Friday, December 18, 2009

The Nightmare Never Ends (1980): or, Ridin' on the Night Train

Riding on the Night Train to Terror, Part I!

Early in the history of MMMMMovies, I reviewed a little-known anthology flick Night Train to Terror (1985). That movie, notorious among 80s video trash connoisseurs and Mill Creek Enthusiasts, is a gloriously inept hodge-podge of three full-length movies whittled down to 30-minute chunks and slapped in a frame story that has God and Satan taking a cross-country train ride to review problematic "cases" while a group of would-be new wave punks in the dining car sing one of the most insidiously catchy 80s pop tunes that's ever got stuck in my head. (Seriously.) I assumed at the time that the butchered features, while certainly not the work of master filmmakers, would have to be better films at their full running times, since the stitched-together leftovers were not so much a challenge to the viewer's ability to follow them as a direct assault on the very idea of coherent storytelling.

But now I've seen 1980's The Nightmare Never Ends (aka Cataclysm), the full version of the third boxcar on that infamous night train, and let me tell you parishioners, I was wrong. Or rather I was right, but not in the way I thought. No, not that way at all.

Allow me to elucidate.

"Reed" Richard Moll puzzles over how to expunge this film from his resume.

Simply put, The Nightmare Never Ends is a wonderfully entertaining movie for all the wrong reasons. The acting, editing, and screenplay (by Academy Award-winning writer Philip Yordan!) would easily rank near the bottom of anybody's "worst-of" list. To call the story disjointed is to drastically understate the explosive nature of its disjointedness. The direction can scarcely be commented on, since the credits list not one, not two, not five, but THREE different directors (Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, and Gregg C. Tallas), which probably has a little to do with the flick's piecemeal vibe. Add a dash of Nazisploitation, a whole lot of blasphemy, and a truly amazing performance by cinematic bottom-dwelling legend Cameron Mitchell, and what have you got?

A movie that had me grinning like a grade-A eedjit all the way through, and turning off the DVD with a song in my heart. That's what.

As we open, Nobel Prize-winning author James Hansen (Richard Moll, easily the most talented thespian in the film--yes, you read that right) and his surgeon wife Claire (Faith Clift) are on their way to Vegas, presumably to escape the nightmares Claire's been having--nightmares that seem to consist entirely of stock footage of underwater volcanic vents. (Hey, everyone's got a phobia.) Escape proves impossible when Claire is singled out by a stage-show clairvoyant who looks like Marty Feldman's younger brother and falls into a trance at the merest suggestion.

"It's pronounced EYE-GOR."

Apparently the undersea volcanoes in Claire's dreams were just a placeholder for what's really troubling her: NAZIS! Suddenly we're whisked back in time to 1944, where an evil but very pretty young Nazi Officer busts up an opulent Third Reich Rave by gunning down the all-girl string orchestra--which really, you know, is just rude. Back in the clairvoyant's dressing room after the show, he warns Claire that her visions point to something demonic; but Bull, I mean James hurries her out and before you can say "Gimme that Prime Time Religion!" Feldman the Younger drops dead, a strange "666" tattoo on his scalp. WTF?

Suddenly we're in the apartment of the aged and extremely disoriented Mr. Weiss (character actor and Hollywood Blacklist victim Marc Lawrence), who gets all palsied and excited when he catches a TV interview (broadcast live from the intermission of the New York Ballet--do they do that?) with prettyboy rich-kid Olivier (Robert Bristol, clearly Sean Cassidy's evil twin), who is the spitting image of the Nazi Officer who killed Weiss's parents at Auschwitz, and not coincidentally the big beautiful baddie from Claire's dream. As it turns out Weiss is not just a confused old man, but a NAZI HUNTER, and he's sure he's found his man, despite the fact that the quarry hasn't aged a day since 1944.

Doddering and incomprehensible, Weiss calls in his neighbor Lieutenant Stern (Mitchell), a loose-cannon cop with a bad attitude. ("I'm only the police in the 5th Precinct--the rest of the world, I don't give a damn!") Still, to calm the old man Stern takes him to the ballet theater before the final curtain, where they see Olivier exit and follow him back to his opulent mansion, The Round House. (Not, unfortunately, The Road House.) Despite many raucous protestations, Stern just can't convince Weiss that the boy in the house is the same Nazi Bastard from Weiss's own childhood. I mean, he can't, can he?

"Hotsy totsy, I'm a Nazi!"

Meanwhile, back in Plot A, we learn that James got his Nobel Prize for his research into THE DEATH OF GOD--seriously--and has just published his prize-winning manuscript for popular consumption. This involves book signings, interviews, and his very own TV special in which he plans to "shatter the myth" of religion. Surprisingly, no one seems too upset by all this, except for one woman at the local Waldenbooks, who calls him a fiend in a whisper before walking out. Everyone else seems to accept his Divine Obituary as the un-Gospel Truth. Everyone except Claire, that is, who we further learn is a devout Catholic.

So Weiss gets out his antique Luger and goes to kill him a Nazi, but is surprised in the house by a demon of some sort jumping out from behind a curtain--it happens kind of fast. Anyway, he's dead now, a new 666 tattoo to go with his concentration camp numbers, and guilt-wracked Mitchell swears to find out who did it and why. Olivier--who is actually THE DEVIL (<--Spoiler), wants to fund Hansen's further "research," since they're fighting on the same side. Meanwhile, Rasputin-like defrocked priest Papini (Maurice Grandmaison) is trying to convince Claire and that the devil wants her soul, and only she can stop him.

When I lay it all out like that, it sounds like a fairly straightforward story, doesn't it? Well friends, that's a testament to my consummate writing skills, because this movie is absolutely NUTS.

Yes, that's the edge of the sets. IN FRAME.

First of all, the acting. Faith Clift as Claire is called upon to carry at least one third of the movie; I don't know which of the three directors she was sleeping with, but I hope she was good in that arena, as she literally could not be more awful here. Delivering every line as if she were the stagefright-stricken relative of a used car salesman pressed into service for a public access commercial, Clift is an absolute vaccuum of talent. In fact, she's SO bad, she's absolutely hysterical to watch! It's like her performance sucks so hard it turns itself inside out and becomes a glee-inducing work of art. The truly terrible lines she's given to say only paradoxically help matters.

Also turning in a performance that's so horrendous it's awesome is Cameron Mitchell, no stranger to such a phenomenon. His line readings are so haphazard and pause-strewn, I'm nearly convinced that Mitchell improvised them all, with a gut full of cheap bourbon and only the most rudimentary idea of what the scene was supposed to accomplish.

Richard Moll gives the best performance in the movie, faint praise indeed. He really gets into his blasphemous TV special monologue especially, delivering arguments against the existence of God that sound like they came from a gaming messageboard OT thread as if they were the most profound, earth-shattering revelations ever. Added joy comes from the fact that Moll and everyone else in the cast seem to be purposefully drawing out every line, speaking in a slow-motion cadence that is as perplexing as it is entertaining. You'd think it would get old, but for me it never did.

Cameron Mitchell searches in vain for his dignity.

The three plots of the movie--Claire and James' story, Cameron's investigation, and Olivier/the Devil's machinations--must have each been directed by one of the trio of credited directors, but all are so inept it hardly makes a difference. The stories seldom overlap, and as a result characters are forgotten for huge chunks of run time only to be reintroduced via jump cut. My advice is don't worry about it--just go with the manic flow.

It would take me hours to catalog all the incidental crazee in the plot, so instead I've decided to present some of my favorites in bullet-list form:

  • After Mr. Weiss's death, Marc Lawrence reappears as Cameron's partner, Dieter. His character does nothing but deliver one-liners and die.
  • Characters periodically start screaming their lines for no discernable reason, only to deliver the next chunk of dialogue in a perfectly calm monotone. Not one character--ALL OF THEM.
  • Olivier, who looks like he should be the lead in an Andy Warhol movie, seduces Claire's nephew's fiancee and takes off his shoes to reveal a CLOVEN HOOF. You just have to see it.
  • Actual dialog between Cameron Mitchell and Olivier:
    Cam: "To you, I'm a cockroach."
    Olivier: "Worse. A PIECE. OF. CRAP."
    Cam: "Be careful Mr. Olivier--don't step on me, or you'll never get rid of the smell!"
  • Out of nowhere, Olivier has a demon assistant. Named Ishtar. In a bikini:
Belial Got Back
  • Claire visits a black occultist who out of nowhere goes on a racially explosive diatribe: ""I am a black man--a n*gger in your country...You are a rich woman, I'm sure you have many powerful friends...but they couldn't help had to seek the help...of a N*GGER!" Where the fuck did that come from?
  • Cameron, on having spent too long going through Mr. Weiss's papers: "I see swastikas swimming in my oatmeal!"
  • Confronting the devil he never believed in, Richard Moll's character is suddenly attacked...BY A GROUP OF WILD WEST INDIANS!
  • All this, and what has to be the most EPIC DISCO SCENE EVAR.
Disco for the Devil

There's so much more awfulness to be enjoyed, but it all leads up to a final confrontation between Claire and Olivier, where she performs what has to be the only OPEN HEART EXORCISM ever committed to film. Words fail--you just have to watch.

Or don't. I know full well this kind of thing is not for everyone, but for me, it was a brainfuckling trip through Wackyland, and that's a trip I'm always up for taking. Bad on almost every level, it was just what I needed to get me through a boring, uneventful evening. Much as I want to give it three thumbs, I'll split the difference between my experience and that of normal people and peg it at 2 thumbs. Not for every taste, but if it sounds like yours, it should leave you licking your lips.

A few more images from The Nightmare Never Ends:

The Devil Meets the Hardy Boys
Slaughtering the Bull
Surgical Kill-Face
"What a country!"

Hood Ornament

"Oh, Vicar!"


Tenebrous Kate said...

Three words:

Told you so.

And an emoticon:


Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, the great thing about this film is that it just keeps getting nuttier. Insofar as it's possible, the law for enjoyable bad movies is "more!" and Nightmare Never Ends definitely delivers. It is so far over the top at points that it's back at the bottom again.

The way I hear it about Phillip Yordan is that he earned at least some of his early accolades as a front for blacklisted writers, hence the discrepancy between this film and others in a rather daunting filmography. Whether we should assume that Nightmare is his real work is still open to question.

Jenn said...

EVERYBODY'S GOT SOMETHING TO DO, EVERYBODY BUT YOOOOOOOOOUUUUU! I think this could have been a LOT better with the inclusion of this song from NTtoT. This does sound like a crazy ride in and of itself, tho. But I can't say I want to subject myself to it. Kudos to you.


As always your reviews are entertaining as Hell, probably more entertaining than the movies themselves.

Mr. Karswell said...

We put this out about 5 years ago paired with Boogeyman... I remember going through it to grab interesting high resolution screen captures for the art department (the limit was usually around 60 per film) and having only gone a fourth of the way through it I already had close to 200 captures, haha. So much awful awesomeness.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel Wilson--this one definitely never lets up on the nuttiness. And what an interesting explanation of the Phillip Yordan conundrum! I wonder if it's a coincidence that blacklistee Marc Lawrence has two roles in this one?

@Jenn--can you believe I could NOT find a youtube video of EVERYBODY'S GOT SOMETHING TO DO? You'd think if anything needed to be enshrined in youtube, that would be it!

@Al Bruno III--You flatter me! As crazy as my review sounds, trust me, the movie is crazier.

@Karswell--I know what you mean; I usually take screengrabs as I'm watching so I have plenty to choose from, and I was hitting the button with alarming frequency in this one. :P I remember being a little weirded out by Boogeyman back in the day; but then I have a thing about mirrors. And welcome back! Missed you around here. ;)

Rye Ergot said...

Ah, I'm glad to see this movie get some love here. I was really knocked out by it, especially the disco scenes. I found a complete, though slightly different version of the first song in the initial disco scene "I'm Your Lover" on the soundtrack for the movie "The Beach Girls".

More info and soundtrack download is avail able here:

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