Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Night Train to Terror (1985): or, How Bull Killed My Brain

Some movies have a very rigid narrative structure, moving inexorably from point A to point B to point C, never getting sidetracked by subplots or unnecessary comic relief scenes, following the story in a straight line until the inescapable conclusion. While this might not offer many diversions, the approach is good for straightforward, no-nonsense storytelling of the sort utilized by directors who have something important to say and need to say it as forcefully as possible.

1985's Night Train to Terror is not one of those movies. It is a movie whose narrative structure is so floppy and loosely defined it would make overcooked spaghetti look like spines constructed of adamantium vertebrae. Constructed from the clippings of 3 other movies that (thankfully) never saw the light of release, this is one big hunk of 80s cheesecake. And while there are a few things here worth watching, such a recommendation should come with the strong caveat that watching the entire movie from start to finish WILL MAKE YOU DUMBER. It won't make you feel dumber, or just confuse you and give you a case of see-sickness (pun intended)--it will literally kill your brain cells and leave you a stupider person than you were when the opening scene rolled. I'm not joking. You have been warned.

But what an opening scene! We open with some stock footage of a locomotive going through the woods, which are some very nice shots, truth be told. Then we cut to an obvious cable-access quality sound stage made up to look like a train, where some of the most amazingly extreme 80s dance/new wave rejects you've ever laid eyes on are rockin' the house...er, car...with the infectious tune, "Everybody's Got Somethin' to Do (Everybody But YOU!)". And when I say "infectious," I mean LIKE THE PLAGUE. You will not be able to get this tune out of your head, no matter how many times you whack your skull with a cookie sheet. It weakens your mind and sets you up for the IQ-assault to come. But hey, at least you're smiling when it happens. The dancing is a sight to behold, as are the fashions. The lip-synching is Milli Vanilli quality, and the smoke machines are in full force, though whether this was for rock-n-roll effects or supposedly the steam from the train, I couldn't tell.

"Everybody's got somethin' to do--EVERYBODY BUT YOOOOOOOOU!"

Next we follow a zomboid conductor to a back room, where God and Satan are sitting by a window, waiting for midnight when the train will crash and send everyone on it to their "final destination." There's some very nice Christmas lighting out the window that's meant to be a starry sky dashing by, and God and Satan trade verbal barbs for a while like old friends who have grown a little irritated with each other. Finally they decide to get down to business, reviewing the "cases" of the people on the train who are going to go up in a fiery cataclysm at midnight. Yes, they're doing some preemptive divvying up of souls. The lights go down, the train window transforms into an LCD flat-panel monitor, and God and Satan (and we) look out the window into another movie, hoping it will be better than this one.

Largely a vain hope, though this new movie does have a few things to recommend it. One, Richard Moll (aka "TV's Bull") plays the orderly at an insane asylum where his main job seems to be strapping big-haired, big-boobied blondes to gurneys naked and pawing them while they shriek for a few seconds. Nice work if you can get it. Anyway, early on we see a very well-realized car-crash scene where our hero and his never-to-be-mentioned again wife go sideways off a one-lane bridge (how'd THAT happen?) into the water. They're rescued by Bull and his disorderly orderlies, all in the employ of a wrinkly one-time glamor queen who's also a mad scientist or something. Apparently they have a side business at the asylum picking up women, harassing them with Bull's black-tee-shirted manliness, and then cutting them up and selling them to medical schools. Or something. It's really hard to follow.

So the hero from the car wreck is brainwashed into going out and kidnapping more babes for Bull to bisect, and he also has an affair with the mad scientist chick, and eventually his conscience awakens and he puts a stop to the whole mess and kills Bull, while the mad scientist chick is lobotomized by some escaped patients who used to be doctors there. Anyway, it's obvious that this was a full length movie that someone took the scissors to and trimmed it down to 30 minutes, leaving us with the aforementioned wonderful Bull scenes (one later where he even gets to tease a victim with a hacksaw, a highlight) and some strobe-light narration that will give you a mental seizure. This one is almost worth watching, or at least fast-forwarding to the Bull bits, as he steals every scene he's in.

Then it's back to the train for a wrap-up commentary by God and Satan, and some more music and dancing from the band. Not "more music" as in "the next song in their set." No, "more" as in "more of the same song." EVERYBODY'S GOT SOMETHING TO DO--EVERYBODY BUT YOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUU!!!! Still, it's mesmerizing, what with all the bold primary colors and the spiked hair and the headbands and the weird asymmetrical rag shirts and the mascara. And that song...it haunts my dreams.

The next "case" is a real mind-blower, and the one part of the movie I can actually recommend watching all the way through. We open up at the Dingaling Brothers and Stock Footage Carnival, where we see lots of folks having fun. Then we meet an 80s video model moonlighting as a popcorn seller, who attracts the attention of a sleazy moneybags guy who comes up and buys all her popcorn, then buys her. I don't want to spoil much of this, because your jaw will be dropped for most of it, so I'll just encapsulate the rest of the episode in a few sentences. The girl becomes sleazy guy's mistress, starts an affair with a handsome young stud, and then brings him along to the sleazy dude's next party, where out of nowhere we learn that they're all members of a "death club." Every month or so they get together and face death--in the form of some extremely convoluted Russian roulette-type game, except that it's INSANE. To give you an idea--the first one involves letting a giant, venomous, claymation insect out of a bottle and sitting still while it buzzes around trying to decide which of them if any to sting. It's LOOPY.

The other members of the club are great characters--an aging beauty queen, Jimi Hendrix's less successful and talented brother, and a chubby Bela Lugosi impressionist. As their games go on the original heroine gets crazier and crazier, the sleezoid gets more jealous, and finally it all ends with a hired-gang kidnapping (love those 80s gangs!) and a wrecking ball-roulette game that goes predictably wrong. Don't miss the "shocking" death of one of the club members, which goes on for hours. Must see, start to stop, on this one.

And then we're back on the train, and someone shouts to the band "ONE MORE TIME!" and we're off again. This time there's an added bonus, however, as the song turns into a Muppet Show Ballroom sequence, as the dancers and band members start talking about what they're doing there, and wondering about the strangeness and all. We get them questioning the zombie conductor (sometimes poking their heads INTO the car from the WINDOWS--apparently they were all clinging to the side of the train as it whistled down the track), and we get a wonderful break-dancing sequence that brought tears to my eyes...tears of LAUGHTER. Besides the Bull scenes from the first episode and the entirety of the second, the only must-see scenes are these 3 musical interludes. Really, it's pure entertainment.

Then we come to the last "case," which I'll be honest, I don't even remember clearly, as Bull-induced brain damage was setting in. Bull was in this one too, playing a famous author who had "proved" in his book that God is dead. (Richard Dawkins? Christopher Hitchens?) There's an undead Nazi (the worst kind!), and a concentration camp survivor who wants to hunt him down, and then he gets killed by a Halloween mask, and this Dorian Gray stuff is going on, and then a bunch of stuff happens, there's more claymation when somebody gets dragged off to hell, and the movie ends. Really, I fast-forwarded some of it, and was too tired/stupid to remember the rest, but it wasn't as good as the other stuff.

So all in all, I'd say this is one to watch with the FF button down. Let up when you see Bull molesting blondes, or the 80s band playing/dancing, or for the entirety of the second episode. Otherwise, keep the hammer down. Your brain will thank you.

1 thumb overall, but 2 for the second segment, which averages out to "average" again, 1.5 thumbs.

Note from the HOW COULD IT POSSIBLY BE?!?!?! Files: screenwriter Philip Yordan, who gets the blame credit for this script, won an Academy Award in 1954 for his screenplay for Broken Lance. BELIEVE IT...OR DON'T!


Tenebrous Kate said...

Damn. I love this movie so much. It's kind of unhealthy, although WAY cheaper than the kind of drugs that might produce a similarly woozy-headed reaction.

>>Constructed from the clippings of 3 other movies that (thankfully) never saw the light of release

Au contraire, estimable Vicar! Cataclysm is the full version of the third episode. I've seen it with my own eyes--it's available on one of those 50-movie box sets the name of which currently escapes me. You know, in case you ever want to feel even more hopped-up-on-goofballs than "NTtT" made you feel ;)

Please enjoy this link to "Strangers on a Night Train to Terror" written by the inimitable and sadly no-longer-blogging-among-us genius known as A Lad Inane.

LH said...

The second part was released as a whole film. You can it on dvd as "Death Wish Club". Love it!

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