Saturday, August 23, 2014

Shat on the Altar: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET, THE DEVIL'S RAIN

William Shatner, the Hawksian organizer of men in a far-flung future without currency. Shatner, determined player of crisis-bound priests, rock-like teachers, a race-baiting hate monger, an Esperanto-speaking Christian soul so pure he converts a succubus, and an Arizona sheriff named 'Dances with Tarantulas.' Shat, so so.. many things, all of them great, some of them even pretty good, but most so very strange that, if you look deep (and it's always worth looking deep with old Shat), you might find a whole other Shat self waiting below the gum line to spit forth a torrent of surprise micro-thesping! 

For your consideration: two films from the early 70s occult revival in which you will see him drink from a flask and scoff at God while on a flight frozen-in-mid air (at 37,000 feet!); and bare his chest and risk his family to hold onto a stolen devil book one minute but then drop his protective amulet the next. What a man is Shat! Courageous, callous, stubborn, fearful, pompous and pugnacious, he's a relic from when scientists and captains had resonant voices and one could be impulsive and brutish yet catlike and dancer nimble. The Neil Diamond of science fiction icons, Shatner is his name. And in the late 60s-early 70s, we kids couldn't have been happier about it - Bop Bop! 

I know there are those hardcore Trekkies annoyed by Shatner's macho fey arrogance as Kirk; using his cast mates hatred of his prima donna behavior on set as evidence, they disimiss him as a hammy egotist. They seem to prefer the dry, safe, nostril-breathing baldness of Patrick Stewart. I am not one of them, I am not even a Trekkie, but I do enjoy the first three seasons, the Kirk era. Shatner elevates the project to greatness. Stewart, as an actor, can be fun when snogging with Steve Railsback in Lifeforce or snogging with Wolverine in X2, but Stewart is too sane as Picard, too much Polonius and not enough Hamlet. Shatner's Kirk is a live wire. 

Maybe my loyalty to Kirk is because of watching Trek reruns every evening, as a small child in the early 70s.  To me, because of this familial connection, Shatner can do no wrong. He was to the TV as Neil DIamond was to my mom's album collection--a fact, a staple, a comfortable but sturdy foundation on which to grow one's taste and eventual collection. So it is with every generation perhaps. For mine, Shat's blowhard egotism is part of the charm. Kirk is always just a bit hammier than called for, his expressive resonant voice... his... unique... pauses...followedby... rapidcascades.... ofwords, have brought decades of amusement to a beleaguered nation. (See: Sex, Drugs, and Quantum Existentialism). And even when starring in dopey films like the two I shall discuss here, or artsy experiments like Incubus, Shat goes for broke, every time. Terrible or triumphant, he never phones in a syllable. Lugging Shakespeare-style oratory into the rarefied sphere of cowboys-vs.-Satanists, or fighting against ancient druid altars in the sky, he gives 100%, no matter how half-assed the vehicle.

So how half-assed does it get? Let's see!

1973 - TVM / CBS
In order to earn the primetime slot, a 70s TV movie had to explore at least three pop cultural themes. In Horror at 37,000 Feet, we get: 1) the curse attached to an ancient artifact (ala King Tut); 2) social commentary (i.e. the Salem witch trials); 3) the ensemble cast disaster movie, i.e. Airport. Swirl 'em all together and serve!

The ensemble cast was a huge staple of 70s TV, providing welcome work for familiar-faced old movie and TV actors, nearly-ran and upcoming starlets, and granite-jawed authority figures like Christopher Plummer or David Jansen or Chuck Conners. Since they'd meet as strangers coming together for the first and last time for a voyage, we got their full character trait dossier in a few friendly exchanges between passangers.
Many of them will get picked off and those who make it will end up bonded heroes (see also: Day of the Animals).

The vehicle this time is a jumbo jet luxury cargo-passenger "airplane" hauling a massively heavy Celtic altar exhumed from its sacred grove in Ireland, and but a small scattering of passengers. They make the weird blonde lady put her dog in the cargo hold. And the downstairs storage freezes --the dog is frozen solid! (Why did we need to go through that, so the studio could show off its frozen dog prop? It's upsetting!) And then, the plane become suspended at 37,000 feet, trapped in a crossfire of wind tunnels, providing an ingenious explanation of why the plane interiors never once give the impression of movement, or engine roar, or the inside of the plane being anything but a breakaway set. Luckily the stewardesses all wear hot white go-go boots. Shat, playing a bitter, soused ex-priest who lost his faith (zzz) rocks some writerly glasses while sewing, and sports a toupee far more natural than usual. These little things help and the film needs all it can get. I love Shatner unconditionally but man, is he terrible in this. Richard Burton might have got away with it, maybe it was written with him in mind. But it's painful to buy our Kirk as a misanthropic drunk bitterly ranting about "homo-sapien" as a bunch of savages and noting, prissily: "I didn't lose my faith - it lost me." He doesn't sound drunk, profound, or pleasant to be around. His bitter laughs sound forced and bitchy. He doesn't want to be in this film and is taking it out on us. Has he ever even had a drink or seen a drunk person? 

I ain't complaining about how bad it is, though. I love a kind of zero point surreal experience where some smoke wafting up from a hole in the carpet and the occasional Val Lewtonian shadow substitutes for any kind of monster or concrete threat (which is great, since the whole point of the 'mounting menace' is to keep you glued through the commercials, worried you might miss the monster). The strange fascination with sub-zero temperatures on a plane (just touching the door makes pilot Chuck Connors' whole arm go numb) goes well with the array of locked-in ensemble types waiting for their chance at a terse "Why doesn't somebody do something??!" line. Playing like the unrehearsed table read of an off-off-Broadway one-act drama, directed by someone who has never been on a real plane, there's a sense of disaster always about to happen, as if a dozen actor tantrums are edited out between each line. And what kind of stewardess would confiscate a first-class passenger's flask, and not bring him a sip of champagne? That's taking it too far! 

Shatner is just one of many characters though - no one person really stars. There  Chuck Connors as the square-jawed pilot; Shatner the boozy priest who lost his faith; Lynn Loring his Mia Farrow-ish wife; Russell "The Professor-and" Johnson; Paul Winfield as the nattily-dressed physician whose dogmatic rationalism will soon be put to the test; Buddy Ebsen a cranky millionaire always ready with a homespun witticism; and--providing the bulk of the supernatural exposition--the baby-voiced Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes). A wild-eyed pagan with straight dirty blonde hair and aversion to fire, she knows all about the stone's colorful human sacrifice-enriched past and makes the most out of every evil syllable of dialogue. Her dog, named Damien, stored below by the altar is clearly given no ketamine, the swines.

The only real sore spot is Will Hutchins as a spaghetti western B-cowboy with a terrible towhead mop top wig and rodeo shirt and a habit of shouting all his lines. Yeesh Watching the pathetic way he hits on one of the lady passengers is the most terrifying thing in the movie. Thank 'god' for Mrs. Pinder and her crazy eyes and straight dirt blonde hair, Connors and his  granite jaw of Connors, and of course, the Shat and his faux-drunk sneering at his fellow passenger's atheist-in-a-foxhole panic. Determined to be utterly worthless, he snaps to life when the other passengers contemplate child sacrifice. As Mrs. Pinder says, it just pisses the evil one off by trying to trick him (they try to switch the girl with her doll first). What the altar and its attached warlock wants the blood of one of its ancestors, the psychic girl (Jane Merrow) whose rich architect husband (Roy Thinnes) brought the altar as a souvenir from her ancestral home, against her wishes. The very fact a cargo plane has such a big cabin, and is flying passengers as well as a 11,000 pound altar seems very odd. Does this kind of flight even exist? Seems like that altar should be shipped by a freighter. But hey, it saves on passenger manifests (i.e. no extras needed) and allows more room for the camera and later, the possible child sacrifice fire in the now frigid cargo hold. Will the terrified passengers commit the ultimate transgression or be turned into green puddles before the dawn can come up in time to save them? But first a word from Alpo.

Horror at 37,000 Feet moves pretty fast without the commercials, and fans of Italian horror can luxuriate in the colorful red lights of the cockpit and everyone can appreciate the wild-eyed hysteria with which Loring rises to the occasion, furiously cutting off Jane Merrow's hair to wrap in the child's doll and wrapping it up in her clothes. "And some of your fingernails," she raves, as if possessed. When that doesn't work, it's time to actually sacrifice the child! Great hammy stuff with Shatner wobbling around and all the actors wondering what do in this under-rehearsed closed-in space to 'portray' their types without any directorial input. Shatner out matches Buddy Ebsen in the finger bending department. "Here, take another pain killer,' says the co-pilot to Connors, "no pint in saving them." Shatner realizes he can terrify Mrs. Pinder by waving his Zippo lighter in her face. "Fire... To burn.... witches!" Yikes! He's  not very PC --he even sneers at people who "believe jimson weed will make them immortal!" Dude, take it from an old jimson weed-head, no one thinks that. But Shat should know, having counseled the first and only 'mixed bag' drug addict that same year in Go Ask Alice.

Those of us who were around in the 70s and remember seeing this with the family are far less likely to wince over all this stupidity. We might care though, that the film can no longer hide its poverty in an analog cathode ray blur, or hide its lack of logical sense via the amnesia of regular commercial breaks. For those of us who were kids at the time (I was seven), Horror is a fond touchstone for those days when everyone watched the same shows (there were only three channels and no VHS and families only had one TV) and it gave the all something to laugh about together. For us this is as precious a memento as a family album. Maybe more so.  For us, though the clarity doesn't do the film any favors, the DVD is a must. If only Satan's School for Girls or Death at Love House would one day get the same respectful remastering treatment they too deserve1. May Cheesy Flix die a thousand deaths fo blurring Kate Jackson worse than a bad reception! Still, better than nothing.

 Though I hear 'nothing' is getting better all the time.

1975 - dir. Robert Fuest
I've seen hellfire and I've seen face-melting rain/ I've seen green puddles with air bubbling up through them / and it wasn't impressive, even via nostalgia's glowing tolerance. But if you were a kid in the 70s, The Devil's Rain falls into the unholy and powerful relic category of stuff unseen yet dreamt of. Its TV spots were an inescapable part of local prime time TV in 1975, when I was eight and very impressionable and into monsters and devils. I still remember the weird the melting faces, Borgnine with goat horns, and the robes - both kind of a turn on and scary at the same time. I also remember I had a bizarre childhood dream I was part of the coven, melting under the rain, and even now a lingering prepubescent jouissance echo hits me imagining it. Those of us on the playground heard from our older siblings Devil's Rain was lousy, but my dream was amazing, and if I wasn't so savvy about Satanic cinema even at eight years-old, and it was the 80s instead of the 70s, and a careerist child psychologist heard me describe my dream, he'd probably think I was abducted by Satanists and arrest my parents and teachers. But in the 70s it was anybody's game, a whole Middle America demographic had gone to the devil with touchy feely sharing: cocktails, bridge, Jaycees, smoking on planes, turtleneck and medallion conclaves of wife-swappers, communes and encounter groups; there were all-night block parties leading into softball breakfast picnics of still-drunk adults and kids high on their very first sunrise and sleep deprivation. It was grand indeed, total freedom, and even the devils were cool. And church was just an excuse to act rambunctious.

That sub-sexual supernatural power of not being able to see a film like Devil's Rain as a kid is of course a substantial amount of the appeal for me and my Generation X comrades, the last group who experienced the high of unavailability, of R-rated movies being forever out of reach (once they left the theaters) and so projected upon with our most lurid imagination. Just seeing the TV commercial for an R-rated horror movie was enough to give us sexy nightmares and make the world seem full of strange telekinetic magic and unimaginable 'adult' terror. Our constant imagining created a parallel subconscious repository so powerful it later spilled over into our adult reality, dragging us by our budding sexual drives towards a dreaded obsession that finally led to the 'satanic panic' witch hunts of the 1980s and the rise of nervous overprotective brand parenting we're still hurting our children and ourselves with today.

Turns out, in real life, seeing it now on DVD as an adult, I realize the film is too strange, too 'off' and too slow to be scary or sexy, but it is creepy, kinda. The daytime Satanic ceremonies in the Arizona desert, the boarded up church in the middle of a nowhere ghost town, the upside down pentagram stained glass window, the ultimate futile weakness of Shatner's moxy in the face of Borgnine's mojo, the weird Psycho-style mid-film protagonist shift, it all generates a collective creepiness. as does the idea of looking for your parents and finding they've become life-size animated black-eyed wax effigies urging you to bring them 'the book'.

Earnest Borgnine is an odd choice for the head Satanist, but Shatner is great as the cowboy whose parents are sucked into the coven, which has taken over the whole ghost town. Meanwhile Joan Prather is psychic for no good reason except to allow her to 'see' the flashback to colonial times by looking into cult member John Travolta's dead black eyes, and to provide an interesting scene where she performs an EKG for a crowd of psychology students while Dr. Eddie Albert explains that ESP is very real and he's in the process of discovering what brainwave controls it. Tom Skerritt is her husband and eventually wrests the lead away from Shatner like Sylvia Miles from Janet Leigh.  

Any film that gives Hieronymus Bosch and Anton LaVey screen credit deserves some halting respect but I love lots of other things about this screwy picture, from the ESP angle right down to the way Scientology and plastic surgery are precognitively critiqued by the sight of a ceremonial robe-clad very young John Travolta's face melting in the rain. My only complaint is the unnecessary, depressing final 'twist' so I try to remember to stop watching beforehand, like somewhere during the last 20 minutes which is all just rain and melting. I still like it better than Fuest's higher praised work, like Dr. Phibes. Mighty Shat makes shit shows like this soar, son! Drink to that... or be damned like a black Cadillac chasing James Brolin through the dusty desert... with no driver!! Now that's a movie, even if it ain't got no Shat screaming on its altar.


  1. Dan Mucha11 July, 2023

    The Shat knocked it out of the park as the priest, come on!!! How would you have preferred him to play it? I suspect that you might ultimately admit that the best way for him to play it was just as he did, the way we love him.

    In the meantime, we'll just agree to disagree on that point. (Would you have preferred to see some random, comparatively bland 70s TV-movie-of-the-week star [i.e. at least one other cast member, ahem] instead of being Shatted upon)??? "LOLOMFG". (That being said, I have a tremendous love for those relatively bland stars and non-stars of the 70s, which is as much about aesthetics as it is about sentimentality).

    Yes, it would have interesting to see "The Klansman"-era Burton (or any era Burton) slumming it in this role, and given that around this time (speaking of "The Klansman," specifically) his scenes had to be tailored so that most of them could be performed sitting or preferably lying down due to his dangerously soused condition, this role may in fact been perfect for him - sitting on an airplane, boozing and jaded.

    I still give The Shat a 10 out of 10 though!

  2. Dan, I appreciate the vehemence of your pro-Shat stance. There is certainly something in what you say - and his first half assholery IS modulated by the second half anti-pagan self-sacrifice second, Hurray for Shat.


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