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.

No comments:

Post a Comment