The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is one I felt I knew really well, except I don’t know that I’d ever watched it all — I’d seen clips and I’d seen George Miller’s reworking of it in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, but had I actually watched the whole thing?
Putting the two versions side by side is instructive — for once, two versions of the same story make radically different choices and both are successful. Or maybe that’s NOT instructive, maybe that sets up a false idea that you can do whatever you like in TV/movies, it’s all good. It clearly ISN’T all good, but these two episodes are.
Leaving aside the contrast in directorial technique between the hyperkinetic Miller and the more sober Richard Donner (plus whoever replaced him after he was fired for falling behind schedule), it’s fascinating how different the main character is in each story, even though Richard Matheson scripted both.
In both versions, a passenger on a plane sees a demonic figure on the wing of a plane, tampering with the engine, and can’t get anyone else to believe him.
In the original, the hero is fresh from a six-month stay in a sanatorium after a nervous breakdown that struck during a plane flight. Now his wife is taking him home.
In the Miller film version, the lead character an apparently stable and sober professor, but he’s travelling alone.
The first version benefits from the suspicion that our man may be losing his marbles all over again — how else to explain the fact that nobody else ever sees the “gremlin” (styled by make-up maestro William Tuttle very much along the lines of his DR LAO yeti)? I don’t know how many 1963 audiences thought that way, though — after all, WE see the creature. The hero’s past instability is probably more a device to make us sympathetic, and to account for his wife not believing him.
(One thing where the remake is measurably superior is the creature, created, if I read the credits aright, by Craig Reardon and Michael McCracken. By not being in a kind of furry romper suit, it’s allowed to look properly WET, which adds lustre and ick to its rubbery visage. Maybe the artist’s personality always comes through in monsters: Tuttle beasts always have a tragic look, whereas Reardon’s look… naughty?)
In the remake, the hero starts stable but rapidly and amusingly unravels, and the fact that he’s alone means he can only turn to strangers for support.
Man 1 is William Shatner, man 2 is John Lithgow. One thing that works is that both are sort of cast against type — Shatner being less associated with neurotic parts, Lithgow never being cast as ordinary Joes. A more obvious and less interesting approach would be to time-travel Lithgow back to ’63 and rejuvenate Shatner in ’83.
Shatner’s leading man attributes really work in his favour, since he LOOKS manly and self-reliant. Shatner really conveys his humiliation at having shown weakness. Of course, he gets his manhood back by firing a gun in the end, which seems quite 1963. The remake takes a more ironic view of everything, and though the gun is instrumental in stopping the gremlin, it takes the time to grab our hero’s face and wag a finger at him (while Jerry Goldsmith’s score riffs on Danse Macabre).
But though the Donner-Shatner episode may be less progressive, what bowled me over is its sheer effectiveness — right from the start I felt strong tension, the combination of my own slight fear of flying, the excitement of the building storm, Shatner’s nervy, sweaty perf. The casual sauntering gait of the ludicrous shaggy beast on the left wing of the jet is amusing but just right, somehow — the important quality is not a convincing mime of clinging on in spite of the impossible air currents, but a sense that the nameless thingy feels it has a perfect right to be there.
(The wing man is played by Burt Lancaster’s former wingman, in THE CRIMSON PIRATE and THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, diminutive acrobat Nick Cravat, who didn’t really need a full mask…)
Having creeped us out with the slow approach, the gremlin is then well-placed — after a prolonged, hammy but genuinely tense build-up by Shatner, steeling himself endlessly — to make a shock appearance in close-up, nose pressed against the glass. And he has the kind of nose that always looks as if it’s pressed against glass anyway.
The wrap-up is more satisfying (and benign) in the TV version, and really, after being put through the ringer like that, we deserve a happy ending, don’t we?
On a related note ~