Twilight Zone – Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

★★★★★ October 11, 1963 Season 5 Episode 3

If you want to see where we are…HERE is a list of the episodes.

As far as classics go…you can’t get much more classic than this one. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet goes beyond the Twilight Zone into pop culture. It’s been parodied and remade, but this is the definitive version. The Twilight Zone the movie redid this one and they did a good job but it’s not as eerie as this one. The new Twilight Zone in 2019 also did a version. 

William Shatner does a great job in this episode as a man (Bob Wilson) who just recovered from a nervous breakdown. Wilson is complex, intelligent, and insecure. He is a man on the brink, trying desperately to hold on to his recently regained normalcy. Shatner’s over-the-top mannerisms work in this episode. The episode still works, partly because of the claustrophobic airplane setting with an added violent thunderstorm. I’ve heard criticism on the monster makeup but if I saw that thing on the wing of a plane I was on…I would freak out also. 

Shatner’s character reminds me of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but this time will he be vindicated?

Richard Donner (Superman and the Omen) directed this episode. The logistics involved in filming Nightmare at 20,000 Feet were enormous. The set consisted of the interior of an airline passenger cabin with the left airplane wing attached to the outside. This was all suspended over a huge water tank, in order to contain the water from the rain effect. Donner remembers the shooting as one big headache.

Richard Matheson’s scripts were so respected that they were filmed almost exactly as written. The only change was one of title, from Flight to The Last Flight.

To show what a great sense of humor Rod Serling had…read the last quote by him down below. 

Richard Donner: Because you were suspended up, you had no stage floors. Every movement was a bitch. He lists the factors that had to be considered in virtually every shot. A man flying in on wires. Wind. Rain. Lightning. Smoke, to give the effect of clouds and travel and speed. Actors. You couldnt hear yourself think because of the noise of the machines outside. And fighting time, all the time. It was just unbearable. If any one of those things went wrong, it ruined the whole take. All of this consumed lots of time. We were supposed to take a fourth day in the tank set with the airplane

Then they found out that the studio had committed it to another company. We had to work all night to finish it up. We went overtime till early the next morning.

I love it, I do love it. Its just such an unusual thing for television, really, to see that much energy go into a little half-hour film. And the story was good, too.

From IMDB: William Shatner played an elaborate prank on set when he conspired with a friend who was visiting the filming, actor Edd Byrnes, to trick director Richard Donner into thinking Shatner died. Between takes, and when Donner was off set getting coffee, Shatner and Byrnes staged a fake fight on the set, which was suspended some 30 feet above a giant, empty tank. When Donner ran back in the studio to see what was happening the two men chased each other around the back of the airplane set and wound up atop the plane wing. Donner saw a body falling off the wing and Byrnes yelling in terror as it impacted the concrete floor. Donner said when he ran to the fallen, motionless figure, thinking it was a dead or grievously injured William Shatner, he was greeted with laughter the moment he realized it was just an articulated human dummy the two men had found in another part of the studio and threw off the wing. Donner later joked, “Honestly, my first reaction was, ‘Don’t tell me I have to shoot the whole show over again.'”

Rod Serling: The final story on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet occurred several months after the shooting. Matheson and I were going to fly to San Francisco. It was like three or four weeks after the show was on the air, and I had spent three weeks in constant daily communication with Western Airlines preparing a given seat for him, having the stewardess close the [curtains] when he sat down, and I was going to say, Dick, open it up. I had this huge, blownup poster stuck on the [outside of the window] so that when he opened it there would be this gremlin staring at him. So what happened was we get on the plane, there was the seat, he sits down, the curtains are closed, I lean over and I say, Dick at which point they start the engines and it blows the thing away. It was an old prop airplane. … He never saw it. And I had spent hours in the planning of it. I would lie in bed thinking how we could do this.

This show was written by Rod Serling and Richard Matheson

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home—the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.

Summary

Bob Wilson is on a flight when he sees a creature of some sort out on the wing of the aircraft. He’s only recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and isn’t sure that what he is seeing is real. Every time someone else looks out the window, the creature hides from view. When the creature begins to tamper with one of the engines he begs his wife to tell the pilots to keep an eye on the engines. If they see nothing, he agrees to commit himself to an asylum when they arrive at their destination. His paranoia drives him to a desperate act

***WARNING…VIDEO SPOILERS***

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer… though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.

CAST

Rod Serling … Narrator / Self – Host (uncredited)
William Shatner…Bob Wilson
Christine White…Julia Wilson
Edward Kemmer…the flight engineer
Asa Maynor…stewardess Betty Crosby
Nick Cravat [uncredited]…the gremlin

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

35 thoughts on “Twilight Zone – Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

  1. Same as Phil… not only probably my favorite episode but the one which jumps into my mind quickest when I hear ‘Twilight Zone’. No doubt a new version would have a better, scarier-looking gremlin… but would probably lose some of the charm and edge of this one.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. LOL yes they did…and smoking on planes also. Glad you got Season 5! I had 4 of them in my top ten… There are two episodes in this season that a lot of people don’t like…I love them. The Bewitching Pool and The Wandering Man….they are both near the end. I’m looking forward to see what you think of them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. She did….she looked more nervous and tight than he was supposed to be.
        She wasn’t the one they wanted to play his wife. They wanted the lady that was his wife in the episode Nick Of Time…where they are in the Cafe

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I wish she would have. I think they wanted her to look worried about him but he looked just fine, but I suppose if you care about someone who had a nervous breakdown it would wear on your own nerves also. That beast out on the plane scared the *hell* out of me. When he opened the curtain and it was right there I screamed and both cats went running lmao

        Liked by 1 person

      3. LOL… that is grreat! That means it still works! Many people put the makeup down…but if I saw that thing on the wing and popping up in a window….I would be scared.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. While I’ve heard the recording of RS telling his class of the prank that didn’t happen, I read an interview many years later with Richard Matheson, where RM said that never happened; that he and Serling never had a reason to fly together.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is wild… I wonder where the story orignated from? I got it from The Twilight Zone companion by Marc Scott Zicree.

      Like

  3. Yes. People did in fact smoke on planes. They also would never have, in a million years, act as insanely and aggressively as they today on a daily basis. My point?… People are the REAL monsters on planes today.

    Liked by 1 person

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