Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Twilight Zone Take-Over #22 - "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"

"It isn't there. It isn't there! Honey, can you please wake up?" 

Director: Richard Donner
Writer: Richard Matheson
Composer: Stock
Based on: Short Story of the same name, appeared in Alone by Night (1961)

William. Shatner. What a guy. The man well known for his wooing and wowing on Star Trek and making sure you knew that the price is right was probably messed up from the start after his encounters with the Gremlin we see here. 

This is probably one of the five most well-known episodes of The Twilight Zone, among the likes of Eye of the Beholder, It's a Good Life, Time Enough at Last, and The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. Most of it is in part because of William Shatner being such an iconic actor now, but it's also quite wild and insane in its own right. 

Like several of the most incredible Twilight Zone episodes, this one takes place in an enclosed space, but the major difference here is that it's 20,000 feet above the safety of the ground. We watch as Shatner's character, Bob Wilson, battles his mind as well as the urge to go out and kick some butt on the side of a plane. His wife, Mrs. Wilson (played by Christine White), calmly tries to talk him down but it's clear day that she's not entirely sure the treatment for her husband's psychological problems worked very well. 

This episode relies solely on Shatner's performance and how well he can convey the conflict of a man who is probably more mentally stable now more than ever, but believes he is fundamentally broken. It's also just one big gag of bad timing. More than anything, this episode feels like a callback to the Michigan J. Frog segments of Looney Tunes, except the frog is a giant furry man shredding an airplane apart. 

This episode is considered one of the scariest in part because of the gremlin, but it would be fairer to say it's the existential dread that Shatner portrays as he tries to figure out if this thing is real or not. He gets a pretty definitive answer very early on, but stubbornness pushes him through. It's really an interesting character study masked as a horror story. 

The "nightmare" that this episode refers to likely leans less so on the fact that a Gremlin is shredding up the wing of an airplane, but more that this is happening to a man who had a psychological breakdown months ago. And they're in the exact same environment that it happened last time.  And he happens to be sitting on the window seat. And he happens to be by the escape window.  This is a worst-case scenario already but add on the fact that Wilson is unable to do anything while a monster, real or not, possibly dooms them all. 

Like most episodes of this sort, there's a descent into madness, although the perspective of this one is based solely on the viewer's experience and whether or not they think Wilson is actually crazy. Unlike  "The Midnight Sun," which shows an old woman clearly going mad, this one is left up to interpretation until the final shot of the episode. This episode also contains a jarring fourth-wall-break that's reminiscent of what happened at the end of To Serve Man

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is a brilliant look into a claustrophobic man contending with personal and possibly real demons. Shatner delivers a wonderful performance and arguably carries the entire episode with him. It's easy to understand what he's going through but the episode also gives major reason for the audience to side with the engineers and flight attendants. It's a well-balanced scare and worthy of its notoriety. 


I've never really found the Gremlin to be the scary part of the episode, especially on repeat viewings. Moreover, Shatner's performance is what makes me more and more scared as I watch the episode. 

Knowing the Gremlin is actually there and actually makes things more dangerous on the plane, yes, but also gives Wilson some vindication for what he does. The first time through it's a solid reveal at the end, but going back through, it's almost painful to watch as the others just miss the Gremlin outside. 

However, that does add a level of tragic comedy to things. You know that each time Shatner calls them over they're going to miss the Gremlin, and can't help but laugh at how desperate the situation is getting. Or, perhaps that's just me and it's a nervous laughter. I get a kick out of it, and it's why I drew the parallel between that and Michigan J. Frog. That gag is meant to be funny, and I have to think that Matheson, in adapting this, had some degree of comedy in mind here.

With Day Two in the books, it's time to look back toward the ground again, and toward another place of public transportation: Bus stations! But this one's got double the population, or so it seems, in "Mirror Image"! See you then. 

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