At Heathrow Airport, an airliner is about to take off, but it will only have ten passengers on board. What it is really transporting, the reason for the flight, is the dismantled, ancient abbey that is being carried in the cargo hold, which has been taken by its owners, Alan O'Neill (Roy Thinnes) and his wife Sheila (Jane Merrow) to be rebuilt in the United States. Sheila's family has a connection to the building going back centuries, but there is also a story that it used to be part of druidic ceremonies going back even further. As the other passengers settle down into their seats, they have no idea of the terror that awaits them...
There are certain shared memories that make an impact on people's minds far outweighing the actual quality of the subject being recalled, and The Horror at 37,000 Feet is one of them. If you didn't remember watching this as a child, either on its original showing or on one of its many repeats down the years, and if you were to watch it now, you would dismiss this as yet another cheesy seventies TV movie and think no more about it. However, if you did catch this at a tender age, then it would be seared into your brain as one of the scariest items of television you ever saw, no matter how unimpressive it appears today.
It was part of a cycle of horror-themed TV movies from this decade, reflecting the popularity of the genre in other media where you could enjoy stronger than ever shockers in the cinema and in paperback novels. Obviously they couldn't test the family-skewed target audiences with some truly disturbing images, but if anything because these productions were so accessible, they were just as big talking points among the kids too young to go and see the adult-oriented stuff, or allowed to read those lurid books. So if this particular effort had been broadcast the night before, chances were high that it would be much discussed the next day, before being relegated to a half-forgotten recollection to be trotted out every time someone said, what was the film with William Shatner on the plane with the druids?
Yes, that's right, there were some prime Shatnerian stylings in this as the man himself played a priest who had lost his faith, all to not-so subtly reinforce the notion that God was in his heaven and the sole protection against the machinations of Satan himself, as it turns out the druids haunting the stones of the abbey are actually devil-worshippers as well. Easy mistake to make, and obviously getting the two mixed up was not anything to trouble the makers of this, but it's all in the service of terrorising the folks on the plane for ninety minutes (with commercials). It begins when strange blasts of icy air sweep through the interior, and continues when the aircraft gets stuck in mid-air as no matter how fast they go, the pilot (Chuck Connors - this one's full of sixties TV stars) can't make any progress across the sky.
To point out to everyone where they're going wrong, there's an expert in the shape of Mrs Pinder (Tammy Grimes), who can barely contain her relish as she tells the passengers and crew that they're all doomed, and that the stones in the back are demanding a sacrifice: Sheila should do nicely. Once Mrs Pinder's pet dog is frozen to death, and so is the flight engineer when he goes to see what's going on, it's clear they're in trouble, so it is suggested that they use a little girl's doll with Sheila's hair and fingernail clippings, plus her makeup, attached to it. This leads to one of the film's most famous images as the doll promptly dissolves in a pool of mud. The other most famous image sees Shatner reclaim his trust in God after spending the previous hour smugly putting down the other panicked passengers, and venture back to the hold to see what's there, but to say any more would be to spoil the surprise (and the uninentional laughter, probably). No, this wasn't classic by any means, but if you caught it at the right age you wouldn't forget it. Music by Morton Stevens.