Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Night Train to Terror (USA, 1985)

"I'm only trying to cure you... I'll protect you... No more pain. No more hurt. No dreams... Only healing in my arms. Susan would want you to feel again: human... fondling... alive... worm... waiting..."
Dr. Fargo (Sharon Ratcliff)

Night Train to Terror is comparable to a religious experience in that once you have had it, you can never fully explain it. It is a film that defies description and defies justification; it is simply what it is – sort of like head cheese or the writings of Daniela Steele, either you like it or you don't, but you'll never be able to convince anyone who doesn't share your taste that it is any good.
And good Night Train to Terror is not – it is simply an experience that has to be had to be appreciated, has to be experienced to be truly comprehended. It is, without a doubt, probably the weirdest and most unexpected cinematic experience I have had since the day I watched my first (and favorite) Ed Wood film, Glen or Glenda (1953 / trailer). But Glen or Glenda, unlike Night Train to Terror, actually displays some cinematic talent, some directorial finesse, some narrative logic and continuity, and an artistic vision. All of that is missing in Night Train to Terror, and that is probably what makes the film bearable – if not downright enjoyable – in the first place. It is arguably one of the biggest pieces of filmic shit ever made – so bad as to be a masterpiece of Situationism or possibly the most intelligent commentary on human existence since, dunno, Wonder Bread.
Of course, to call Night Train to Terror a real film is sort of like calling a painting by Pierre Brassau a real piece of art – it is, in a way, but not really; you could just as easily argue it all to be a hoax or a contrived fake. Night Train to Terror is an anthology film made from three full-length films – one of which was unfinished at the time that Night Train to Terror was cobbled together, two of which were in the can – edited down to the barest of possible necessities required to convey any basic semblance of continuity and then strung together with an absolutely inane framework and padded with some truly horrendous 1980s new wave rock and music-video dancing. As mentioned before, the final result is truly amazing, startling, shocking, indescribable, memorable – much like a ten car pile-up that started with a VW bug and ended with a mack truck.
The framework of the anthology film is a train on the way to Las Vegas in which God (Ferdy Mayne, best known as Count von Krolock in The Fearless Vampire Killers [1967 / trailer] but also found in films as diverse as The Echo Murders [1945 / full film], Where Eagles Dare [1968 / trailer], The Vampire Lovers [1970 / trailer], Gebissen wird nur nachts [1971 / trailer], Val Guest's ignoble Au Pair Girls [1972 / trailer] and Frightmare [1983 / trailer]) and Satan (Tony Giorgio, an unknown and occasionally employed character actor seen somewhere in The Godfather [1972 / trailer] and Foxy Brown [1974 / trailer]) sit in a compartment and argue over the souls of those involved in the three stories – "The Case of Harry Billings", "The Case of Gretta Connors", and "The Case of Claire Hansen". In between the respective tales, in one of the train cars further back a bunch "new wavers" in laughable 80s clothing sing bad 80s rock and dance around, unaware that the train is hurtling towards an accident. (In one great scene, some prancing gals ask the conductor how much longer the ride is from outside the train window.) Rest assured, however, the musicians all go to heaven...
The three films edited into Night Train to Terror, all of which enjoy reputations as psychotronic experiences in themselves, are (in the order of their edited appearance in the film) Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars (1992 / review elsewhere), Carnival of Fools (1983) and Cataclysm / The Nightmare Never Ends (1980 / last scene); the latter two were already around as "full length" films in 1985, Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars was finished later. Were the narration of Night Train to Terror absent, none of the shortened three tales would be comprehensible, but even with the narration the viewer is subject to some truly surreal and jarring narrative jumps – and good amount of gore and a lot of tits and (believe it or not) clay animation, too.
"The Case of Harry Billings" (or Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars) – the bloodiest and most breast-filled of the three – tells of a mind-controlled man (John Phillip Law of Death Rides a Horse [1967 / trailer], Barbarella [1968 / trailer], Danger: Diabolik [1968 / trailer], The Golden Voyage of Sinbad [1974 / trailer], and Curse of the Forty-Niner [2002 / trailer]) who kidnaps girls for organ sellers; "The Case of Gretta Connors" (or Carnival of Fools) tells of college dork (Rick Barnes) who falls in love with a porn-star musician (Meredith Haze) he sees in a porn film and, after tracking her down, with whom he starts a bonking relationship before finally getting involved with a club that plays games of death; lastly, "The Case of Claire Hansen" (or Cataclysm / The Nightmare Never Ends) tells an extremely convoluted tale of Dr. Hansen (Faith Clift of the great classic Horror Express [1973 / full film]) realizing and accepting her predestined role as the killer of a devil's minion (Rober Bristol – complete with cloven hoofs) once everyone else who gets in his way (including such popular cult actors as Richard Moll, Cameron Mitchell and Marc Lawrence) die. All three of the disjointed, edited "cases" are so inane, so insane, so weird that they do well to make one want to see the full films one day...
The script to Night Train to Terror is credited to Philip Yordan, who also penned the original three feature films. Yordan, who died in La Jolla, CA, in 2003, was an Oscar-winning scriptwriter (for 1954's Broken Lance) who fronted for many a blacklisted writer during the McCarthy era. As a scriptwriter, he began his career penning notable if mostly forgotten noirs and mysteries – such as Dillinger (1945 / trailer), Whistle Stop (1946 / full film), The Chase (1946 / full film) and William Wyler's Detective Story (1951 / trailer) – and went on to a period doing big-budget films before finally ending his days scribing obscurely inane trash films like Bloody Wednesday (1987 / full film). Night Train to Terror, and the three films it contains, is typical of his later canon – indeed, he is the credited writer of all three of the original films as well this anthology film.
The directorial credits, on the other hand, are divided between five names: the pornographer Phillip Marshak (Dracula Sucks [1980 / ten minute edit] and Space Virgins [1984]), Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, Tom McGowan (Wilbur and the Baby Factory [1970 / trailer]), the Greek Gregg C. Tallas (Prehistoric Women [1950 / full film]) and John Carr. Considering how the film was made, however, perhaps the name to which Night Train to Terror should truly be credited is Evan A. Stoliar, the editor of the film. He makes a guest appearance in one of the tacked-on scenes not part of the prior three films in "The Case of Gretta Connors" as the boy getting screwed in the park who is stung by the deadly clay-animation wasp and dies when his head pops like a pustular zit all over his female companion.
For a US production, Night Train to Terror sure feels Italian. Imagine, if you can, that sometime circa 1985 Bruno Mattai suddenly decided not only that he wanted to start doing music videos for bad pop acts and that he also wanted to make an anthology film using edited-down versions of three of his films, but that he decided to combine both in one movie. The final result would well have been just like Night Train to Terror.
Night Train to Terror was a flop when it came out, which is hardly surprising – what is surprising is that it ever even got a theatrical release. Since making its way onto the lowest shelf of the video store, however, it has gained considerable cult popularity due to its inconceivable ineptitude. Still, be forewarned that Night Train to Terror is best watched as group that is well into their second or third six-pack or bong round. You will find yourself either laughing hysterically or dropping your jaw in awed silence....
Do we recommend
Night Train to Terror? Hell, yes! Will you like it? Hell, no!

For your aural and visual pleasure, an extended cut of the main music number of the film:

1 comment:

Dusty said...

I always want to believe this movie is my guilty little secret. Apparently not, however, and that's just fine. It shows up on a blog here or there every once in a while. And the plain fact is that it's just stupefying. You've done a better job of demystifying it than just about any one else. Yes, it's a horrible movie. But there's some beyond that horrible. Another reality of head scratchiness. How...did this get made? Nice work. Love your site.