Night Train to Terror is a very strange beast; I’ve been hearing about it most of my adult life, in one way or another. I think I first encountered it in that battered first edition of Mike Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. It’s an anthology film, and the stories contained therein are (according to who you’re reading) drawn from three, or two, or no unfinished movies. This often puzzled me, because early on in my amateur critic career, I reviewed one of the “unfinished” movies excerpted here, and it seemed pretty complete at the time.
Well, we finally have what has got to be the definitive version of Night Train to Terror, thanks to Vinegar Syndrome, who put out the most gorgeous presentations of the least defensible movies ever. And we can finally, finally figure out some of this thing’s ancestry.
We see the title train chugging on through the night, alternately as stock footage or a model. One entire car is given over to a music video. At least, that’s what it appears to be, with singers singing and dancers talking directly to the camera, all wearing clothing that was fashionable for about five minutes in 1985. Or on the set of Jem, take your pick.
In another car, God and the Devil (Ferdy Mayne and Tony Giorgio, respectively) are having a meeting. Satan is none too happy about the music video, which is something that always puzzles me when it crops up in a movie like this. Everybody knows that rock is the Devil’s music, so why do cinematic Satans always hate it? Maybe it’s because in this case, breakdancing is involved, and Satan has some standards.
It doesn’t matter, anyway, because the train is destined to wreck in ninety minutes, and all those poppers and lockers and gyraters will be dead. To pass the time, God and the Devil go over the case histories of three individuals, with the aid of the Night Porter (Earl Washington). As far as framing stories go, that’s not bad.
…because we’re going to leave the bad to the stories themselves.
The first story, “Harry”, is going to test our mettle tout d’suite. This is the only segment actually taken from an unfinished movie (although there are rumors of available copies), Scream Your Head Off. The story is so disjointed, I fear actual brain damage can result from trying to follow it, but here goes: Harry (John Phillip Law!) is a jerk who crashes his car on his wedding day, killing his bride and putting him in the care of Drs. Fargo (Sharon Ratcliff) and Brewer (Arthur Braham), who brainwash him into drugging and kidnapping women. For what purpose, we’re not sure, except for Richard Moll to paw them. Then there’s some new footage that tells us that Richard Moll’s stand-in (note the hairy arms) cuts them up and the parts are sold to medical schools. Except for the ones that get lobotomized. Or something. And I deserve a medal for even figuring that much out.
There are some versions of Night Train that put “Harry” in the third position rather than the first. Putting it first certainly makes you appreciate what comes afterward – if you continue watching. I can see a whole lot of people jerking the tape/disc out of the player before the movie can unleash anything else in their direction. Then, I also know a whole lot of other people for whom “Harry” would only be an appealing appetizer.
This is followed up by more rock, then “Gretta”, which is taken from a movie called, unsurprisingly, Gretta. Vinegar Syndrome was kind and conscientious enough to actually track this sucker down, though they could only find a one-inch video master. I’ve only had time to skim it, but it is odd. Gretta (Meredith Haze) is an adventurous young lady who gets picked up by rich douchebag George Youngmeyer (J. Martin Sellers) at a carnival. He exposes her to a better way of life, which involves starring her in porn reels. Her true love in life Glenn (Rick Barnes) sees her in one of these stag reels while visiting his old frat and knows he has to immediately seek her out.
Youngmeyer gets Glenn involved in his “Death Wish Club” (which appears to be another title under which Gretta was released), a bunch of rich idiots who have, in one way or another, barely avoided dying violently, and try to replicate that rush at their meetings. In the first, one of the members has brought a “Tanzanian Flying Beetle” whose sting means horrible, instant death. In Gretta, it’s a realistic insect. In Night Train, however, it is a fairly cheap bit of stop-motion animation. It eventually flies out a window and kills a guy necking on a park bench, and his bloody, boil-bursting demise is another addition for this anthology.
There are two more encounters with the Death Wish Club, though Gretta and Glenn want nothing to do with them; in the first, involving random electrocution. they are held at gunpoint. (Once again, the fairly gruesome fatality here was specially made for Night Train). In the second, involving a bizarre pendulum with a wrecking ball at the end, they are forcibly kidnapped. The wrecking ball takes out the perverse countess who was bankrolling the whole affair, but that’s only something you find out if you watch Gretta – in Night Train, she just dies, and the story ends, and Satan is told by the Night Porter that Gretta “went off with the nice young man, and lived happily ever after. Isn’t that nice?” A kiss-off that would probably lead you to guess that this movie was never finished.
But that is exactly what happens in Gretta. They probably could have trimmed its coda down and included it in Night Train, but there was no horror there, I guess, so it got tossed away. In a way that would piss off Old Scratch and the audience in equal measure.
Which brings us, at last to “Claire”, which is taken from the movie I had reviewed so many years ago. Originally called Cataclysm, the version I saw was titled The Nightmare Never Ends, and it honestly does have some nifty stuff in it.
It starts with an old Jewish man recognizing a young man named Olivier (being interviewed on TV) as a notorious Nazi war criminal – who has apparently not aged a day in 35 years! Oooh, there’s some devil shit involved, you can be sure of that! Cameron Mitchell is the cop who doesn’t believe the Old Man (but starts believing when the Old Man dies violently trying to shoot Olivier), Faith Clift is Dr. Claire Hansen, who is destined to go toe-to-toe with the Man-Goat, and Richard Moll – yes, again – is James Hansen, author of the international bestseller, God Is Dead. Who the Antichrist kills just to be a dick about it.
There is more of Cataclysm‘s source material in evidence here than in the other two cases, making it the strongest of the three stories, but doesn’t mean it’s any more coherent. There’s an itinerant priest roaming around telling people they’re messing with the Devil, but faster than you can say “The Omen”, he gets pulled down to hell by a stop-motion demon.
I really don’t remember any of the three stop-motion beasties that crop up here occurring in Nightmare Never Ends, and they all look like they were done by the same person who did the Tanzanian Murder Beetle in “Gretta”. Another argument that these sequences were done post-production (way post production) is their interaction with the tiny humans they terrorize isn’t done with foreground plates or any of that other fancy Harryhausen stuff. They made little puppets for the priest, and Richard Moll, and one other dude who gets stomped by a big demon. And the puppets are very cartoony – it all looks like Davey and Goliath Go to Hell.
And there’s also a woman who shows up at the climax in an operating room (Claire has to put the Antichrist’s heart in a special box, because God uses the Snow White playbook, or something), and I know she had something to do with the plot, but now she’s just some crazy chick who shows up in scrubs and blood and starts stabbing the Antichrist (she always shows up on the video box). But if you haven’t kissed any hope of linear storytelling good-bye by now, you are far more of an optimist than I.
Now, there is not a lot of terrible acting in Night Train to Terror, except in the music video segments. This is actually a pretty good bunch of actors trapped in a series of weird, if not outright bad, movies. Scream Your Head Off was never going to be high art, but Gretta is an intriguing little oddity and Cataclysm/The Nightmare Never Ends, as I said, has some good stuff that never quite managed to jell into a solid movie. The slicing and dicing involved here did those two movies no favors.
It does, however, have a wild feeling of anarchy and desperation about it that’s kind of cool, if not ultimately satisfying. It’s the sort of thing you can inflict on your friends with a semi-clear conscience, especially if a copy of Things or Nukie is not readily available.
And there’s cheesy stop-motion. What more can you ask?
Just try to resist Vinegar Syndrome’s trailer:
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