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"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 travelling 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..."
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is a 2010 Twilight Zone Radio Drama featuring John Schneider and Stacy Keach. This is one of the most famous of all Twilight Zone stories and was written by Richard Matheson. It was originally a short story called Alone in the Night and then (of course) a 1963 episode of the Twilight Zone with a memorably hammy turn by William Shatner in the lead role. Here, Schneider takes the central part of Bob Wilson - a salesman who suffered a nervous breakdown on an airline journey and was sent to an institution as a result. After six months though he was deemed fit enough to leave and is flying home. However, whatever happened on the previous flight to send him completely doolally is a sun drenched picnic compared to this journey. As he settles into his seat, a storm begins to rattle the plane and buffet the passengers - hardly helping Wilson's mild apprehension about being in the air again. He peers out of the window through the arcs of rain and sparks of lightning and sees what appears to be the outline of a man on the wing. Closer inspection reveals the figure to be not a man but some type of strange gremlin creature intentionally damaging the plane! Is it real or a figment of Wilson's imagination?
This story works really well in a audio format I feel for a number of reasons. The main one is that you have to use your imagination to picture the creature and what Wilson sees on the wing for yourself. The television version was great but the gremlin - when revealed - was basically just an actor in a big wool suit and hasn't dated especially well. It was better in the remake for the ill-fated 1983 Twilight Zone film but neither can compete with one's own imagination. You picture yourself in Wilson's seat looking out through rain lashed windows into the night and seeing this strange and ominous silhouette on the wing. It's just a really clever idea. The sound effects are suitably atmospheric here too and enjoyably, er, airplane themed. They work very well. The murmurs of the passengers, the storm raging outside, the beeps and static of the tannoy announcements. Wilson begins the journey relatively calm and cured but soon becomes more and more frazzled - especially after he spots the spooky gremlin rascal on the wing. The general gist here is that Wilson keeps seeing the creature but when he alerts someone and they have a look it's peskily flown away. It naturally makes them all think he's gone completely bonkers and he starts to wonder himself.
Schneider (I believe he's in Smallville but I don't really watch it myself) is generally good here as the troubled Wilson. There is a good deal of tension when he starts to feel he has to do something to save the plane even though no one believes him. He hatches a scheme to steal a policeman's gun (this was a Shatner acting masterclass in the television version!). Wilson has his doubts but the gremlin appears all too real for his liking. Schneider is duller than the always funny (though not always intentionally) Shatner and not as good an actor as the wonderful John Lithgow (who played this role in the 1983 Twilight Zone film) but he does a decent enough job. Although the television version had a lot of visual cues and revelations it's not as much of a drawback here as you expect it to be. The drama is 38 minutes long in total and fairly tight. I don't think they could have stretched this out much more than they did so it doesn't outstay its welcome too much.
The core of Matheson's story - just an inventive horror yarn with an unusual setting - is faithfully captured here. I think the appeal of this story is putting yourself in Wilson's position and wondering what you would do if you were in his shoes. Stacey Keach is also on hand to supply a few supporting characters on the plane and dispense the closing and opening narrations that were performed by Rod Serling in the television originals. This is not a 100% straight transcript of the original and there are one or two minor changes. These are nothing drastic and help I think to make it a bit fresher if you are already familiar with this story (if you've sought this series out in the first place you are in all likelyhood a fan of the series and know all of these already). Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is spooky late night fun and another solid addition to this series. At the time of writing you can buy this as part of a collection or download it for £1.19. I should point out in closing that if you find the homepage for this series (type 'Stacey Keach/Twilight Zone' into google and it'll be virtually the first thing that comes up) you can listen to some free samples if you wish to get an idea of what to expect.