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October 29th, 2012


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10:14 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Night Train to Terror
It is midnight.

A passenger train speeds toward Las Vegas. In one car, a spandex-clad rock band throws an all-night party so tame that your parents would have let you attend it in high school. In the next car, two elderly men gaze out the window as the stars go whizzing by at what appears to be Warp 3.

Perhaps it is understandable that the party next door isn't very raucous. After all, the two elderly men are God and Satan, and one wants to make a good impression. The train is going to crash at dawn. The Lord and The Devil are idly whiling away the hours before it's time to separate the survivors into two camps, and head home with their winnings. Well, The Devil has winnings. God's pretty ambivalent because in the end, there are really no stakes as far as he is concerned.

This is 1985's Night Train to Terror, a movie which I know I've seen -- twice, even -- but of which I apparently remembered none. Well, that's not quite true. I remembered God and Satan and the rock band, but all the other stuff in the movie had disappeared from my memory, and that, apparently was for the best. This movie is an untenable knot which, if you were to unravel it, would be comprised entirely of loose ends. I know I say that a lot, but I mean it this time. Really.

It is an anthology of three different stories, and while I can at least tell you where one starts and the next begins, it's difficult to say what any of them is about, really. The first chapter tells the story of a man who, after accidentally killing his own wife in a car accident (it's his fault), is placed in a mental hospital where the head doctor forces him to go out, pick up attractive, young women, and lure them back to the hospital for unexpected vivisection. Also, there's torture, a heavier dose of nudity than I'd expected, and spurting blood of the most unrealistic kind. Bull from Night Court gets his head cut off with a machete, and a voiceover narration tells us that the doctor has a side-business harvesting and selling organs. The voiceover is necessary for this segment to make any kind of sense at all. I looked up several reviews to make sure I wasn't just an idiot who didn't get it, and everybody agrees: the story -- if in fact one exists -- is so poorly executed that it's impossible to follow. Not for God and Satan, though -- they discuss the events like sportscasters, and then move on to the next event.

In to the next segment, an aspiring young musician gets involved with a dirty old man, and her boyfriend doesn't like it one bit. The dirty old man invites them both to join his exclusive club, where the members partake in elaborate games of chance that usually leave one of the players dead. In one room, a claymation insect with a fatal sting is released, and the players wait to see if it kills anyone. In the next room they sit in electric chairs wired up to a "supercomputer" which is really just a random number generator to decide who gets fried (though it does talk). Finally, the players lie down beneath a wrecking ball that is about to fall and crush one of them. Again, God and Satan discuss what they've seen, and it starts to seem as if they're scoring things arbitrarily.

Finally, in the third segment, plucky Richard Moll (Bull, again) plays a Nobel Prize-winning author whose masterwork, a book called God is Dead is about to be published, against his wife's wishes. His wife, incidentally, has just been deputized by Holy Mother Church to take out Satan's manifestation on Earth. Meanwhile, Moll is being harassed by two people: one is the aforementioned Satan incarnate who really wants to meet him and hang out and talk blasphemy and stuff, the other is a Mad Monk from the Old Country who wants to banish the devil. Finally, there's a completely superfluous murder investigation featuring Cameron Mitchell who is really too respectable to be in this movie, and just as you're about to give up and start fast-forwarding, somebody pulls up his pantlegs to reveal goat hooves. There's more claymation, and ridiculous continuity errors, such as the moment where the monk is being dragged through the sand over the claw-marks he made on the previous take. Richard Moll's wife ends up strapping somebody down on an operating table and removing his heart, which looks more like a liver.

At this point, you must be thinking that it would be impossible to write a worse explanation of the plot than this one. You're right, but it's also impossible to write a better one. Nobody is really sure what happens in this movie, and the reason (which I didn't know before I started reading up on it tonight) is that it's edited together from three separate, and unreleased films called Cataclysm, Death Wish Club and Scream Your Head Off. One assumes that cutting them down would make the stories tighter and more succinct, but no such luck. It's as if they kept the special effects and ditched everything else. The result is that the effects look neat, but they come out of left field with little to no context. Why did that guy explode? Whose head just rolled across the floor? Where did that demon come from, and why didn't we see it again? We never get the answers to these questions. Also, there are Nazis.

Then again, at least I know why the movie is such a godawful mess. I can handle it, knowing that the segments were not conceived to be shown this way. The only material created specifically for this movie, as far as I can tell, is the linking story featuring God, The Devil, and the rock band in the next car. And did I talk about the band? No, I guess I didn't. The band and their song are very obviously the product of someone who was out of touch with the time -- some middle-aged movie producer who didn't know anything about This Rock & Roll Stuff (this was the '80s -- those people still existed). Poor old guy must have taken a look around, decided that punk rock and spandex belonged together, and that disco was still in, and started from there. The resulting song is a terrible, repetitive earworm that sounds a good ten years older than it is. And yet, even now, it hasn't made a big enough impression for me to describe its lyrics. Something about how you should be dancing, seeing as you obviously have nothing better to do.

Oh, and the ending. I forgot to tell you about the ending. They tell you exactly how the movie is going to end: the train will crash at dawn, and everyone will die. Sure enough, right on schedule, the track ends, the train skids hard into the ground, and blows up because science. God collects his winnings, and the train speeds off into outer space.

This is the kind of movie that belongs on cable TV at 3:00 AM in 1991. That's the most logical place for it. The second most logical place is on a TV in the background of a Halloween party with the sound turned down so that every once in awhile somebody will look up just in time to see Richard Moll get crucified and blow up. That person will say, "don't we have anything better to watch?", and the answer will be "yes."

Here's your trailer.

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31 Days of Halloween: Night Train to Terror - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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