Night Train To Terror

Director: Various
Cameron Mitchell, Richard Moll, Ferdy Mayne, John Phillip Law

There's no doubt about it - movies can be a whole lot of fun. Who amongst us doesn't like curling up in a chair and be told a story for ninety minutes or so? With movies being a great way to escape temporarily from one's various problems and obligations, it is understandable that some people might be lead to believe that if watching movies can be a whole lot of fun, then the process of making movies must be equally enjoyable. I used to think that way back when I was a youth. But in high school, I took a television class where our assignments were to make various programs, and I quickly learned that it would involve a lot of long and hard work. And that was just with making programs that were just a few minutes long! In subsequent years, I learned that when it comes to making feature length movies, the work that is required is even longer and harder. Just take a look at a movie's pre-production stage. It all starts with an idea, and that idea has to find the right screenwriter. Then you have to find proper financing. Then you not have to screen hundreds of people for various roles in making the movie, from directing to being the best boy. Those are just some of things you have to do before you actually start filming - and once filming starts, a whole new bunch of different challenges come across. With all this hard work that is required, it shouldn't come as any surprise that filmmakers and studios are constantly looking for ways to make the creation of movies as easy as possible. I think - and fear - that decades from now, when we have perfected artificial intelligence, producers will be able to tell a computer something like, "I want a Dirty Dozen rip-off - write a script for me about that."

Actually, I also fear that computers in the future will come up with the ideas of new movies for themselves, so there will be another role for humans that will be obsolete. Anyway,Night Train To Terror I want to talk about one specific technique that has been used over the years to make the process of making a movie easier. That technique is using footage from other movies. I don't really mean movies that use brief clips of footage from other movies (though I plan to talk about this in a future review), but movies that extensively use footage from other movies. It hasn't happened very often, but it has happened. For example, the sex education film Because Of Eve was significantly made of footage from other sex education films. Decades later, over half of the notorious horror movie Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2 was made up of footage from the previous movie. This recycling by the filmmakers was shameless, but I have to admit the end results for both movies were fun to watch. Neither of those movies, however, could hold a candle to what Night Train To Terror did. With this film, around ninety or so percent of the footage was taken from other productions. Specifically, the movie condensed three feature length movies and added a few minutes of newly filmed footage to link them together to make a horror anthology movie running a little over ninety minutes. Even with the knowledge that the linking footage was written by famed and Oscar-winning screenwriter Philip Yordan (who earlier wrote movies like El Cid and King Of Kings) - and that Yordan also wrote the screenplays for all three of the movies that were pilfered of footage for this movie - I am sure that already you are smelling a cinematic disaster. That's indeed what Night Train To Terror is. But it's a disaster that is so strange, it is to a certain degree fascinating to watch. It's certainly one of a kind, and we may never see something like it made ever again.

The movie starts with (stock?) footage of a passenger train barrelling down the tracks in the dead of night, shrieking its whistle. Though its whistling and chug-chugs, we slowly start to hear music - new wave rock music, to be exact. Then we are taken into one of the train cars, which is filled with young people in '80s fashions partying it up. We see a drummer and guitarists supposedly playing the music we are hearing, though their various hand movements don't even come close to matching the beat of the music. Then suddenly, one of the young passengers, played by one Byron Yordan (yes, the son of the screenwriter) starts singing. He sings the following lyrics: "Daddy's in the dining room / Sorting through the news / Mamma's at the shopping mall / Buying new shoes / Everybody's got something to do / Everybody but you! / Dance with me! / Dance with me! / Dance with me! / Dance with me! / Dance with me! / Dance with me! / Dance with me! / Dance with me! / Everybody's got something to do / Everybody but you!"

As the youths continue to party it up, we suddenly cut to another location on the train. Two individuals are sitting in a darkened environment, face to face. The train's conductor walks in, and asks one of the men, "What can I do for you, Mr. Satan?" Yes, one of the individuals is the Devil himself, and it doesn't take long to realize that the other individual sitting across from him is God. (By the way, the closing credits of the movie list one "Lu Sifer" as playing Satan, and that God is played by "Himself"... but I'm getting ahead of myself.) Satan exchanges a few words with the conductor to confirm that the train is scheduled to crash at dawn.

"You really enjoy seeing people suffer," God sadly expresses to Satan. "You created man to suffer," Satan smugly answers. The two of them proceed to get into a low key debate concerning, among other things, what they each can give to mankind. (Satan lists "tobacco" as one of his devilish offerings.) After a little more discussion, God all of a sudden says, "Let's take up the first case," and the two look out the window...where we see the first story suddenly come up on the screen.

The first story, The Case Of Harry Billings, consists of footage from a reportedly unfinished movie that was written by Philip Yordan and directed by John Carr, and was to have been titled Scream Your Head Off. The title person, who is played by John Philip Law (Skidoo), is a newlywed who one night gets into a car accident with his wife. Harry wakes up in a strange institution that is run by one Doctor Brewer (Arthur Braham) with the help of one Doctor Fargo (Sharon Ratcliff) and a psychotic orderly named Otto (Richard Moll, No Dessert Dad, Til You Mow The Lawn). It doesn't take long for Harry to be hypnotized by Brewer and his associates and forced to partake in the institution's scheme of kidnapping and slaughtering innocents to sell their body parts to... someone... and Harry realizes he must somehow escape.

I am not sure how close to being finished Scream Your Head Off was before making its way to a truncated telling here. What I can report is that apparently enough was filmed so that this edited version - which only lasts twenty minutes in length - doesn't make all that much sense. There isn't a real ending, for one thing. Though the fates of Doctors Brewer and Fargo, along with their loyal orderly Otto, are clearly illustrated, the character of Harry is kind of left hanging midstream in the final scene. If a definite conclusion had been filmed, it was not included here. But that's far from the only murky moment in this story. In the opening, Harry and his bride get into their car accident before the first minute has passed, so we get no idea of what Harry was like before the accident. Then in real quick succession, Harry wakes up in a padded room, is moved lightning-fast to being given electric shocks in another room, then Otto makes his first appearance out of nowhere to overpower and kill two visitors to the institution, then... well, trust me, all this and what follows goes by unbelievably fast. You can barely keep up, even though there is occasional narration to try and explain things to the audience. This of course means that things like character development were apparently cut out. It's hard to sympathize with Harry when he hardly says a word towards expressing what he is feeling or thinking. For that matter, Otto and the two doctors don't show much personality as well; Otto, for example, doesn't even have his name mentioned until near the end. So it's kind of a miracle that some good things manage to show in this ludicrously cut down telling. There are some pleasing gory moments, from a cut off leg to a seriously bloody decapitation. There is also some nice gratuitous nudity. Most interestingly of all, the look of the movie does actually have some genuine atmosphere. There's often a real moody feel, sometimes enough to give the movie a little creepiness. It's enough to make you wonder if the complete movie might have had some genuine kick to it. But as it is, the relentless pacing and the often incoherent storytelling, combined with the touches of exploitation, make this story ludicrous trash.

But others might disagree with what I just said. The movie cuts back to God and Satan in the train, and Satan says with delight about what we just saw by saying, "Oh, wasn't that lovely? You see, my Lord, there is no evil so vile that man won't plunge himself into!" God expresses his disagreement, and he and Satan engage in a low key argument about Harry's fate, until the train conductor comes in and settles the debate by stating Harry will spend one hundred years in purgatory. The conversation turns to the musicians in the next car, with Satan claiming he gets all musicians. "Not all," says God, and states that some of the New Wave music he listens to - like what's playing in the next train car - is "touching". We soon cut back to those singers we saw at the beginning of the movie, still singing the song we heard earlier, though with new lyrics: "Sister's on the telephone / Gossiping again / Junior's at the arcade / Smoking with his friends / Everybody's got something to do / Everybody but you! / Dance with me! / Dance with me! / (Etc.)

We cut back to God and Satan, who prepare to watch the next story, The Case Of Gretta Connors, which is a condensed version of the (finished) 1983 movie Death Wish Club, which was also written by Yordan and directed by Carr. Gretta (Meridith Haze) is an up and coming star who is assisted by night club owner George (J. Martin Sellers). George falls in love with Gretta, but she chooses another man instead, which upsets George so much that he seeks revenge. He manages to recruit Gretta and her new beau into a secret underground club where the participants play extremely life-threatening games to see if they can cheat death. Naturally, George tries to arrange things so that Gretta and her boyfriend won't be living club members for long.

Maybe because this story managed to have the resource of a completely finished movie to work with, in the end it makes a heck of a lot more sense than the first story, even though (believe it or not) this story runs a hair shorter than the first story. The editing is a bit more relaxed, and there is also a lot more narration throughout to explain to the audience various characters' motivations and actions that seemed to have been in the full length version. That is not to say that the story isn't incredibly rushed and is free of puzzling moments. The speed of the various plot turns is ludicrous, and there are a lot of unanswered questions, like how George managed to convince Gretta and her new boyfriend to join the club. And like the first story, it ends on a note that seems far from a definite finish. While this editing may have added some silliness, there's certainly enough evidence to suggest that the complete version of the movie was silly to start with. The first scene taking place in the club has the members sitting around a table while a poisonous insect buzzes around the room. The insect is both extremely large and crudely accomplished by stop motion animation, and the effect is so silly that there is absolutely no suspense in the scene at all. A later club scene, with the participants hooked up to a supercomputer that threatens to electrocute them, ends up with one participant in an over the top gory demise that's laughable instead of horrifying. There isn't much more gore in other parts of the story, but there's gratuitous nudity and some of the lamest martial arts choreography you will ever seen, which do provide some extra unintended humor.

When the story ends (if you can call the final scene an ending), we return to God and Satan. God is upset by what he just saw, showing he doesn't have a taste for B movie schlock. Satan is delighted, saying that Gretta could do him a lot of good. God then asks the train conductor what the true ending of the story was (wait - isn't God supposed to be all-knowing?) The conductor tells God that Gretta went away with her boyfriend and lived happily ever after, news that doesn't please Satan since he wanted to add Gretta to the long list of souls he possesses. The conversation then turns to the musicians in the next car, and the scheduled train accident that is to happen shortly. Satan still wants the souls of the musicians, but God seems determined to save them. Of course, the movie soon cuts to those musicians still rocking it out and singing their song. No new lyrics this time, but there is the addition of breakdancing both amateurishly awkward and in slow motion for variety.

We soon cut back to God and Satan, who discuss their next and last case study, The Case Of Claire Hansen, which like the previous story is a condensed version of a finished movie (originally released under various titles including The Nightmare Never Ends and Cataclysm) that was written by Yordan and directed by three (!) directors, Tom McGowan, Philip Marshak, and Greg Tallas. The story starts off with Holocaust survivor Weiss (Marc Lawrence, The Asphalt Jungle) feeling that he has spotted an ex-Nazi by the name of Olivier (Robert Bristol, Hangar 18), but when his police officer friend Sterne (Cameron Mitchell, The Klansman) hears this, he quickly dismisses his friend's claims because Olivier looks too young. However, when Weiss is shortly after found dead, Sterne decides to investigate further. Meanwhile, Olivier has contacted controversial author James Hansen (Moll) because his recent book claiming Christianity to be a sham has intrigued him. James' wife Claire (Faith Clift, Horror Express) during this time gets word that Olivier is not what he seems to be and needs to be stopped.

With this third story also being an edited-down cut of a full length movie, you are probably expecting that the movie is both rushed and incomprehensible at times. There are certainly some plot points that are not answered, like who assists Claire during the climactic bout with Olivier. And some sections of the story do go by too fast. But I actually found this third story more coherent than the first two stories, probably because this story is significantly longer than the others, over thirty-five minutes in length. What you may not expect is that while a few sequences go by really fast, for the most part the story unfolds in a surprisingly slow fashion. The whole part of the story about Sterne's murder investigation turns out to not have any serious influence on the rest of the story; it's more or less padding. As for the other parts of the story, there is actually an interesting idea here, theorizing what Satan would do in human form in this modern world of ours. But this idea was either not exploited well enough in the original full length version, or was used extensively but got severely cut down in the editing for this anthology. While there are a few good other things to be found here (actor Bristol does well playing Olivier, for example), in the end this story is best appreciated for its camp value. There is some really hammy acting, with actor Marc Lawrence somehow giving a more outrageous performance than Cameron Mitchell. Also, the special effects are pretty silly, my favorite being when one character dropping down into a pit seems to have been accomplished by using a small rag doll to represent the character. And like the first story, the movie gives the opportunity to see what Richard Moll looked like when he had hair. (Let's just say it shows why he eventually shaved it off.)

After the story ends, there are a few more minutes concerning God and Satan, and the promised train crash at dawn, but I won't spoil things by telling you what happens, except to say that the final shot seems inspired by the ending of, of all movies, The Apple. As you have probably concluded long before reaching this paragraph, Night Train To Terror is a real mess of a movie. The question you are probably wondering if its messy nature makes it prime viewing for viewers of schlock. Well, I am not quite sure. Certainly, there are many campy moments that provoke unintended laughs to viewers. But at the same time, there's something about the movie that didn't make me laugh as much (or as hard) as I wanted to. I kept sensing a feeling of contempt by the people who made this movie. The nature of this movie isn't unintentional ineptness for the most part. You really feel the makers of this movie weren't trying hard for quality and knew they weren't trying hard at doing that. They must have known, among other things, that editing down movies severely would make a serious mess. On the other hand, they not only did make a one of a kind movie, but one that wouldn't be forgotten any time soon by anyone who watched it. So I can't give it a general recommendation, but I will say that I know there is a select audience out there who may find it weirdly watchable. You know who you are.

(Posted August 13, 2018)

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See also: Black Sabbath, Freakshow, Hey! There's Naked Bodies On My TV!