Murder on Flight 502 (1975)

Like any air disaster, Murder on Flight 502 begins in unassuming fashion, routinely assembling its diverse group of passengers, each with their own secret, but most importantly, each a familiar face due to they being aging movie legends, has-been TV stars or from being Robert Stack. Then without warning, it freaking explodes all over you, its 1970s debris of orange upholstery, hideous striped stewardess blouses and Sonny Bono raining down on you like bad movie mana from heaven!

What initially seems like just another flight for Captain Larkin (Stack) quickly turns anything but as soon as clumsy stewardess Vera boards the plane and spills the contents of her luggage all over! What is suspicious about this is that there is nothing suspicious in her bags! So why take up valuable TV movie running time with such a pointless scene? Unless Larkin needs that information later on in the film to crack the case! But a spilled suitcase full of ugly polyster, while a fashion crime against humanity, isn’t enough to ground Flight 502, so it’s wheels up to London!

But just after take off, a bomb goes off in the first class lounge back at the airport! A smoke bomb that is! Paging Danny Bonaduce! Yep, Danny Bonaduce, one-time Partridge kid turned something or other is on board as rich brat Millard Kensington (writer David P. Harmon deserves a special Emmy for this script, but more on that later) and his gimmick is that he likes to pull pranks whenever he flies on an airplane. Like that time he took a bunch of sponges and stopped up all the airplane toilets!

Of course if you did that now, you’d be facing federal terrorism charges and never see the light of day again – after being beaten senseless by passengers who drank a lot of soda during the flight. The 1970s though were a more innocent time so when head of security Davenport (Route 66‘s George Maharis) radioed Larkin about Millard, Larkin snarkily responded “do you want me to spank him or turn him over to Scotland Yard?” prompting snickers from the rest of the crew.

That exchange highlights why Murder on Flight 502 can confidently be called the funniest cheap Airport TV-movie clone of the decade. The script, in particular the dialogue, by Harmon comes off like a rough draft for the parody Airplane which came out five years later, but it’s even funnier because it isn’t trying as hard to funny. In fact, it isn’t trying at all!

Early on, Sonny Bono’s agent is berating him about not getting in trouble and snarls “”When you’re on top, you can rape Whistler’s mother in Macy’s window at high noon and get away with it.” I was awake for the whole movie after that! Then in the first class lounge, Bonaduce has this exchange with a woman passenger who writes mysteries: “I bite,” she says to which Bonaduce retorts “I had my shots.” But then the woman says “tell me the truth, you’re irresistibly drawn to older women, right?” To a 13 year old boy!

Even stewardess Farrah Fawcett is given a golden nugget to deliver to Larkin, in response to him asking if she’s looking forward to her last flight before getting married. “I’m looking forward to a small wedding, a house and some kids. I’ve been liberated long enough.” Right on, Farrah! You tried that whole radical feminist thing of having a job, but you’ve finally come to your senses and are going back to do what women do best – popping out the little chillins!

Stack though is the standout and in full on dead serious mode for the entire film, his countenance one of chronically irritated constipation. Whether he’s asking the cop aboard the plane whether he shot any innocent bystanders after the cop asks him if he was responsible for any accidents that killed anyone, accusing a doctor on the plane of trying to kill a patient who angrily responds that he’s responsible for his patient to which Larkin fires back that he’s responsible for all 250 passengers or just busting Davenport’s balls whenever they are on the radio about how they are running out of time, he’s like an emotionless version of Charlton Heston in Skyjacked, but times a thousand!

There is of course a story sandwiched into all the glorious gabbing and it involves a note left in the first class lounge advising there would be some murders on Flight 502. The note isn’t signed and doesn’t provide any motive which of course renders the note pointless except to give the folks on the ground and in the plane a head start in trying to stop the murders. Which they fail to do anyway!

In order to drag things out to fill a two hour TV time slot, the flight manages to have only passengers booked on it that have deadly grudges against each other. In addition to the murders referenced in the note, there’s a guy who blames the doctor for his wife’s death and a father who blames Sonny Bono for his daughter’s death. Can things get anymore 70s than Sonny Bono being attacked in the plane’s lounge with a serving fork?

The ending merely confirms the film’s status as an even better parody of Airport than Airplane was as Larkin’s plan to foil the last murder not only still resulted in the murder but in setting the cabin on fire as well! But not before the bad guy taunts his sweating victim with probably the best line in any airline drama, sneering, “go own, lick your own juice! Taste it!”

By the time Davenport radios in after all the drama is over to advise Larkin that they finally discovered who the murderer probably is, the film takes a victory lap. “You know something, Davenport? Your security stinks,” Larkin radios back. Murder on Flight 502 holds you hostage for its 90 minutes, leaving you enjoying its juices for the whole flight!

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