Travel writer Elaine Kalisher (Michelle Greene) arrives in Los Angeles to write an article about the Wessex Hotel. During her stay a malfunctioning elevator brings Elaine to the thirteenth floor which according to hotel staff does not exist. There she witnesses an horrific axe murder committed by an unseen maniac. Later Elaine awakens in the care of kindly Dr. Alan Lanier (James Brolin). Unfortunately neither he nor the rest of the staff believe Elaine's story as concierge Judith (Terri Treas), surly interior decorator Letti (Louise Fletcher) and jittery manager Rogas (Alan Fudge) still insist the hotel does not have a thirteenth floor. Following the disappearance of an elderly guest, Elaine resolves to convince skeptical cop Sgt. Madden (John Karlen) something strange is going on. In the midst of more grisly murders, she investigates the Wessex Hotel's unsavoury past uncovering a connection to a turn of the century Satanic cult.
From their heyday in the Seventies and early Eighties spooky made-for-TV movies slowly began to die out in the Nineties, replaced by creepier television shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files more in tune with the times. Nightmare on the 13th Floor was among the last of its kind to amass a minor cult following, one that remarkably extends to a website devoted to detailing its frankly limited mythology. It plays like a back-door pilot for an ongoing mystery series centred on plucky mystery-solving writer Elaine Kalisher, much like The Night Stalker (1972) launched the adventures of monster-hunting reporter Carl Kolchak. In fact the plot's big reveal harks back to Kolchak's second TV movie: The Night Strangler (1973). Much of Nightmare on the 13th Floor plays like an atypically spooky and grisly episode of Murder, She Wrote only with a third act straight out of an old Vincent Price movie. Indeed veteran producer-director Walter Grauman had more than fifty episodes of Murder, She Wrote to his credit although his resumé also includes the intense Olivia de Havilland psycho-drama Lady in a Cage (1964), another movie with a woman trapped in an elevator.
Grauman does a decent job grounding things within a realistically mundane milieu to contrast with the increasingly outlandish plot twists. Co-screenwriters J.D. Feigelson and Dan DiStefano make no attempt to expand the story beyond anything more than a mildly suspenseful thriller with one-dimensional characters and scant subtext. Nonetheless Nightmare on the 13th Floor remains gripping throughout in spite of the campy nature of the conspirators and the fact their evil scheme does not hold up to close scrutiny. It might be too tame for hardened horror fans and somewhat of a slow burn but Grauman brings a certain old-school flair to proceedings, making menacing use of light and shadow, tilted angles and creepy mise-en-scene, keeping the violence off-screen. The music by Jay Grusha also contributes to the spooky atmosphere with memorable use of ragtime tunes as a harbinger of satanic doom.
Multitalented actress, singer and novelist Michelle Greene, a prolific TV staple then best known for a long stint on L.A. Law, makes for an engaging, personable lead. One can easily envision her character branching out into an ongoing series so it is a shame nothing came of that. By comparison the normally reliable James Brolin overplays his role as the silver fox making goofy, over-eager attempts to woo Elaine, although a few endearingly quirky supporting characters bring some colour into an otherwise silly story.