Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Bookshelf #3: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This is gonna be my last post for a bit, as I’m moving and am not sure how quickly I’ll get the internet set up at my new place. Plus, packing boxes and gathering trash makes me tired. But not too tired to read the final installment of the Harry Potter saga all in one day, it seems. J.K. Rowling’s ability to write a great page-turner was obviously a factor, but I can’t discount the fact that I was sick and tired of skipping over the spoiler heavy threads that dominated discussion fora. Either way I’m glad I took the time out for it, though it did put me behind packing-wise (and this thing ain’t exactly small in itself.)

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS marks the end of a series of kid’s adventure books which very gradually and subtly morphed into a heroic saga without us noticing that the transition had taken place. As such, it is burdened with tying up all the mysteries and subplots Rowling kept developing and teasing us with over seven volumes. It mostly succeeds; I suspect there’s a loose end or two still lying about (Rowling at some point plans to write an encyclopedia of sorts detailing the world of the books), but emotionally everything is about spot-on, and the payoff for the characters is incredibly satisfying. I won’t be spoiling the ending as such, but there will be plot details similar to what I normally dole out, so if you want to go into this with a completely blank slate, read the book and come back later. This’ll be on the front page for a while.

Harry Potter’s seventeenth birthday is coming up, which is a bit of a mixed blessing for him. On the one hand it means that the ward of protection placed on him by his parents, which prevents Lord Voldemort from killing him outright, will expire. On the other, it means he’ll be able to cast spells outside of Hogwarts without attracting attention, and with the Ministry of Magic heavily infiltrated by Voldemort’s loyal Death Eaters, he’d really rather lay low. The Order of the Phoenix attempts to hide Harry away while he prepares to go hunting for Horcruxes, objects containing pieces of Voldemort’s soul which keep the reptilian dark lord immortal. His friends Ron and Hermione insist on tagging along, and when word gets out that the Ministry of Magic has been completely taken over by the Death Eaters, all three begin a long flight trying to both evade the clutches of Voldemort’s minions and snatch the Horcruxes from wherever they’re hidden. Secrets about the late Albus Dumbledore’s past are revealed, the Deathly Hallows of the title come into play, heroes die, villains also die, buildings explode, babies are born- the word “Potterdammerung” has sprung up frequently, and it’s appropriate.

The appeal of the Potter series has always been just a little bit tricky to pin down. The books are not hugely original, Rowling’s prose is nothing extraordinary, and the plotting is sometimes too convoluted for its own good. But after seven books I think I’ve got it. Rowling is very good indeed with handling the mechanics of the epic fantasy saga: the building of a world, and the setting up of conflicts within that world, and the fleshing out of everything with very specific groups and places and things. There is always some new toy to be discovered- Quidditch, Floo Dust, the Patronus, Occlumency, the Horcruxes, the Hallows- and they always contribute something to the whole, while at the same time Rowling always adds an element of the mundane to remind us that people live in this world day to day. The complexity of Potter’s magical universe, one that seems to exist off to one side of the normal Muggle realm, gives it a life and a lure; we always want to know more because there is always more to be known.

And I can’t fault her for characterization either. We don’t meet many new people here, but that’s okay because the stage is already crowded with the accumulated supporting cast of six entire books. Even the fact that Albus Dumbledore is dead doesn’t keep him off-page entirely. However, the emphasis is squarely kept on Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the partnership that existed ever since the first book and forms the emotional core of the series. Their friendships (and in Ron and Hermione’s case, relationship) are tested to their limit, and we want them to pull through. Other relationships are also in jeopardy, as are, let’s face it, nearly all the characters in the entire series. This being a bit of a farewell tour of the Potterverse, just about everyone still extant shows up to do their part for good or evil. Rowling has a knack for creating memorable people, with characters who are strong enough to be distinct and easily kept track of but also possessed of a certain nuance in their personalities.

Another reason why the series has worked, and why the book does, is that the villains are just so good. Heavily drawing on World War II parallels, Rowling portrays Voldemort and the Death Eaters as the ultimate jackbooted fascists, dedicated to wiping out Muggle-born wizards, ruling over Muggle kind, and preserving pureblood lines in a particularly incestuous form of racial supremacy. They even have their own Brown Shirts, the Snatchers, hooligans who get paid to snatch suspected “Mudbloods” wherever they can be found. We get a tour of the newly revamped Ministry of Magic in a chapter strongly reminiscient of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, and a return appearance by what may be the best evil character in the series, Dolores Umbridge, a kind of magical Margaret Thatcher who puts a transparent veneer of pleasantness on top of pure petty sadism. Of course, Severus Snape also re-emerges one last time, and the question of what he’s been up to is finally resolved.

The book does have a slightly crude, unfinished feel at times- though the books have grown increasingly mammoth throughout the life of the series, this is the first (and thus only) one that really feels like it’s unusually long, and it seems a bit overstuffed and slow. Part of the pacing is deliberate, meant to evoke the difficulty of a truly epic quest, much like the space devoted to the journey in LORD OF THE RINGS, but a repetitiveness does set in. The story also gets a bit messy, and there’s quite a bit of infodumping. That said, the same is true for a lot of epic saga finales, from LORD OF THE RINGS to STAR WARS to BUFFY- only when you have no time left to wrap everything up do you realize how much there is lying around. Much like changing apartments.

It is difficult to talk about the thematic payoff to the series without spoiling everything- suffice it to say, it boils down to basic questions of morality and mortality, and especially how we deal with the latter. The question of just what lies beyond is dealt with, as is the nature of faith and trust. The climactic scenes are thrilling, but also deeply moving, as characters learn to put their trust in each other despite their flaws, and true loyalties are proven. There is tragedy and nobility and spirituality, all woven within a gripping final battle. Getting vague again. Sorry. Some have accused the book’s epilogue of being just a little trite, but I think the story earns it.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS is exactly what I could have hoped for from the finale to this series. It is neither too dark or too light, it does not ignore what has gone before or fail to introduce anything new, it is predictable in some ways but surprising in others. One of the nice things about the “cultural phenomenon” of Harry Potter is the way it calls attention to the inherent discovery of the act of reading, and the treasure-like nature of those little bundles of high-grade wood pulp that manage to bring us so much joy. These aren’t the best books I’ve read, but damn if they aren’t page turners. Rowling writes a good stick, and I wish her luck in finding something else to do with her talent, or just rolling around in piles of money. Either way, Harry Potter’s journey has been one worth taking, and his world is one I hope we see again. There are always more secrets to be discovered.

Grade: A

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

For Your Ears Only: Night of the Living Dead

A little over a month back I attended the National Audio Theatre Workshop, hosted by the NATF, a group dedicated to advancing the seemingly moribund art of audio drama in America (in other countries, particularly those with national radio networks similar to the BBC, the medium still thrives, even though it’s overshadowed by television.) I’ve listened to quite a few of these things, mostly old time radio programs, but the Workshop store had a lot of clearance CDs of interesting stuff. Now is as good a time as any to start in on a new medium.

Not the best choice for an opening entry, though; Simon & Schuster’s “Audioworks” adaptation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a major disappointment, taking a story that, with skill and care, could have become a horrifying audio experience (note to self: find more synonyms for “audio.” “Aural” will provoke giggles) and instead clumsily shoehorns it into the medium, inexplicably camping it up in the process. It’s a very cheap, amateur production, the sort of thing you might expect to be cobbled together by fans or for a live Halloween show, not something produced and released by a major publisher (which may be why the whole Audioworks thing didn’t catch on so well.) As an interesting side note, the CD packaging claims this features “the original cast of the cult classic”, which as far as I can tell is completely not true at all.

The story is basically the same. A woman named Barbara visits the cemetery with her brother when they’re both attacked by a strange man; the brother is killed, and Barbara runs away, the man in pursuit, until she holes up in a farmhouse, where she slowly loses her mind as Ben, a more levelheaded survivor of this mysterious wave of mass murder, boards up the house to make it secure from the growing mob outside. They run into other survivors, a teenage couple and a young girl and her parents, and radio and TV announcements start to confirm what the title implied, that these murderers are the walking dead, risen from the grave to feed on the flesh of the living. Tensions rise and panic ensues as the small group tries to decide how to survive the night.

I knew I was in trouble when, after the opening narration (which isn’t too bad), we had the first exchange between Johnny and Barbara. Now, in the movie, neither performance is too realistic, and there are some endearingly cheesy moments before the horror really starts. But for the audio production we get performances which start at “cheesy” and quickly ratchet it up to “ludicrously shrill.” Johnny imbues every other line with sarcasm worthy of Comic Book Guy, and all the dialogue so heavily hints at the impending zombie apocalypse that “irony” just doesn’t seem a strong enough word. And this continues, from Ben’s inexplicable Southern accent to Harry Cooper’s trembling voice- it’s as if the director assumed that this being an audio production meant everyone had to play to the rafters to make up for not being seen. In the film, Barbara’s descent into madness is actually rather well-played; the audio Barbara goes into hilariously bad hysterics from the instant she gets into the farmhouse. George A. Romero is not a director known for subtlety, and I honestly thought I would never see the day in which I would call NIGHT’s performances understated, but here we are.

Not that the writing is any help. To be fair, the play runs only an hour, and so has to condense the film’s gradual buildup of information and paranoia. But this doesn’t really excuse the weirdly campy tone of the narration and much of the dialogue; nobody at any stage is taking the story very seriously, so there’s no reason we should either. I will admit there are a couple of clever lines, but the smirking tone of it all undercuts the story’s power to shock, and makes the production feel all the more amateurish. Worst of all is how the radio broadcasts are handled; in the film, we hear radio and tv reporters gradually uncovering information about the invasion, making the situation more and more horrific as we hear more. In the play, most of the information about the zombies is revealed in one long infodump by, of all people, the President of the United States, and since this was produced in 1988, that means a Reagan impersonation. Not only does this date the work more than anything in the movie, it adds further goofiness to what should be some of the most shocking and terrible revelations in the picture.

Then again, I’m thinking that even a deliberately campy NIGHT may have worked, if not for the sheer clumsiness exhibited in adapting this thing to audio. It’s a challenge, of course; zombies usually don’t talk, and the importance of shooting a ghoul in the head is kind of hard to convey without visual assistance. But for the most part the play doesn’t even try. Whenever we reach something resembling an “action” scene, the narration kicks in and describes everything while the voice actors and sound effects artists go off for a smoke. This is pretty much a textbook example of how you’re not supposed to use narration in an audio play; it needs to have a purpose beyond spackling over the stuff you can’t see. The sound effects are incredibly sparse, as well- a few gunshots and hammer noises, plus an odd echo effect when characters are outside. We don’t even get any zombie moans. Seriously, people, that should have been job number one; round up everyone you can, set up an omnidirectional mike or two, record moaning, season to taste. Sound technology was not this bad in the Eighties.

Honestly, I drifted out of this one as soon as I realized it wasn’t going anywhere interesting. The idea of doing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as an audio drama contains within it a lot of challenges, but a lot of potential as well- the use of broadcasts, the heated dialogue, the ever-growing cries of the undead. Done right it could be as intense as the Mercury Theatre’s WAR OF THE WORLDS. Instead we get the cheap and sloppy version. It’s a crushing disappointment, but then, the relative obscurity of this attempt means the door’s still open for someone else to try. I’m tempted to take a pass myself.

Grade: D+

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Random Movie Report #33: Moon of the Wolf

MOON OF THE WOLF is a movie that really finds its stride about ten minutes before it ends. It stumbles behind the audience setting up a mystery that we’ve mostly figured out, and then rushes to catch up to the monster-movie portion that we’re watching it for to begin with, and yet it almost just sort of manages to entertain. I was kinda dreading this one upon figuring out that it, like SNOWBEAST, was a made-for-TV movie, as I anticipated another slow, bloodless, sexless trudge through cliché, but while this film’s almost as threadbare, it at least has a bit of atmosphere and manages to hold together as a story, putting it solidly above the three other films in this little marathon. It’s sad that I have to type that, but here we are.

Two hunters in the Louisiana bayou come across the body of a young local girl. Wild dogs are blamed at first, but Sheriff Aaron Whitaker (David Janssen) discovers she was knocked out beforehand, and starts canvassing for suspects. The dead girl’s brother blames the local doctor (John Beradino), who did in fact impregnate the girl shortly before she died, but then it could have been the brother, or Andrew Rodanthe (Bradford Dillman), part of an old-money family living up on the hill over the bayou, and meanwhile the girl’s senile father keeps babbling about something which sounds a bit like “lougaroo”. The brother is killed while in prison for assault, and so is the deputy, and the bars have been torn out of the window, and at some point it becomes obvious that the old guy really means “loup garou”, or werewolf. The question, then, is who the werewolf is.

Of course, we know from the very start that this is a werewolf movie; the mystery is almost redundant, and strangely enough the film also gives a pretty conclusive clue as to who the werewolf is well before the characters figure it out. This means that we’re pretty far ahead of the action for a while, and the one real mystery is why they’re taking so long with this (apart maybe from a misguided fidelity to the novel this is based on.) Sure, werewolf makeup costs money, but more could have been done with the creature stalking and lurking as opposed to being entirely absent. The mystery part of the story can only be stretched out so far, and even at a mere seventy-four minutes the film has some slow stretches.

That said, it’s not like the mystery is uninteresting. There’s a strong Southern Gothic feel to it, and it brings in the class differences between the aristocratic Rodanthes and the poor bayou folk and everyone in between. There are a couple of good red herrings, and even though one scene in an instant makes it clear who the werewolf is, it’s still something of a surprise. The murder investigation plot works, there just needs to be less of it.

Also helping pass the time are the two leads, Janssen as the sheriff and Barbara Rush as Louise Rodanthe, a love interest who may be on target to be the wolf’s next victim; the two work together to try and solve the mystery and have a nice chemistry with each other. Most of the acting is quite good, at least as far as reinforcing the reality of the situation goes; the similarly understated direction, though par for the course for old TV movies, also works in the film’s favor. It’s a straightforward tale of murder and werewolves, with no stylistic flourishes undermining its plausibility.

So, it takes a while for this story to get going. One weird artifact of this is that there is no interim period in which people express surprise at the existence of a werewolf in their midst; they go straight to forming a hunting party. It’s an odd transition, but hey, it saves time. And I have to say, the final portion of the film makes up for a lot. I won’t spoil much, but it’s moody, atmospheric, and suspenseful, and I think it redeemed the picture for me. A good werewolf rampage is worth the wait, I guess.

Despite many problems, MOON OF THE WOLF ends up working on the level it intends, which in the end seems to be more than I can say for any of the other films in this collection. It’s been a bit of a chore in the long run writing about these, but I got myself into it. Nonetheless, it’s sort of interesting what you can dredge up from the bottom of the barrel.

From the novel by Leslie H. Whitten
Written by Alvin Sapinsley
Directed by Daniel Petrie

Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Random Movie Report #32: The Devil's Nightmare

The next film in this series is the closest to good so far, with signs of actual effort having been made and not all going to waste. But first, an oddity- the presentation on this particular disc (which I have not been able to locate on Amazon, hence no linkage) features an 8-minute prologue by some outfit called “Redemption”, which basically tries to present the film in the style of a Vampira/Elvira set-up, but with soft porn, as some woman in bondage get-up and fangs introduces a pair of nymphomaniac cannibal sisters, which is the sort of thing that sounds sexier than it is, and some weird slow-motion posing goes on for a few minutes before the movie itself is introduced, only I’m fairly sure this footage was shot with no regard to whatever the movie would be since the woman then talks about early Seventies Italian cannibal movies, of which this pretty much is NOT an example. This goofy set-up does not appear on any of the other films, so I have no idea how it ended up here, but the chapter stops aren’t set up so that you can skip past the 8-minute (!) pageantry. Pointless rant, I know. But be warned.

THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE is a 1971 “old dark house” movie from Europe, which means it’s the kind of movie that’s not so much about plot as it is about visual motifs and creative death scenes and cool music and attractive women without too much clothing. On this level it’s pretty well-made, but it suffers a surprising lag once the actual murders start, and though it takes up some interesting themes it’s just a tad too cynical to explore them fully (a problem with a lot of European horror films, for some reason.) It’s just a little too underdone to call a good movie, though fans of the genre will likely find stuff to enjoy.

We open in Berlin in 1945, where a woman dies giving birth and her husband, a Wermacht general (Jean Servais), is dismayed to find the child is a girl. As bombs fall around the household, he christens the infant, and then stabs it. Years later, the man is living on his own in a giant mansion, where a reporter who asks too many questions about an apparent family curse is stalked and killed by... something. Meanwhile, seven people on a guided tour of Europe find themselves lost, and a helpful yet sinister looking local directs them to the mansion, where the staff is apparently expecting their arrival. The guests, including the gluttonous tour guide, a perpetually cranky old man, a miserable couple, a seminary student, a very tired lesbian and her homewrecking bisexual companion, are more than willing to wait out the night, but this happens to be a fateful evening, as the mysterious Lisa (Erika Blanc) shows up at the house, apparently in connection to the ancient family curse. Hundreds of years ago, the elder of the Von Rhonebergs sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for whatever services the devil’s supposed to perform. (The film does not go into much detail. I imagine light cleaning for some reason.) As part of the bargain, the devil apparently cursed each firstborn female child of the Von Rhoneberg clan to become a succubus, a servant of evil tempting souls into damnation. Lisa ever-so-subtly hints that she might be that very entity (especially when she takes to wearing a midriff-baring Emma Peel type suit), and the tourists start falling prey to elaborate and stylish temptations, each apparently connected to the classical Seven Deadly Sins.

And that’s pretty much the rest of the movie, which is almost a disappointment. The film sets up a very good atmosphere and some of the concepts have potential, but as the bodies pile up it becomes clear that this is all the film is going to do with what it’s set up. The individual murders are fairly creative, but put together the experience is still repetitive. Near the end, it starts to take an interesting turn, but a protracted epilogue undermines the drama, and you can see the actual ending coming a mile away- it’s the kind of cynical twist that undermines many a horror movie for no good reason.

Still, you have to give this one points for style. Even on a fuzzy-looking and tinny-sounding transfer, THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE is thick with mood. There’s a nice eerie theme song with fuzz-guitar and wordless female vocals, a torture chamber, and an alchemist’s lab (the elder Von Rhoneberg is apparently involved with the craft- everyone needs a hobby- and this somehow convinces one of the characters that he’s hiding a HUGE stash of gold somewhere. French horror, ladies and gentlemen.) Some of the visuals are quite inventive, and of course there are lovely European women without much clothing to look at. Interestingly enough, Blanc (who got her start in Italian photocomics) in succubus-mode (I’m REALLY not spoiling anything) is unexpectedly unflattering, with vaguely reptilian makeup. It’s nicely contrary to expectations and still creepy.

The one thing that really keeps me from putting this movie in the “good” category is how it handles the whole deadly sin aspect of the story. Some of the temptations are just obtuse enough to be kind of clever, but at the same time undermine a major plot point; the succubus is apparently killing these people in states of “mortal sin”, thus ensuring their souls get handed over to Satan. But the situations just don’t strike me as egregious enough to ensure eternal damnation, at least for the most part. To use the overeating tour guide as an example, stuffing yourself at a mysterious opulent feast in a barren kitchen hosted by a mysterious seductress who insists that this is all for you and you alone may be unbelievably stupid, but I’d like to think that God is kind of merciful when it comes to lapses of mental agility. (Similarly, I think the lazy blonde girl might just be very very tired from a crosscontinent bus trip. But then I’m a forgiving sort.) The whole morality play angle just doesn’t come off- the film is too insincere for it.

THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE comes close to being a solid horror film, but it overreaches a bit and tries to tackle a plot it doesn’t really want to, and gets bogged down in a series of inventive murders. Fans of this kind of Euro-horror movie will enjoy it, and though I was disappointed I thought it had its moments. Everyone else can pretty much pass this by.

Written by Jean Brismeé and Pierre-Claude Garnier
Directed by Jean Brismeé

Grade: C+

Friday, July 13, 2007

Random Movie Report #31: Snowbeast

We continue on with the second feature on this ultra-compressed disc, and sadly it’s a step down. It didn’t take long to work out that SNOWBEAST was a made-for-TV movie, and sadly not long after to work out that it was JAWS on a mountain. Now, I love JAWS, and I was still willing to give the film a chance after my initial realization- after all, it was written by Joseph Stefano, a TV veteran who worked on THE OUTER LIMITS and STAR TREK and other series, and it looked to have decent production values, and who doesn’t like giant snow monsters? Somehow, though, this fails as a monster movie, and the attempts at human drama never quite work either, and the whole thing is something of an inert lump. Nice locations, though.

The film is set at a ski resort about to have a big anniversary celebration, presided over by Carrie Rill (Sylvia Sidney). When her grandson Tony (apparently in charge of the ski patrol) goes looking for a missing skier, he instead catches a glimpse of the thing what et her- a fierce Yeti-type creature who goes on to attack one of the ski patrollers, and stores his kills in an abandoned barn. Obviously Tony is reluctant to tell everybody there’s a giant snow monster on the loose, but fortunately his friend Gar (Bo Svenson), a former champion skier/marksman (whatever that event is called), and his wife Ellen (Yvette Mimieux) are in town. Gar’s kind of desperate for work, and there’s some residual tension over a love triangle that once existed between the three of them, but anyway, Gil trusts Gar to help him hunt for the snowman, and so they do. The creature, shown only in brief glimpses for the most part, roams around and disrupts the anniversary festivities in what’s really almost a half-hearted way, but that’s enough to ultimately get Gil and Gar and Ellen and Sheriff Paraday (Clint Walker) out on the mountainside in an extended hunt.

Really, there’s a certain problem here that can’t be avoided, and that is that the monster, despite racking up an acceptable body count, is not really very frightening. Part of it is that the thing’s motivations are unclear. He leaves mostly intact corpses (I’ll grant you that network television didn’t allow for much worse), so it doesn’t seem like he’s killing for food, so is he angry that people are intruding on his territory? They’ve been there a while. Why the sudden step up in activity? The film doesn’t even begin to answer any of these questions, and unlike JAWS the picture doesn’t do much to show the monster as some kind of primal death machine. Not to mention it moves slowly and does a lot of unnecessary lurking (a good 25% of this film may well be shots from the monster’s POV)- you really just need good walking speed to get away from the thing, it seems, and the life of the first victim could have been spared if she hadn’t randomly stopped halfway down the trail. The snowbeast is a bit of an underachiever in the monster department, really.

The film itself suffers from the curse of TV movies- come Hell or high water, the thing has to run ninety-six minutes. The story here just plain isn’t enough- as I said before, the monster’s a lightweight, and the human drama is ultimately rather pointless too. I think it’s sort of about Gar trying to come to grips with his new life outside the limelight or get his skiing mojo back or some similar existential crisis thing- apparently he didn’t strap on his skis since the Olympics because he wanted to go out on top and not fall but it feels like he’s falling anyway and there is no way I could conceivably care any less. So we get monologues and the occasional flashback and nothing that actually progresses anywhere interesting, and basically I think you could have this story done at about 78 minutes tops. Cut to 50 and it would be a decent OUTER LIMITS episode. At over an hour and a half, it’s bloated, slow, and tepid. We get lots of establishing shot montages, shots of characters skiing and riding snowmobiles, POV from the monster lurking in the trees, etc.- in other words, padding.

The actors are actually not bad. Svenson in particular has a nice presence and is convincing in the role. There are a few good moments between them, and I have to give Stefano credit; the “old flame” subplot is not dragged out like you think it would be, there are no painful melodramatics, everyone’s very mature and it’s a nice touch. He doesn’t even overplay the “we can’t warn people about the monster because it would disrupt the festival!” angle; it’s there, but muted after a while. Unfortunately I can’t help but sit here and think that as moldy and painful as those elements would have been if drawn attention to, they would have been something. It’s the old dilemma: the food’s bad, and in such small portions too.

SNOWBEAST could have been engaging schlock, but without any real energy or momentum, it’s actually a bit of a chore to watch. It has the distinct feeling of a project that was ordered in a hurry, given to a bunch of people who happened to be available at the time, and approached by nearly everyone with the enthusiasm of doing monthly inventory at an office supply store. I’m not asking that filmmakers and actors be thrilled at the prospect of making a killer Yeti movie, but they need to at least pretend.

Written by Joseph Stefano
Directed by Herb Wallerstein
Grade: D+

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Random Movie Report #30: Night Train to Terror

Welcome back, loyal readers!

It took me a bit longer to get back and ready to write than I thought it would. The National Audio Theatre Workshop was a bit of a marathon in the end, and
I probably needed the extra week to recover. I did come away with a renewed appreciation for the medium, though, and expect that to rear its head in coming weeks. But back to the visual stuff for the moment; whilst in West Plains I decided, for no good reason, to pick up one of those budget horror DVDs with 4 movies on one disc. For a buck per movie, I figured why not? So I’ve got a quartet of esoteric shockfests to make a dent in July’s post count. Enjoy.

NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR is more than just a bad, nonsensical horror movie. It’s a bad, nonsensical compilation of three horror movies (TWO of them featuring Richard Moll!) and some really appalling framing footage, forming something so tatty that one can only imagine the reaction of anyone who ended up seeing this in a theater. Or for that matter, renting it expecting a decent horror film. The horror anthology has a long and storied history in film, but there’s a difference between making an anthology and just smashing films together and setting them to horrible music. NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR is amusing in its badness, and a bit of a wacky theological odyssey to boot, but your tolerance of choppy editing and wretched 80s rock will be pushed to their limits.

We open, naturally, on a train. In one car, a group of 80s teen rockers, consisting of more people than Toto and Earth, Wind, and Fire put together, performs a perpetual music video. No effort whatsoever is made to make it seem as though an actual band is rehearsing, inside anything resembling an actual train car. As Michael Weldon points out in the PSYCHOTRONIC VIDEO GUIDE, the song’s key lyric, “Everyone’s got something to do, everybody but you!” is particularly cruel for the audience. Anyway, in the next car back, God (billed as Himself in the credits, and just try and get Him to talk about this one- seriously, it’s Ferdy Mayne) and Satan (“Lu Sifer”) are looking at the stars and discussing the fate of mankind and the kids on the train, which is fated to crash at dawn. (Nobody else is on board, except for a porter and conductor, and they seem to know the drill.) By way of discussing the cosmic battle of good and evil, God and Satan look at three separate tales of terror. The first involves John Phillip Law getting into a car accident and ending up at some kind of twisted hospital where the doctors kidnap people (mostly young girls), torture them, and then kill them, shipping the body parts to medical schools. (Richard Moll’s character seems to do most of the heavy work in this department.) Law’s character gets pulled into the business by his therapist, and goes around town drugging women to get them to the hospital. This grisly tale, itself a weird blending of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and to a lesser extent THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, might have been frightening at some point, but the cuts are so jerky and rapid so as to render the whole thing a goofy speed run of gore, nudity, and people pretending to be lobotomized.

The next tale, edited down from 1983’s DEATH WISH CLUB, is about Gretta (Merideth Haze), an aspiring singer/actress who gets into a relationship with the sleazy George Youngmeyer (J. Martin Sellers), who puts her in porno films. She starts going out with the much nicer Glenn Marshall (Rick Barnes), so Youngmeyer plots a kind of revenge by getting them involved in a secret club consisting of people who’ve all had brushes with death, and now make games of putting themselves in elaborate potentially deadly situations. This one is actually sort of decently put together, but it boils down to a succession of crazy death games (one involving a giant stop-motion insect), each one of them sufficiently random so as to make the outcome completely arbitrary. It kinda trails off without an actual ending.

And then we come to the third story, apparently released as CATACLYSM in 1980, and it is simultaneously the worst and most psychotic tale in the bunch. It’s a kind of OMEN ripoff apparently involving Satan (or his son) who was also a Nazi who may also be some sort of vampire and who looks like a svelte Meat Loaf, and features Moll again as a kind of proto-Richard Dawkins who’s written a book apparently disproving Christ’s existence and who is hounded by a priest who looks like Alan Arkin, and the protagonist is some woman who doesn’t do anything and there’s a police inspector played by Cameron Mitchell who DOES do a lot but he’s never actually given a name, and there are stop motion monsters and a Holocaust survivor played by a man in the least convincing old age makeup I have ever seen and... yeah. Whatever sense this movie may or may not have made at some point, as edited down here it’s a blaze of incoherence. It’s also the most ambitious of the three mini features, trying to squeeze an awful lot out of the limited budget. It’s also the longest, and after a while it’s all a bit much.

How does it end? What’s the fate of the kids on the train? I won’t spoil that, but I will say that God puts in a few good words for rock and roll music, even though the band itself is working against Him in this regard. The last shot needs to be seen to be believed.

So, by all standards a horrible movie, but not a boring one. It’s good amateur MST3K fodder, and a weird little cultural artifact, both as a low-grade film company’s attempt to salvage a feature out of whatever was available and as a look at the most bleak and threadbare of Eighties horror. There are even a few decent concepts thrown around, the crappiness of their execution notwithstanding. It’s ironic (I think) that a cheap horror compilation film found its way onto the modern equivalent, a compilation DVD using the cheapest of films and no real effort at a good transfer. You really should know what you’re getting into at this stage, but I had no illusions and I still watched the damn thing. And I ended up wanting more.

Written by Philip Yordan
Directed by John Carr, Philip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, Gregg C. Tallas

Grade: C-