Here’s one I haven’t done before, but may have to start. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is an episode of “The Twilight Zone” written by Richard Matheson. As one of the more famous episodes of arguably the most famous sci-fi/horror television show of all time, I feel that it warrants it’s own review. To try to look at the entire series from a film critic’s perspective would be silly; every episode has a different writer, director, actors, cinematographers, you name it. Pretty much the only consistent thing about the series is Serling himself, and the fact that you are entering “The Twilight Zone”. So taking a few choice episodes to review as mini stories seems an ideal way to capture the true essence of “The Twilight Zone”, which was to present the viewer with a unique and provocative look into the mysteries of the mind.
Being from the 50’s and 60’s, “The Twilight Zone” is not really known for it’s stunning visual effects anymore, but they stories it conveys. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” has gained notoriety because of this very reason. It is the story of a man on his way home from a rehabilitation clinic where he was recovering from a mental breakdown. Only he had the initial breakdown on a plane, and now he is on a plane home. His wife has come to accompany him on the trip, as much out of love as for moral support and, if needed, pharmaceutical intervention. The trip starts calmly enough, a few minor bumps and idle chatter with the wife and flight crew. It is only after the rest of the passengers begin to fall asleep that the man notices something out on the wing of the plane. The thing reveals itself in the general shape of a man, but as it gets closer in successive camera shots and glances out the window it turns out to be much more monstrous than that.
In a formula that is quite typical for the show, the protagonist in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is haunted by an evil force that is not readily evident to others. When his initial task of getting the flight crew to see the monster fails, he begins to question his own eyes. Could there really be something standing on the wing of the plane, tampering with the engines? Or is it just a figment of his imagination, a remnant of the mental breakdown he had suffered while riding in the belly of another flying machine? The show is thought provoking as well as eerie to the extreme in it’s out-the-window shots. The viewer begins to feel just as claustrophobic as the protagonist, only seeing the inside of the plane and point of view angles. Simplicity rules here, and there is nothing better than a one set movie to get the mind churning and the hairs standing.
In terms of visuals, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” delivers surprisingly well. While the monster make up is a bit dated, the camera angles used to show the monster make up for the 50’s quality hair and latex. Direction is tight, keeping us engaged in each scene just as long as we need to be. The challenge of the small set really becomes the director’s best friend, dictating exactly what can an can’t be seen by the audience and framing everything perfectly. The main action of the story occurring completely inside the cabin of the plane makes for a concise story that does not feel rushed or lacking in just 25 minutes of air time. Modern screen writers require at least an hour for character development, plot development and resolution; Matheson uses his half hour segment to create an interesting and believable character, set the scene, build tension and finally come to a conclusion.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is an impressive piece of cinema, even though it was made for television. It has a clear and interesting story, and is filmed in a way that highlights it’s simple yet terrifying theme. It’s not flashy and it’s not particularly well known outside of it’s niche, but the show is a worthwhile watch for any fan of suspense and psychological horror. In fact, it would be an excellent piece for young directors to study to get a feel for framing, camera movement and point of view shots. “The Twilight Zone” is not always this good, but when you have a solid director and a solid story, you can’t miss.