“When we were approached to do this commentary and you were asking me if I’d seen Night Train to Terror I was thinking back. I’d seen it about ten years ago and I thought, ‘yeah, I remember the wraparound with the New Wave band and I remember the stop-motion insect that’s in the second part coming up,’ and that’s all I could remember. Everything else was it was a bit weird and strange and I didn’t find it all that entertaining. But, I have to say I’ve changed my opinion, I’m a lover of Night Train to Terror.”–horror writer Justin Kerswell, on the Night Train to Terror commentary track
DIRECTED BY: Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, John Carr, Phillip Marshank, Tom McGowan, Gregg C. Tallas
PLOT: God and Satan are riding on a train at midnight. Looking out the window, they watch three stories, and debate the eternal fate of the protagonists. All the while, a teen pop/rock band is acting out a music video in a nearby compartment.
- The first segment of this anthology film (“The Case of Harry Billings”) was an unfinished movie shot by John Carr. It was later released, without the director’s knowledge or input, as a feature titled Scream Your Head Off. In 1992 Carr shot additional footage and released his own completed version of the movie (now with Francine York as Marilyn Monroe!) titled Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars.
- Night Train to Terror‘s second segment is edited down from the 1984 feature The Dark Side to Love [AKA Death Wish Club; AKA Gretta; AKA Carnival of Fools] (also directed by John Carr), which is available in its uncut form on the Vinegar Syndrome DVD as an extra.
- The third tale is a compressed version of the 1980 horror Cataclysm (co-directed by Phillip Marshank, Tom McGowan, and Gregg C. Tallas).
- According to Night Train producer/director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, none of the films used here had found distributors at that time, and some additional scenes were shot for each sequence using stand-ins. The stop motion animation sequences in the second and third segments were also added specifically for Night Train to Terror.
- Phillip Yordan, who is credited for the screenplay to Johnny Guitar (1954), wrote Night Train (and also wrote each of the three movies edited into this anthology). Yordan was a three-time Academy Award nominee who received a 1954 Best Writing nod for Broken Lance. However, Yordan also worked as a front for blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era, so it is possible that he did not actually write all of the screenplays with which he is credited in the 1950s. His son Byron lip-syncs and breakdances in Night Train to Terror.
- Some older reviews describe the first and third segments as switched from the order they appear on the DVD/Blu-ray; presumably this is the order the stories were shown on VHS.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie that’s caked in blood and gore, surprisingly enough the most memorable image is of the wholesome lip-syncing teenage band dressed like extras from Flashdance, hopping around, pretending to play instruments, and breakdancing in a train compartment that looks like a suburban living room, while the impassive conductor silently makes his rounds. Of course, in this case the indelible image is inextricably linked to the indelible sound, as the hormonal minstrels belt out their catchy-but-mocking hook: “Everybody’s got something to do—everybody but you.”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Inspired by the box-office success of horror anthology movies like Creepshow (1982) and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Night Train to Terror tries to hop a ride on the omnibus gravy train. Rather than shoot new stories specifically for this movie, however, the producers decided to save time and money by cutting unreleased full-length features they already owned the rights to into twenty-five minute segments. Needless to say, the results of this hacksaw editing, which consistently sacrifices narrative for nudity and gore scenes, are incoherent. The expository sequences with a hammy God (“I shed my mercy on them, as I do the gentle rain”) and hammier Satan (“there is no evil so vile which man will not plunge himself into”) on a cosmic train judging the characters adds an additional layer of bizarreness. But, it’s the upbeat teen New Wave band shooting a music video in the next train compartment that sends the movie off the tracks and plunging into a void of pure weirdness.
Blu-ray trailer for Night Train to Terror
COMMENTS: “I can laugh and cry at the same time,” explains God. He may have learned that trick by watching Night Train to Terror. If you mix cynical exploitation together with cinematic incompetence, and stir in a lot of cheap drugs, the result is this incoherent, cobbled-together nightmare. The idea is this: take three el-cheapo horror movies that no one wants to distribute, cut two-thirds of the exposition out of them (leaving just the “good parts” behind), write a wraparound premise about God and Satan watching these stories on a train as they debate the fate of their protagonists, and—what the hell—the MTV is popular with the kids now, so let’s spread a music video throughout the movie, too. It’s a concept that no sane and sober person could possibly have thought was a good idea: and yet, this movie exists.
The theological explanation of why God and Satan are riding together on what looks suspiciously like a model train is left to our imagination, but we are told that the locomotive will crash at dawn—is it, by chance, a metaphor? Life is a journey, the world is a train, God is the passive-aggressive passenger in a snazzy white suit, Satan is the dude in the tuxedo obnoxiously stinking up the cabin with a cigar? The 1980s band, who see the ride as an opportunity to practice the one song they know over and over, seem to think they are headed to Las Vegas, but the Conductor cryptically explains to these dancing fools that “some call this train the Heavenly Express, others, Satan’s Cannonball.” (The Conductor is a powerful metaphysical entity of uncertain allegiance: he’s able to broker deals between the Almighty and the Devil, for example, suggesting 100 years of Purgatory when the two can’t agree on a disposition for a repentant organ harvester’s eternal soul). In general, though, the Almighty always gets his way. The white-bearded Creator speaks deliberately, enunciating every syllable with the omnipotent confidence of someone who holds all the cards, while the cringing Lucifer at least makes some good points (“my way allows adultery, alcohol, tobacco, cocaine… all the fun things!”) and has better taste (“you call that music?,” he sneers about the band after God defends their caterwauling). Riding in their special compartment with a cool glowing table and a window that doubles as a movie screen, they watch edited horror movies (which they dub “cases”) and argue about the outcomes.
Their first “case” is arguably the sleaziest and most incoherent of the lot, which also makes it the most fun in many ways. Through a gauntlet of hard, jarring edits, we’re able to reconstruct the story of Harry Billings (a down-on-his-luck John Phillip Law), who is sent to a sanitarium where he is hypnotized and released to slip mickeys into people’s drinks, bringing them back to the unlicensed hospital for organ harvesting. Richard Moll plays an orderly who likes to rape the female patients. One scene is very nearly effective: the sadistic Moll (actually an obvious stand-in, as you can tell by the fact that they never show his face, only his hairy arms) hovers over a female victim with a bonesaw. Rather than showing him fileting the nubile wench, the camera pans away, into a side room where we see severed heads human stacked on shelves haunches hanging on meathooks as the victim screams, before circling back to survey the result of his gruesome work. This would have been a creative and effective technique, if the scene had not been obviously shot in a commercial kitchen—among the devious medical instruments whose shadows we see hanging on the wall are a spatula and a soup ladle—and if the cameraman had been careful to make sure we didn’t see his shadow as he crept along, or his reflection in a glass door. At any rate, Harry Billings is injected with another hypnotic dose by a redheaded female assistant doctor who’s hot to jump his bones, and when it eventually wears off, he extracts revenge on his tormentors. Although Harry conducted all of his abductions and crimes under the influence of a powerful drug that robbed him of free will, Satan still argues for his damnation; and, as mentioned above, they negotiate Purgatory for the poor dupe, presumably for sins he committed prior to the events of the movie we saw.
“Gretta Connors” is a harder case. Greta, we again glean through careful study of the disjointed narrative, is a lingerie musician and sometime porn star who joins a secret club where jaded survivors of near-death experiences play bizarre games that result in one of them being killed, bringing along the straight-laced frat boyfriend who fell in love with her after watching one of her rape-fetish movies. (It’s like they switched plots midway through the movie, which seems to start out as a young-girl-corrupted-by-sex-trade story and ends up as a bad Twilight Zone episode). The trials they face involve a pit-and-the-pendulum style game with an iron ball swinging on a rope; an electric chair operated by a talking “electrocution computer” that delivers a randomized fatal shock that results in a drawn-out scene of a rubber mask getting fried; and, most memorably, the Tanzanian Winged Beetle, an amazingly weird-looking glowing-eyed stop-motion animated insect as big as a man’s fist, whose sting causes a gout of blood to explode from its victim’s wound. Gretta herself is completely depraved, and her hair keeps changing length inexplicably, but she repents at the end, so God lets her off the hook.
After another musical interlude, we’re back for the case of Claire Hanson. Edited down from the feature Cataclysm, this is the longest, most coherent and least perverse of the three stories—which also means it’s the most boring. It co-stars Richard Moll (who died in the first feature) as a Nobel Prize-winning atheist who meets Satan himself (although, confusingly, the Dark One is played by a different actor). Still, like the other stories, this one contains memorable sequences whose strangeness is highlighted by lack of context and continuity, including a dream sequence where a Nazi in eye shadow guns down a string quartet, a hilariously dramatic cloven hoof reveal, and what may be the single worst use of stock footage to simulate an exploding car you’ve ever seen. There are also two more memorably bad glowing-eye stop-motion scenes inserted into the movie by Night Train‘s producers; on their own, the demons look sort of cool, but not when standing next to their human victims, who are also animated in clay! Most of Claire’s scenes were cut out of this edit of the movie, although she does almost defeat the Ultimate Evil, thanks to the fact that her local parish priest has a piece of the True Cross hidden under the floorboards in the confessional. Since she was faithful to the end and can hardly be blamed for the short’s many continuity errors, God votes to give Claire a pass, much to the Devil’s dismay.
No matter what sins the characters commit in their individual movies, they all have basically good hearts and (spoilers ahead!) God eventually sends them all off to heaven, even if he has to resort to tacking on a “they repented and lived happily ever after” epilogue to the story after it’s over. In the end, God explains that he gives Satan dominion over “the rich, powerful, kings and dictators” but reserves for himself “the poor, the sick, and the children.” That last category includes, we are to conclude, the supremely annoying band whose MTV audition plays throughout the entire movie. If we are to assign a symbolic role to these spandex-clad boneheads in this cosmic passion play, we would have to assume that they represent the audience of the film. Presumably, these rockin’ scenes were tossed in to appeal to what the movie sees as its key demographic: teenagers. It is their souls—the souls of the teen band—that God and Satan are ultimately fighting over; all of the rest of the show was just biding time until their judgment comes. In the end (more spoilers!) the toy train crashes, just as it was eternally fated to, and parachute pants and leg warmers lie in smoldering in scattered heaps among the wreckage. Satan laughs, but with a wave of his finger, God forgives the victims; the train starts up and chugs off into space, and the breakdancing resumes, presumably for eternity. After all, these are good kids; their only sins are bad fashion sense, and only knowing one song. They have suffered enough by being part of Night Train to Terror. They should not be condemned to Hell just because everybody had something better to do—everybody but them.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Somebody got hold of three horror movies, edited them down, added new footage, and actually released this mind-boggling movie in theaters… Don’t miss it!”–Michael J. Weldon, The Psychotronic Video Guide (VHS)
“It’s the textbook definition of a hot mess, but, oddly enough, the lack of coherence ultimately serves the film. NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR is more a kinetic, unwieldy, almost-giddy insane fever dream rather than, you know, a feat of linear storytelling.”–Shawn Macomber, Fangoria (Blu-ray)
“How does one make a weird horror film weirder? Include footage from three abandoned suspense pictures, tying it all together with a wraparound story feature God, Satan, and a group of new wave rockers from the 1980s jamming inside a locomotive.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)
IMDB LINK: Night Train to Terror (1985)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Vinegar Syndrome | NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR – Distributor Vinegar Syndrome’s Night Train page features a stills gallery, links to reviews, and a trailer made especially for the Blu-ray release
DVD INFO: Don’t get me wrong, I like Night Train to Terror as a guilty pleasure, and I am glad it’s available after thirty years of obscurity in the best print possible. I think it says something about our society, however, that a confessed disaster like this gets a release that surpasses the average Tarkovsky movie, while Celine and Julie Go Boating continues to sit on the shelf. Along with the expected original trailer, Vinegar Syndrome’s Night Train release (buy), which is available only in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack (neither disc is sold separately) contains two complete commentary tracks. Rather than talking about the movie, director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen begins by walking us through his résumé, detailing every course he took in college, every job he ever had, and every celebrity he ever met for twenty-five minutes before uttering the words “Night Train to Terror” for the first time. The commentary becomes much more interesting at this point, particularly when he tells stories about crusty Phillip Yordan, who was a true Hollywood character. The second commentary is from the guys behind The Hysteria Continues podcast and is more consistently on point, if possessed of less firsthand insight.
A surprise bonus feature is the complete film Gretta (AKA The Dark Side to Love; Death Wish Club), which was edited down to create the second segment of Night Train to Terror. This release includes a 30-minute interview with editor Wayne Schmidt, who provides additional insight into the circle of characters behind all of these movies. Gretta turns out to be a pretty weird movie on its own, and nothing like the condensed version we see here (it features what’s supposed to be a Hitchcockian twist). Oddly, Gretta is only available as an extra on the DVD and not on the Blu-ray. Otherwise the two discs offer identical content.
Bargain hunters can also find Night Train to Terror on a double feature disc from Alpha Video together with the Filipino cheapie The Thirsty Dead (buy).