Given their low budgets and quick turnaround times, TV movies have always been able to jump on both cultural trends and ripped-from-the-headlines stories more easily than theatrical features. That's one reason why numerous ’70s telefilms dramatize sensationalistic events with supernatural connotations. “Weird news” items lacking the factual foundation and/or social significance to merit feature treatment were ideal fodder for movies of the week. All of this should set the proper context for The Ghost of Flight 401, a slight but somewhat thoughtful riff on strange phenomena that followed the crash of a commercial airliner in Florida. In real life, people reported hearing, seeing, and even smelling the ghost of the doomed plane's copilot long after he died from injuries sustained in the crash.
After the usual gravitas-laden opening narration warning viewers that what they're about to see maybe-kinda-sorta could have actually happened, the picture introduces veteran flyer Dom Cimoli (Ernest Borgnine), a likeable family man with a weakness for Bay Rum cologne. Despite a premonition from his wife that something bad is about to happen, Dom joins the cockpit crew of a plane that suffers landing-gear failure, loses altitude, and crashes in the Everglades. Among the few survivors is flight attendant Prissy Frasier (Kim Basinger). She and others who knew Dom sense his presence in the days and weeks after the crash, first by catching a whiff of Bay Rum and then by actually seeing his physical body for fleeing moments. Airline administrator Jordan Evanhower (Gary Lockwood), an avowed agnostic, dismisses the sightings as mass hysteria, so when Prissy swears she encountered the deceased Dom on a night flight, Jordan tells her she needs to see a shrink before returning to duty. Eventually, enough people report sightings that Jordan is forced to broaden his horizons, leading to a kicky final act.
As directed by the capable Steven Hilliard Stern, The Ghost of Flight 401 doesn't break ground in terms of otherworldly thrills. Instead, the film effectively depicts the emotional states of otherwise rational people who encounter things beyond their understanding. Stern guides actors toward restrained, tense performances, and cinematographer Howard Schwartz bathes everything in evocative shadows that Stern maximizes with elegant camera moves. Calling The Ghost of Flight 401 a cut above the normal made-for-TV fare would be exaggerating, and it's worth noting that Borgnine's screen time is limited (although Basinger, in one of her earliest roles, is quite prominent). Nonetheless, the respectful way that the filmmakers explore such pseudoscientific concepts as pscyhometry makes The Ghost of Flight 401 more ruminative than exploitive.
The Ghost of Flight 401: FUNKY