The Encyclopedia Shatnerica has this to say about the 1973 made-for-TV movie The Horror at 37,000 Feet: “The hackneyed plot concerns a jumbo jet, and especially those passengers in first class, which is being haunted by ghosts because of a druid stone in the baggage hold.”
This cinematic gem also features flight attendants wearing ridiculous helmets, a dog you just know is doomed, and an impressive B-list cast that included one past and one future Star Trek star. It also illustrates what William Shatner went through after he left the bridge of the Enterprise.
I have this movie on an old VHS tape in a box somewhere, but luckily it is also available on YouTube in a good transfer.
Shatner plays an alcoholic ex-priest whose character is defined early on with the world-weary line, “I’ll tell you something: I’m bored with rules.” He is meant to give the movie some gravitas; a defrocked priest, after all, should have insight into the supernatural goings-on that soon terrorize the passengers. Unfortunately, his wisdom is delivered in lines like “The closer to heaven, the more discordant,” which doesn’t make much sense even in the story’s context.
Only a few years after guest-starring in Elaan of Troyius, France Nuyen boards the cursed airplane in a small-to-vanishing role. She plays a model who briefly serves as a love interest for one of the male leads; unfortunately, the subplot is dropped as soon as it appears and she is relegated to standing in the background of scenes.
Paul Winfield, Captain Clark Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is almost unrecognizable playing a fussy British doctor. He too gets little to do.
The cast also includes Buddy Ebsen (The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jed Clampett) and Russell Johnson (the Professor from Gilligan’s Island).
It is not a good movie. The plot doesn’t make sense, the acting is stilted and it is only sporadically even a little scary. A few years before both Jaws and Alien created terror by keeping the monster hidden for most of the movie, Horror tries for the same effect but ultimately disappoints when no big bad ever bursts on to the screen.
But watch the movie anyway. It’s one of those so-bad-it’s-good films that are a lot of fun to watch. And it is indicative of the career struggles Shatner faced after Star Trek.
The Shatner of the ’70s
The decade between the end of TOS and the release of The Motion Picture in 1979 were largely unproductive years for Shatner; he lived for a while in the back of a truck camper, made movies like Horror and appeared in a lot of small plays. As he wrote in his autobiography Up Till Now, “After my divorce from Gloria (in 1969) I was just about broke…and I began looking for work. I had three kids and an ex-wife to support.”
So he took any gig that paid, and the result was a lot of mediocre work that would have been entirely forgotten had Shatner not become a cultural icon. His climb back to prominence began with the best movie of this period, The Kingdom of the Spiders, which hit theatres just two years before The Motion Picture, but even it would have faded into the shadows without the reflected light of Star Trek.
Shatner has often said that his success comes largely from his willingness to say yes when asked if he wants to do something. As he wrote in Shatner Rules:
I nearly always say “yes.” “Yes” means opportunity. “Yes” makes the dots in your life appear. And if you’re willing and open, you can connect these dots. You don’t know where these dots are going to lead, and if you don’t invest yourself fully, the dots won’t connect. The lines you make with those dots always lead to interesting places. “No” closes doors. “Yes” kicks them wide open… As long as you’re able to say “yes,” the opportunities keep coming, and with them, the adventures.
Those opportunities led Shatner through The Horror at 37,000 Feet and to a set crawling with 5,000 tarantulas and eventually to three Emmy Awards for Boston Legal, the Shatner Claus Christmas album and a thousand other projects. Catch one of those early dots with Horror on YouTube.