Beyond that which is known to man…

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 ~


17 Responses to “Beyond that which is known to man…”

  1. James Henry Says:

    A possible inspiration, NO HIGHWAY, based on a novel by Nevil Shute. An engineer has calculated that a ‘plane will go down with metal fatigue after so many hours in the air and he finds himself in one of the ‘planes as it approaches its limit.

  2. And I think is initially not believed, right? James Stewart?

  3. GSPegger Says:

    I think the original episode is as close to perfect TZ could get. I have only seen the movie version once, and was largely underwhelmed. Admittedly, it was probably the best entry of the four remakes they did, but I felt it lost a lot of the nuance. In the original, Shatner is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and is with his supportive wife. Shatner, as only he can, manages to convey not only the manic energy required, but also the self-doubt and agony that he is letting his wife down, and is quite possibly going mad. Lithgow’s character (and I blame the director, more than the performance, since Lithgow is generally great in everything he does) is just trying to overcome a fear of flying, which, to me, roots the story too much in the specific. The Shatner version is much more universal, addressing a male angst, the struggle of the man in the Grey flannel suit, trying to fit in, trying to act normal, trying to not be driven mad by all the things that are crazy in this world and over which we have little control.

    I also think that the common criticism of the cheesiness of the original gremlin costume misses the point. I agree that this furry creature looks too teddy bearish or chimp-like, rather than the truly magnificent, reptilian creature in the remake. But, I see the original creature as more playful and curious. Child-like. It isn’t out to destroy the plane out of malice. It is just fascinated by it, and trying to take it apart to see what’s inside. Witness the way it gets an electric shock at one point. Like a child touching the stove. It is a creature trying to make sense of the world around it, unintentionally causing damage, not unlike how Shatner is unable to make sense of the adult, corporate world he is in, and that is taking him apart.

  4. One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. When Shatner pulls back the curtain and there’s the Gremlin’s face pressed against the glass is so effective. Usually we see a build up to some one opening a shade or curtain and there’s never anyone there. This time the creature is right in your face. The ending is much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the person thought to be insane is vilified.

  5. From what I recall – it’s been a while – Jimmy Stewart’s character is on board in an attempt to stop it taking off. A fellow passenger being Marlene Dietrich. Shute knew whereof he spoke; he was an aircraft engineer in the 30’s and the novel is based on the design flaws and crashes of the De Havilland Comet 1 – the first jet airliner, which had squarish windows which caused the fuselage to develop metal fatigue around them after repeated pressurisation/depressurisation cycles. Three broke up in midair before engineers worked out what had happened.

  6. I’ve seen bits of No Highway and it looked quite tense.

    Yes, the gremlin has some nice whimsical moments, including sitting on the engine and reaching out to touch the spinning propeller. I like the physical performance a lot, but not so much the wirework.

    I think the decision to run amok with It’s A Good Life and Nightmare can be seen as justified — the original episodes are near-perfect in their own way, so any remake is duty-bound to push them into fresh territory tonally or stylistically. Spielberg’s Kick the Can feels anaemic by comparison, sentimentalising an episode that was actually quite disconcerting.

    Landis arguably deserves credit for writing an original story and attempting to channel Serling in political mode — but that episode was so seriously compromised by tragedy, it’s impossible to assess its intentions.

  7. I think the Twilight Zone Movie was my very first 15 video. I was ten and the gremlin absolutely terrified me. One thing I loved though when I finally saw the orginal decades later was how unthreatening Shatner’s gremlin was. I remember Lao’s Yeti as a grumpy mess of teeth but this gremlin’s fang-less and almost Moominy. It’s its very existence on the wing of a plane that terrifies Shatner because he’s scared he’s losing his mind, whereas Lithgow, who’s scared of flying, is threatened by his beasty because it’s tearing the plane to pieces and covered in teeth. I agree that both are great. Dante’s segment pretty much changed my life though. There can’t be a more uneven anthology surely.

  8. ALL anthologies are uneven, surely. That’s what makes them anthologies.

    Fiona and I wrote a damn good horror anthology, if anyone has a spare million…

  9. bensondonald Says:

    The Shatner TZ I remember involved a couple stopping in a small town for lunch. Each table in the diner has a little fortune telling machine with a devil head that dispenses Magic 8-Ball type answers for a penny. Shatner becomes increasingly convinced the machine indeed knows all and controls his destiny. He and his wife cannot drive away until the machine says they can.

    No hint of magic or scifi (unless you stretch your interpretation of the kicker) — just Shatner growing more and more convinced, achieving Captain Kirk intensity as he makes the case to his wife. Even his “triumph” over the machine is defiance, not doubt.

    Comedy, parable about delusion or superstition, or what?

    Footnote: There’s a “Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” ride at Disney World in Florida. It’s decorated with props evoking specific episodes, including clones of the fortune telling machine.

  10. Wow, that sounds like soemthing you dreamed, down to the theme park ride. I’ve seen Shatner and the talking doll (more madness) but this one only rings vague bells. Sounds similar to the one where Everett Sloane is destroyed by a slot machine…

  11. That other Twilight Zone episode with Shatner is called Nick of Time. It’s from the second season, and it’s extremely good.

  12. GSPegger Says:

    I agree. Nick of Time is fantastic. Way better than that Everett Sloane slot machine episode (The Fever, season 1).

  13. The guy in the gremlin suit in the remake is/was Larry Cedar.

  14. bensondonald Says:

    More than you want to know:

    Here’s the ride; more old horror movie than TZ to match neighboring Old Hollywood architecture. At 2:23 the camera pans across a high shelf of cloned TZ props; the red metal box is the fortune teller machine.

    What the video doesn’t show for some reason is the boarding of the actual ride vehicle: What seems to be a freight elevator with benches and seat belts. That’s where you’re sitting when the doors open to reveal the hotel corridor. It then goes up another floor and moves forward through a spooky space into another shaft, where the elevator suddenly rises and drops several times. It’s a crazy bit of technology: You’re still “feeling” the abrupt fall before you realize the elevator came to a stop and is rocketing upwards again for a few more drops.

    In California the ride is being converted to a “Guardians of the Galaxy” space theme. In Tokyo “Twilight Zone” is replaced by a story of an imperialist tycoon who brought a pagan idol back to his turn-of-the-century hotel. Paris, I think, has a “Twilight Zone” version.

  15. How do you KNOW all this stuff??

    The ride that interests me most, and has a Twilight Zone connection, is Joe Dante’s Haunted House/Castle thingy made in “4D”. But it’s not that likely I’ll ever find myself wherever that one is, alas.

  16. bensondonald Says:

    Disneyphile, second class. Some of it is an inevitable consequence of being an American Baby Boomer; some of it is lacking the focus to be a trekkie or Star Wars fanatic.

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