buggy-age horrors of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Universal’s Wolf Man than the irradiated creatures that had paraded across drive-in screens in the ‘50s. Like Dr. Jekyll, a mild-mannered scientist (Gilbert McKenna, played by writer-producer-star Robert Clarke), morphs into a dangerous throw-back on the evolutionary ladder. Like Dracula, the night is his friend. And like Larry Talbot, Gil McKenna is a tortured soul.

Unfortunately, the cut-rate production values make the Sun Demon a poor cousin to his cinematic antecedents. To make matters worse, the film spends far too much of its short 74 minute runtime on dull scientific exposition and clunky dialog, while showing the hideous monster only sparingly until the denouement.

It all starts when the butterfingered Dr. McKenna drops an exotic new radioactive isotope in the lab, passes out, and is exposed for several minutes. His colleagues, Drs. Ann Russell and Frederick Buckell (Patricia Manning and Patrick Whyte), and his primary physician (Robert Garry) are baffled that he’s not showing any of the typical symptoms of extreme radiation poisoning. They wisely keep him in the hospital for observation.

Soon, the sun hits the fan. The doctor prescribes a bit of sun and fresh air for McKenna, so a nurse wheels him up to the solarium on the hospital’s top floor. After a fitful nap under the noonday sun (with no sunscreen!), McKenna wakes up and proceeds to scare the daylights out of a little old lady sitting next to him on the terrace. He races back to his room and for a split second sees a terrifying lizard-man staring back at him from a mirror before he smashes it.

In full Bill-Nye-Science-Guy mode, the doctor patiently explains to Ann and Frederick that the exotic radiation McKenna was exposed to causes his cells to mutate to a prior evolutionary stage -- a walking lizard -- but only when exposed to direct sunlight. The colleagues are alarmed, but still hopeful something can be done. McKenna on the other hand completely freaks out, checks himself out of the hospital and goes into hiding at a remote estate on the California coast.

Gil McKenna (Robert Clarke) is about to meet 'bad girl' Trudy in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
McKenna does his best Philip Marlowe imitation as he
watches Trudy croon a torch song at the local dive.
Earlier, Frederick had gently suggested to Ann that Gil’s drinking may have been a factor in the accident. Frederick’s assessment is confirmed when Gil decides to drown his sorrows in booze instead of seeking a cure. This is an interesting development for a ‘50s B sci-fi picture, and may at the time have caused some head-scratching among audiences used to seeing heroic (and sober) scientists successfully battling atom-spawned monsters.

The picture takes a noirish turn at this point, as McKenna, trying to avoid becoming a lizard-man by day, turns into a lounge lizard by night, throwing back drinks at a local dive while listening to Marilyn Monroe wannabe Trudy (Nan Peterson) croon songs at the piano.

Gil doubles down on his bad choices by hoisting a few with the torch singer, who of course has a sleazy jealous boyfriend (Peter Similuk). After a dominance-establishing fistfight, McKenna whisks Trudy off in his convertible to find a secluded beach for some moonlit romance. They indulge in some PG-rated horseplay, then, with the voluptuous Trudy wrapped only in a towel, Gil awkwardly celebrates the night with a bottle of whiskey he brought along.

In the morning, Gil wakes up on the beach, Trudy sleeping next to him. With the sun rapidly rising, he races to his car, leaving the confused woman on the beach to fend for herself. He’s already turned into a lizard-man when he pulls up to the house. Seeing Ann’s car in the drive, he climbs a fence and enters the house from an upper story to avoid running into her. She finally finds him, human again, in a dark cellar where he’s gone to de-tox from his reptilian state. After Ann tearfully pleads with him, Gil agrees to get help from a worldwide authority on radiation poisoning, Dr. Jacob Hoffman (Fred La Porta).

Patricia Manning and Robert Clarke, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Ann tries to coax Gil out of the storage closet.
Drs. Hoffman and Buckell join McKenna at the house, where the seemingly ungrateful patient barks at Hoffman as he examines him. Cool as a cucumber, Hoffman calmly tells McKenna they will keep him at the house for a few days for observation before transferring him to the hospital, but under no circumstances should he leave the house, even at night (why they can’t transfer him right away under the cover of darkness is a bit of a mystery). Of course, we all know that alcoholics channeling their inner lounge lizards are their own worst enemies, and Hoffman’s warning will go unheeded.

Right on cue, the fretful patient wakes up in the middle of the night, needing a drink and just perhaps, needing to unleash his reptilian alter-ego. With no one at the house to watch him (?!), in a head-slappingly self-destructive move he heads right back to the bar where the girl he left stranded on the beach is a regular. Of course, he’s beaten up by the sleazo boyfriend and his gang, whereupon the astonishingly understanding Trudy takes pity on him, dusts him off, and takes him back to her apartment.

The next day, the boyfriend shows up at Trudy’s and discovers Gil there. At gunpoint, he forces Gil out into the sunlight to get what’s coming to him. Instead, the sleazeball gets his just deserts at the hands of an enraged lizard man. When the police investigating the murder show up at Gil’s place, things quickly go downhill from there…

Gil McKenna makes for a very interesting and unique B sci-fi protagonist. I can’t think of any others off the top of my head suffering from such a double whammy -- mutating radiation poisoning and alcoholism. Instead of the more conventional hubris that brings about the hero’s fall, it’s a plain old addiction that causes the tragic accident in the first place and greases Gil’s descent into chaos. The lizard-man is not a metaphor for addiction, it’s part and parcel of it. Sun Demon is the “Lost Weekend” of B monster movies.

Trudy (Nan Peterson) screams as the Sun Demon kills her sleazy boyfriend
"Hey Gil, wait up, you forgot your sunscreen!"
The problem is, Gil’s alcohol-fueled self-pity and self-destructiveness chip away at the audience’s sympathy for the character. After he kills Trudy’s boyfriend, McKenna retreats back to the house, where he confesses to Buckell and Hoffman. By the time he’s worked himself up into a self-pitying lather and screams at Buckell, “Why should I be the one, can you answer me that, why me!!!,” you want to reach through the screen and slap him silly (I flashed back to the classic scene in Airplane! where fellow passengers are lining up to shake, slap and bludgeon a woman who is freaking out).

Another problem is the film’s slow build-up to the action-packed climax. The first two-thirds of the film spends a lot of time on a scientific explanation of Gil’s condition (with charts!), Trudy’s torch songs, unconvincing bar fights, and shots of waves crashing on the beach, while only teasing us with brief glimpses of the monster. The core of the monster action, set in a forbidding industrial area on the edge of Los Angeles, is crammed into the last twenty minutes or so.

Xandra Conkling and Robert Clarke share a cup of imaginary tea in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
I don't know about you, but that doll in the background
creeps me out!
In addition to the Jekyll and Hyde angle, the film pays homage to another horror classic, Universal’s original Frankenstein, by having a little girl discover the fugitive scientist in a dark equipment shack that she’s been using for tea parties with her dolls. As she peppers him with innocent questions, there’s more than a little suspense that somehow the sun’s rays will seep through and transform him in the middle of the tea party. It’s a nice touch that compounds the suspense as the police -- and fate -- converge on McKenna.

The Hideous Sun Demon was the brainchild of prolific B actor Robert Clarke. Among the many B pictures on his resume at that point were Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946) and Edgar Ulmer’s atmospheric The Man from Planet X (1951). But it was his recent experience on the ultra-low budget The Astounding She-Monster (1957) that planted the idea to make his own picture:
“I made a nice piece of change for myself starring in The Astounding She-Monster, but more important than those paychecks was the fact that the experience gave me an awareness that a very profitable picture of that sort could be made for a very small amount of money… If a shoestring picture like The Astounding She-Monster could make a pile of money, why wouldn’t a picture of my own, made with a bit more of an eye toward quality?” [Robert Clarke and Tom Weaver, To “B” or Not to “B”: A Film Actor’s Odyssey, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996, p. 181]
Part of that eye toward quality was borrowing from the classics. Together with a technical writer friend, Phil Hiner, who was an aspiring author, Clarke developed a concept which “flipped” Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde plot from a physician drinking a potion which transforms him, to a scientist suffering chromosomal damage from a lab accident. They also borrowed from the 1931 Frederic March film, giving the character “two girlfriends, one serious and loyal [Ann], the other a ‘bad girl’ from the wrong side of the tracks [Trudy]. [Clarke, p. 182]

Robert Clarke in the full Sun Demon mask and suit
This is what might happen to you if you don't use sunscreen.
Or maybe if you do. Oh, to heck with it!
Using a non-union production crew recruited from local film schools, a mix of experienced and amateur actors willing to work on the cheap (e.g., the little girl, Xandra Conkling, was Clarke’s niece), and locations that were either free or dirt-cheap to rent, they shot the film on twelve weekends over the course of thirteen weeks.

Elsewhere on the blog I go into Clarke’s luck finding Richard Cassarino, the actor who developed the unique creature mask and suit on a next-to-nothing budget, and who also appears in multiple bit roles in the film.

For all its faults, The Hideous Sun Demon delivers an impressive monster and pays respectful homage to its horror roots. Clarke himself summed it up:
“[I] am proud about two things with respect to Sun Demon: One, that we had a good story (we followed a very good pattern laid down by Robert Louis Stevenson) and, two, that the picture has pace. That picture never stops. It moves. And to this day I have people telling me that it holds up and it’s still interesting and it engages their interest as an action/sci-fi/horror film.” [Clarke, p. 198]
Where to find it: stream it on Amazon Prime.