It’s a Classic: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“There’s a man out there!”

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William Shatner provides a wonderfully anxious performance in the classic ‘Twilight Zone’ outing “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Year:  1963

Starring:  William Shatner, Christine White, Ed Kemmer, Asa Maynor, Nick Cravat (introduction/narration by Rod Serling)

Written by:  Richard Matheson / directed by:  Richard Donner / series created by:  Rod Serling

What’s it about?

A man, flying home having just recovered from a breakdown is convinced he can see someone or something on the wing of the aeroplane…

In review:  why it’s a classic

One of the greatest and most popular episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is amongst the best not to be written by series creator Rod Serling.  Penned by noted science fiction writer Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend and a regular contributor to The Twilight Zone, having previously written memorable episodes such as “Third from the Sun”, “The Invaders” and “Steel”) – adapted from his 1961 story Alone by Night – and helmed by future Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” features a pre-Star Trek William Shatner (who also starred in another Matheson scripted story for The Twilight Zone: the excellent 1960 episode “Nick of Time”) as Robert Wilson, a man flying back home on a stormy night with his wife (played by Christine White) after recovering from a nervous breakdown.  During the flight, as his wife sleeps, Wilson observes something outside the window – a strange figure on the wing of the plane that subsequently disappears.  As the figure – a gremlin-like creature – reappears, only to jump away before anyone else can see it, Wilson is convinced it is causing damage to the aircraft and desperately tries to convince his wife and the flight crew what he’s witnessed is real – but nobody believes him.

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The gremlin creature (Nick Cravat), given a suitably creepy facial make-up design by William Tuttle (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Richard Matheson provides a suitably mysterious and tense script that’s enhanced greatly by an increasingly anxious performance from William Shatner.  The tight close-ups and low angle shots employed by Richard Donner’s direction add to the sense of unease and help capture the exasperation and nervousness of Shatner’s reactions, you truly believe this is a man on edge, having already suffered through his own emotional issues and thrust unwittingly into a fantastic scenario that he faces alone – a common but always enjoyable theme in Matheson’s writing.  The general look of the ’gremlin’ may now appear a little dated with the plump and fluffy boiler suit costume, yet the monstrous make-up design by William Tuttle is still very effective and with the strange animal-like movements by actor Nick Cravat makes it appropriately creepy.

Whilst the fifth and final season of The Twilight Zone is generally considered as its weakest (and even then, it yielded some firm fan favourites), “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is rightly praised and beloved.  It’s the one that even the most casual of pop culture observers recognises, affectionately parodied on The Simpsons and remade twice (a third time if you count the 2002 radio drama adaptation with Smallville’s John Schneider) – firstly for a segment of 1983’s The Twilight Zone:  The Movie (starring John Lithgow and directed by Mad Max’s George Miller) and more recently as an episode of the Jordan Peele-fronted revival of the series, the retitled story “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”.

Although “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” doesn’t feature a traditional rug-pulling twist that more often than not would conclude an edition of The Twilight Zone, it does leave the viewer with an unsettling final shot as the episode fades out with Rod Serling’s wonderfully lyrical closing narration to an all-time classic outing for the celebrated science fiction/fantasy anthology series.

Standout moment

As his flight home weathers a raging storm, Bob Wilson looks out of the window and between flashes of lightning is convinced he can see someone moving about on the wing…

Geek fact!

Richard Matheson would go on to write for the first season of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, scripting the iconic 1966 episode “The Enemy Within”.

If you like this then check out:

The Twilight Zone – “Nick of Time” : William Shatner makes his first TZ appearance in another classic instalment written by Richard Matheson in which a pair of newlyweds find their fates controlled by an ominous fortune telling machine.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

8 thoughts on “It’s a Classic: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

  1. Kudos for this fine review! Truly this is one of Twilight Zone’s finest episodes and it has stood the test of time, gremlin suit notwithstanding.

    This is one very creepy episode that just makes you cringe and perfectly echoes the anxiety that Robert Wilson feels. I always find it amusing how he so easily lifted the gun from the air marshal. Try doing that today, if you can spot him or her!

    Although the remakes were very well done, especially George Miller’s segment with John Ligthgow, this was the best version of the story.

    • Thanks! It was the first episode of Twilight Zone I ever saw (and as a very young Trek fan had a vague prior awareness of it) in its entirety and got me hooked on the series.

      I still have the new version to check out from the Jordan Peele revival but I’m certainly not expecting it to be anywhere near as good as the original classic.

  2. This is one of my favorite TZ episodes too, and of course, it is elevated because it stars William Shatner before he started his overacting in Star Trek & beyond.

  3. I continue to truly enjoy those insights into the crew’s past and future experience, from movies they are going to make to the books that they’ve written and raised to classic status! This does sound like another wonderful episode of the Twilight Zone, even if it doesn’t abide by the same formula as other iconic episodes. Glad to hear your thoughts on it, Chris. Always so interesting to see how much you’ve enjoyed it.

    • Thanks for checking out the review Lashaan – the Twilight Zone is such a wonderful and iconic series (although not EVERY episode is a classic, but never less than watchable), it’s a shame that modern viewers will likely ignore it because of it’s age – yet the stories themselves are generally timeless and (mostly) well done.

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