Monday, August 30, 2010

The Top Five Best Things About "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, which is one of the undisputed greatest TV series of all time. If you don't agree with that statement, you don't belong in my readership (but thanks anyway for the hit!). Back when the TV biz was nowhere near as established (or corrupt) as it is now, much of the programming that found its way beamed into living rooms across America was essentially glorified filler made to take up time in between commercials (as opposed to now, when... wait). I sometimes like to tell myself that anyone with a camera, a script, a group of people to fill in as actors, and at least half a clue could have made history in the burgeoning picture business of this era. This is because I equate every writer and director of this era with Ed Wood for some reason.

Enter Rod Serling (shown here as the innovator of the old "arrow through the head" gag), who would have been better than you no matter when he was born no matter what you think. He was one of those ridiculously prolific types who can churn out works of irrefutable depth and profound social resonance at breakneck pace and on no budget (which, other than the "irrefutable depth and profound social resonance" part, actually sounds exactly like Ed Wood).

Don't get me wrong - just like any anthology series, there are more than a few Twilight Zone eps that could be generously described as clunkers (and the Serling-penned Night Gallery segment "The Nature of the Enemy" is actually one of the worst things I've ever seen). But the man wrote 148 of these episodes, among a ton of other things, many of which I love the shit out of, so I'll balk at calling him an overhyped hack and settle for "creative genius." Remember, kids, on the internet you're either one or the other.

But before I really digress and this turns into another Hood of Horror epic, let's just hurry up and get down to ranking the top five best things about "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

And by the way - you can fully watch this episode on YouTube.

1) William Shatner

Obviously. There is no other actor more tailor-made for The Twilight Zone than old Shat, whose manic, hammy, enunciative approach to acting is perfectly suited to a series in which protagonists spend roughly ninety percent of their onscreen time (ineffectively) trying to convince others that they're not crazy. 

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that any Twilight Zone episode would have been made legendary by Shatner's presence. For proof, look no further than "Nick of Time," (watch it here) a rather average entry that features Shatner as a superstitious man who becomes convinced that a Magic-8-Ball-type Jambi-with-devil-horns-looking fortune-telling napkin dispenser can accurately predict the future. Film a couple of scenes with Shat face-to-face with a microscopic winking devil head while screaming "Are we going to live in the East? Are we going to live in the West? Are we going to live in this country!?" and so on and you've got thirty minutes of TV that doesn't deserve to still be talked about, but is. Why? Because Shatner's fucking gold. 

Plus, at the risk of sounding manly beyond my wildest expectations, the only guy better looking than Shatner in the 1960s was Elvis, and Elvis - as we all know - was prettier than most chicks. Of course - according to a complex algorithm I have concocted that factors in, among other things, the fit of a nice high-waisted pair of chinos and a tight polo - in each of his two appearances in the series Shatner out-hotted his onscreen romantic interests by approximately 10 to 1 (and this coming from someone who, when it comes to the grand scheme of little-known 60s supporting TV actresses, thinks Patricia Breslin is pretty dope).

Anyway, in this episode Shatner plays Bob Wilson, a man returning home with his wife from a recent stay in a sanitarium. A nervous breakdown during a business flight put him in the nut hatch, and when he sees a monster tearing apart the plane's engines on his return trip, he has to struggle with his possibly nonexistent sanity while attempting to be a hero to a plane full of people who don't believe him. He saves the day, but right or wrong, his behavior was still disruptive and it's back to the old funny farm for Bob, who looks directly into the camera and assures us that everything will be fine once the damage to the plane is discovered.

How is it possible to look so cool and confident in a straitjacket? Any actor worth his salt knows his face is his greatest instrument (I'd say "body" but your face is part of your body, now, innit?), and in this episode Shatner uses his chiseled visage as if he's Jimmy Page effortlessly wailing out a sweet solo. In fact, I'm surprised that at no point did Shatner whip out a violin bow and start dragging it across his face during the filming of his closeups. Holy shit, does he make some priceless faces here. Sometimes it's over the top, but sometimes it's so perfect - take, for example, the shot of the knowledge that he's being patronized by the pilot about the existence of the monster dawning across his face.

Great stuff. It makes me wonder what directions were written in the script for Shatner to follow here, as he just absolutely captures the emotion perfectly without saying a word. Well, I could always consult the original short story for some insight...

Um, "a spastic coiling in his groin and lower stomach"? Taking that description into account, it seems like Shat should have went with this expression instead:

2) Richard Matheson

Speaking of the short story this was adapted from... Yeah, I'm going the lit-nerd route for a bit here. Legendary horror writer Matheson (for the uninformed, think of him as Stephen King before Stephen King came along, minus easily millions of dollars) wrote the screenplay for this ep as well as the short story it's based on, and while there are a couple of head-scratching detours from logic in this particular work, in the end the writing is still pretty top notch. It's just that this episode was written in 1963, and now 47 years later we can't just crawl up the aisle to the nearest sleeping air marshal and steal his gun without rousing a little suspicion amongst the other passengers. 

Even more amusingly, in the original story Bob carries the gun onto the plane in his shaving bag - imagine trying to get a carry-on bag full of razors, aerosol sprays, and firearms through boarding these days. Obviously Matheson couldn't have predicted how much airport protocol would change in the intervening decades (or he would have named the story "Terror at 20,000 Feet" so I could be all ironic and jokey about the title). If you should find yourself rolling your eyes at the plot developments in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," don't blame Matheson - blame Mohamed Atta.

3) The Monster on the Wing

And ditto when it comes to the monster. Don't blame Matheson. I mean, yes, the gremlin as depicted here doesn't really diverge much from Matheson's description of it in the short story (man-shaped, covered in wind-blown fur, tendency to glide off the wing and out of sight as if pulled by strings, all of which are followed here to the letter - especially that last one), but damn, as far as "Nightmares" go? Yeah, we all know. It's not scary. It looks like Fozzie Bear with a weird pigman mask on. It's adorable little padded feet bring to mind images of a toddler in fuzzy footy pajamas rather than a malevolent manifestation of a man's own "abject cowardice" turned against him (or a mythical European imp with a machine fetish... whatever it's supposed to be).

All that being said, the monster is awesome.

At what point did we decide that a hokey, unscary monster costume in a production like this is a bad thing? I submit that the gremlin's ridiculousness taken in with Shatner's over the top terrified reactions to it combine to reach a level that only the highest art can aspire to. I like to refer to that particular level as "King Shit." As in, "Shatner selling the sight of the fuzz-covered wing gremlin like his mind was just exploded by looking directly into the deadlights is some King Shit, right there." 

And yes, that last sentence ended up being an inadvertent double allusion to Stephen King. No, I did not intend for there to be so many Stephen King references in this piece. No, I'm not taking any out.

Oh, and I briefly toyed with number 3 being specifically "The Way the Gremlin Just Spreads Out His Arms and Glides Gracefully Backwards Off the Wing In That One Part of the Episode," since I've always longed for the ability make exits by executing this exact same maneuver, but I eventually decided to be less direct since I felt I had to mention the creature's adorable padded footy pajamas in here somehow.

4) Rampant Drug Use

It's a simple fact of life in America - no one travels by plane sober. Least of all pilots. So it should come as no shock that every character in this episode is absolutely looped out on pills. You could always count on Serling to leave no stone of social commentary unturned. Pharmaceuticals are the bomb, Rod, beautiful.

So yeah, nearly every time Bob brings up the gremlin, the solution he's given is to take more drugs. No wonder people are seeing shit on the wings during this flight. I'm surprised this isn't called "Nightmare at 40,000 Feet" since all the pill-poppin animals in the cabin are at least two times as high as the plane. I finally realize why the air marshal never wakes up even though Shatner takes about three years with almost his entire torso located firmly in the man's lap in order to steal his gun - guy's whacked out on sleeping pills.

Of course, all this self-medicating is turned on its head when Shatner pulls the old "I didn't really swallow that pill you just gave me" trick after the flight crew and his wife attempt to drug him for about the fifth time, which just seems like an empty gesture since it's not like that should have canceled out the fistful of meds he'd already eaten up to this point.

5) The Hot Stewardess

Who is, in fact, so beautiful she could be an air hostess in the 60s. 

Actually, I just wanted to make that joke. Truth be told, she's still no Bill Shatner.


  1. Thanks for a very entertaining write-up on what is probably the best-known, and certainly the most frequently spoofed, TWILIGHT ZONE episode. As a longtime Matheson fan, I would give him a bit more credit than you for the effectiveness of "Nick of Time," but he praised Shatner's performance in both, and even singled out the same moment you did in "Nightmare," as Shatner realizes the flight engineer is patronizing him. Interesting that both of Shatner's ZONE appearances were written by Matheson, just as his two THRILLER episodes were both written by or based on the work of Matheson's friend Robert Bloch. For further information on Matheson's contributions to the series, and the remake of "Nightmare" in TWILIGHT ZONE--THE MOVIE, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (, tentatively due out in early October.

  2. Shatner, Drugs, and Footy-Pajamas...Bliss