Tag Archives: John Phillip Law

165. NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985)

“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

FEATURING: Ferdy Mayne (credited as “Himself”), Tony Giorgio (credited as “Lu Sifer”), Gabriel Whitehouse, , ,

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.

Still from Night Train to Terror (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 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 Continue reading 165. NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985)

122. BARBARELLA (1968)

Recommended

AKA Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy

“Barbarella, pyschedella,
There’s a kind of cockleshell about you…”
–Lyrics from Barbarella‘s theme song

DIRECTED BY: Roger Vadim

FEATURING: Jane Fonda, , Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau, ,

PLOT: A wide-eyed aviatrix known as Barbarella must travel to the outer reaches of the peaceful galaxy to stop rebellious scientist Durand-Durand from unleashing his weapon, the Positronic Ray. She is rescued from a gang of dolls with razor-sharp metal teeth by a man who teaches her the ways of physical love, then befriends a blind angel. Her search leads her into conflict with the Grand Tyrant in a sinful city of the future.

Still from Barbarella (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the French comic series of the same name, Barbarella‘s screenplay features her creator Jean-Claude Forest among its many credits, as well as novelist  (who also worked on the scripts for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, among others).
  • The entire film was shot on a soundstage in Italy, meaning that the wondrous, complex sets were built from scratch for every scene. An oil wheel projector was used to create the trippy, amorphous backgrounds that visually expanded the limited space into larger territory. Several of the Italian actors are dubbed in English.
  • Among the many cut sequences from the final product is a titillating love scene between Jane Fonda and Anita Pallenberg. Publicity stills of the scene exist but it was never actually filmed.
  • At the time Barbarella was shot, star Jane Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim, known as the man who discovered (and married/divorced) the young Brigitte Bardot.
  • The bands Duran Duran and Matmos took their names from this film.
  • Barbarella was a flop on release. It was re-released in 1977 to cash in on the space opera craze started by Star Wars, with most of the nudity removed to create a PG rated version entitled Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Fonda’s titillating anti-gravity striptease over the opening credits is the highlight, or her sweaty orgasmic torture under the deadly Excessive Machine. For me the most remarkable visual moment is the Great Tyrant’s Chamber of Dreams, wherein Barbarella runs around in confusion, backed by fantastic lava-lamp patterns and floating bubbles as a rambling xylophone score tinkles over the action.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Merging elements of sex-romp comedy, ludicrous science fiction, and death-defying action-adventure with memorably psychedelic imagery, Barbarella is a series of disjointed sequences that get stranger and stranger as the story progresses. The wild costumes, over-saturated color schemes, goofy dialogue, and sly winks to the audience are punctuated with weird little details, from deadly animatronic dolls to a hair-raising futuristic sex scene with minimal physical contact.


Original trailer from Barbarella (1968)

COMMENTS: Set in a wildly distant future where war and violence no longer exist, everyone has Continue reading 122. BARBARELLA (1968)

101. SKIDOO (1968)

“It is the gassiest, grooviest, swingingest, trippiest movie you’ve ever seen… Anybody that don’t like that, daddy, don’t like chicken on Sunday.”–Sammy Davis, Jr. recommending Skidoo to the younger generation in the film’s trailer

DIRECTED BY: Otto Preminger

FEATURING: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, , Alexandra Hay, , Austin Pendleton, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang, , Burgess Meredith, , Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, George Raft, , Harry Nilsson

PLOT: Tony is a retired mobster living in the suburbs with wife Flo and daughter Darlene, who has an unwelcome (to Tony) interest in dating hippies. A crime kingpin known as “God” pressures the ex-hit man into doing one last job—going undercover in Alcatraz to assassinate a stool pigeon.  When Tony accidentally ingests LSD in the pen, his entire worldview is flipped and he decides to ditch the hit and break out of the clink; meanwhile, Flo and Darlene have taken it upon themselves to track down God with the help of a band of flower children.

Still from Skidoo (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Otto Preminger had been nominated as Best Director for two Academy Awards (for Laura and The Cardinal).  Known for pushing the envelope on taboo topics, Preminger was instrumental in breaking the back of the Hollywood Production Code by releasing The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which dealt with the then-forbidden topic of heroin addiction, without MPAA approval.
  • Skidoo was a giant flop sandwiched between two other Preminger flops, Hurry Sundown (1967) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970).  Despite its notorious reputation, Skidoo was part of a series of failed films and was not solely responsible for Preminger’s fall from grace.
  • Two years after Skidoo, screenwriter Doran William Cannon penned the exceedingly weird Brewster McCloud (1970).
  • This was Groucho Marx’s final film.  He dropped LSD (with writer Paul Krassner) in preparation for the role.
  • Preminger also took LSD, supposedly under the guidance of none other than Timothy Leary (who promoted the film in the trailer).  Preminger had originally been slated to make an anti-acid movie, but had decided that he should experience the drug before condemning it.  After his trip he decided to make Skidoo instead.
  • Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, and Cesar Romero, who all have cameo bits in Skidoo, had also appeared together in the same movie just two years before: as the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Joker in Batman: The Movie (1966).  Director Otto Preminger had a rare acting role as Mr. Freeze in two episodes of the “Batman” TV show in 1966.
  • After flopping in 1968, Skidoo became virtually a lost film—not because it was suppressed or the prints were unavailable, but because no one seemed interested in exhibiting it.  A Turner Classic Movies screening in 2008 was the first opportunity most people had to view the movie since its release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jackie Gleason’s acid trip is one for the ages, particularly when he sees Groucho Marx’s cigar-puffing head affixed atop a rotating wood screw.  His response to the apparition, naturally, is to say “Oh no, I’m not playing your game… go ahead, drop,” at which point the screwball vision slips down the prison sink drain.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like an onion soaked in high-grade acid, Skidoo contains layers upon layers of weirdness. In 1968 it was not that far out for a movie to take us on a swirly psychedelic journey to check out that purple haze all in our brains. What was freaky was for establishment icons Otto Preminger, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and Groucho Marx to serve as our tour guides. Add to that the fact that the film is a notorious flop full of painfully strained attempts at comedy, jaw-dropping left-field musical numbers, scattershot satire, and Harry Nilsson singing the closing credits, and you have a singular pro-drug oddity that mines rare camp.


Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski discussing the trailer for Skidoo (1968)

COMMENTS: Watching Otto Preminger’s Skidoo is like listening to a cover version of the Doors’ Continue reading 101. SKIDOO (1968)

CAPSULE: DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: A master thief and his girlfriend carry off a series of audacious heists while evading the police and a rival criminal.

Still from Danger: Diabolik (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some perplexing plot developments and slightly surreal moments, Danger: Diabolik never really journeys beyond its cops-and-robbers framework.  Ultimately, it’s more a product of its era’s weirder impulses than anything truly out-there.

COMMENTS: Full of kitschy décor and colorful costuming, Danger: Diabolik is a time capsule of the late 1960s.  The high-tech hijinks of its masked title character (Law) are redolent of Batman and James Bond, but with his frivolous capers and improbable escapes, Diabolik tops even those series’ campy excesses.  The entire film is just a string of cat-and-mouse encounters, as the Javert-like Inspector Ginko (Piccoli) lays a trap—be it priceless emeralds or a 20 ton ingot of gold—only for Diabolik to abscond with the loot, and his sexy accomplice Eva (Mell).

It may be perplexing at first to see a glamorous ball of fluff like Diabolik being directed by Bava, a man who’s best-known for stylized horror films like Black Sunday.  But Bava seizes on Diabolik’s ridiculous premise as a perfect opportunity to pour on the eye candy, unhindered by considerations of logic or self-restraint.   So instead of just getting one more of the routine super-spy pastiches that were clogging the theaters in 1968, we get some delirious sequences influenced by psychedelia and pop art.  The most effective such moment transpires when a prostitute tries to describe Eva’s appearance, leading into a bizarre animated cavalcade of mutating female faces.

The rest of Diabolik, however, is less audacious.  The cast seems to exist outside of these creative outbursts, and their performances drone on, whether they’re madly overacting—like Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi as an angry gangster, or Terry-Thomas as a tooth-gnashing government official—or else, like John Phillip Law, underacting to the point of barely giving a performance.  Law is so deadpan that it’s easy to forget he’s there, and that’s not exactly a desirable trait in a brazen anti-hero.  But who needs a believable performance when you’ve got sex amidst piles of cash?  Or a giant mirror as a method for deterring the police?  Or a grand finale that features an explosive vat of molten, “radioactivated” gold?

Diabolik’s triumph is that it dispenses with plausibility from the very first gush of multicolored fog, and doesn’t look back, prioritizing scenes of wacky spectacle over minor details like dialogue and characterization.  So it’s certainly not a good movie, per se—in fact, a truncated version was mocked in the last-ever episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”—but it does carry its worn premise to enthrallingly absurd heights.  For a viewer who wants some unrestrained campy nonsense, that should be as much of a lure as freshly cremated ashes chock-full of emeralds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Utilizing wide-angle lenses, day-glo colors, psychedelic sets, and outrageous costumes, Bava creates dynamic compositions which could have come straight from a comic-strip panel, along with some indelible images, none more so than Diabolik covered in gold at the end, or the shots of he and Eva making love on a spinning bed while covered by a pile of money.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Jules.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)