Vinegar Syndrome hops aboard the NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (although if you’ve got an aversion to New Wave music, the terror is already on board) with their new Blu-ray/DVD combo of one of cinema’s most bizarre horror anthologies.
Aboard a train – alternately known as “The Heavenly Express” or “The Devil’s Cannonball” – bound for Vegas but due to crash at dawn, God (billed as “Himself” but actually played by THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS’ Ferdy Mayne) and The Devil (billed as “Lu Sifer” but actually FOXY BROWN’s Tony Giorgio) judge the choices and the ultimate fates of three people (of the garish rock band led by producer’s son Byron Yordan breakdancing to Joe Turano’s “Everybody But You” in the next adjoining car, Satan muses “I get most of them [musicians] anyway”). The first to be judged is Harry Billings (John Philip Law, DANGER: DIABOLIK) who wakes up in an asylum after he crashes his car off a bridge and kills his bride. Far from trying to cure him, Dr. Brewer (Arthur M. Braham) and his associate Dr. Fargo (Sharon Ratcliff) are grooming him with electro-shock therapy and experimental drugs to procure beautiful women whose bodies hulking orderly Otto (Richard Moll of TV’s NIGHT COURT) hack up and sell as anatomical specimens to medical institutions. When Dr. Fargo falls for Harry, she decides that they don’t need Brewer to continue operations so she lobotomizes him; but Harry is eager to resume a normal life and turns the tables on Fargo (although he might just lose his head to Otto).
Next up is would-be pianist Gretta Connors (Merideth Haze) who is paying the rent as a carnival popcorn vendor. She is taken in by wealthy club owner George Youngmeyer (J. Martin Sellers) who fulfills her dreams of being a star… by hooking her up with a pornographer. She catches the eye of young medical student Glen (Rick Barnes, who is also credited with the film’s fight choreography) and he quickly sweeps her off her feet (practically the next scene), although Gretta still keeps company with George who continues to furnish her with gifts to decorate the dingy apartment shared by the young couple. They do not realize, however, that jilted George is plotting his revenge against them by initiating Glen into “The Death Club” (of which Gretta is already a seasoned member). The small elite group – presided over by Countess Pacelli (Anne Fairchild) and Prince Flubutu (Mark E. Ridley) – have all survived close encounters with death and occasionally meet to engage in exotic games of Russian Roulette to recapture the sensation. After Glen and Gretta manage to evade death twice via Tanzanian Winged Beetle and a game of musical electric chairs (“Pardon me while I smoke!”) and tire of the game, George forces them at gunpoint into one more fatal game.
The final case decides the final fate of Claire Hanson (Faith Clift, HORROR EXPRESS’ American passenger), an accomplished surgeon and devout Catholic currently tormented by dreams of Nazi slaughter and unholy monstrosities. Part of this may be due to the controversy of her philosopher husband James’ (Richard Moll again) recently published non-fictional work “God is Dead” in which he contends that Jesus Christ was an invented persona for political purposes. He further plans to found a new Utopian society based on the proposition that neither God nor the devil exist. His notoriety attracts the interest of both satanic playboy Olivier (Robert Bristol, HANGAR 18) and Papini (Maurice Grandmaison), a monk determined to get James to repent before Olivier can use him to attract more followers to the foundation he has already formed. Meanwhile, Holocaust survivor Weiss (Marc Lawrence, DILLINGER) recognizes Olivier as a Nazi butcher, but his cop neighbor (Cameron Mitchell, NIGHTMARE IN WAX) dismisses his claims (considering Olivier’s youthful appearance) until Weiss turns up dead with three sixes branded into his body. As he tries to make the connection between Olivier and Weiss through the old man’s research, Claire is told by the church that she has been charged with the task of destroying Olivier – who actual identity as the son of Satan should be no shock – by cutting out his heart and placing it in an ornate box made from the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
It should really come as no surprise that NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR - slasher poster art notwithstanding - isn’t so much a horror anthology as a last-ditch effort to salvage three unsuccessful films, all of which formerly blacklisted Academy Award-winning screenwriter Philip Yordan had some hand in as writer or producer. Documentary filmmaker Jay Schlossberg-Cohen was entrusted with directing the framing footage, special effects, and inserts as well as condensing the stories (having already condensed Yordan’s mammoth 1977 biographical feature BRIGHAM into the 1983 TV movie SAVAGE JOURNEY). The oldest of the films was CATACLYSM (1980) from which Claire’s story was derived, which was much tinkered with even in its feature form with direction credited on prints to BRIGHAM’s Tom McGowan, Phillip Marshak (DRACULA SUCKS), and Gregg Tallas (PREHISTORIC WOMEN). The film popped up on VHS in various cuts as SATAN’S SUPPER (Academy Entertainment), CATACLYSM (Genesis Entertainment), and THE NIGHTMARE NEVER ENDS (Showcase Productions), and SHIVER (Simitar Entertainment). THE NIGHTMARE NEVER ENDS version was also released on DVD by Troma Entertainment (Code Red reportedly has the rights to CATACLYSM). From a quick view of the Troma edition, it appears that the short version is more of a digest-sized cut of the film which drops some interesting if non-essential bits (the disco sequence in which Olivier and Mitchell’s detective are shown in attendance in the short version turns out to be a party in the feature at which Claire and James are also guests). James is tormented a bit more before he meets his un-maker, and his death scene is less spectacular.
Schlossberg-Cohen shot some new footage with a veiled double for Clift during the confessional sequence. In the original, it is Papini who hears Claire’s confession and tries to conceal his identity as he instructs her to go see a blind psychic. In the new version, an anonymous priest (Juan Luis Curiel) who instructs her on how to kill the son of Satan and presents her with the box (which does not appear in the original). Yordan also had several of the special effects sequences redone with new stop-motion animation (courtesy of THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER’s William R. Stromberg and RE-ANIMATOR’s Anthony Doublin) which is more effective than the original death scenes, but also more laughable since not only are the monsters replaced but also the victims with badly-sculpted clay models. Ishtar retains her feminine form in her confrontation with Papini, and no monster pops out of the sand to dispatch him here. The longer version has some more disco footage (Yordan’s son appears as a waiter) which probably would have clued in 1985 audiences further about the age of the film. I’d recommend getting ahold of at least one of the longer versions of this episode as – while being by no means good – the longer versions bears out the observation that the “Claire” episode is the best-looking and most ambitiously scripted and executed of the three films.
GRETTA was actually the original title of a 1983 film scripted and produced by Yordan and directed by John Carr (THE TALISMAN) that eventually went out directly to VHS as DEATH WISH CLUB (Regal and Genesis Entertainment) and CARNIVAL OF FOOLS (AIR Video). Vinegar Syndrome has made comparison between the NIGHT TRAIN and GRETTA version a lot easier including the full cut (91:00) on the DVD side of their combo package. The structural differences are apparent immediately with Youngmeyer as the first introduced character and his narration carrying the story throughout. Glen still falls in love with Gretta quickly after seeing her in a stag film, but he has to visit a sex shop and a porn studio to find her. Youngmeyer – who prefers a peculiar kind of “one-sided love” in which he care for someone who doesn’t give a damn about him – pushes Glen and Gretta together, but then paradoxically becomes jealous when they are happy together. Additional scenes of Glen at school and visits from his mother and aunt take up some more space, as does Glen’s sitting in on one of Gretta’s porn shoots (which features HARRY’s Arthur Brahms as a mad doctor).
There is also a major plot twist somewhere in between VERTIGO and GLEN OR GLENDA. After Glen’s first visit to “The Death Club”, he leaves not only the club but also Gretta and tries to patch things up with his ex-fiancée Helen only for George to turn up and tell him that Gretta has died. He attends the church service but not the funeral and ends up watching her films and hanging out at George’s club. He gets the shock of his life when Youngmeyer introduces new keyboardist Charlie White who is the spitting image of Gretta despite being male. Youngmeyer explains that Gretta had a breakdown and now identifies only as Charlie. Against Youngmeyer’s warnings about Gretta/Charlie’s fragile psyche, Glen attempts to rouse his/her memories of Gretta by posing as a CIA agent (for some reason). This entire aspect is dropped from the short version, but it does explain why Gretta inexplicably has short hair during the musical electric chairs sequence. Of course, Gretta does eventually reassert herself and take up with Glen again; which is what prompts George into forcing them into the final game and the resolution which is just as anticlimactic as in the short version.
Viewing GRETTA also reveals that Schlossberg-Cohen not only condensed the story but also reshot the special effects sequences (once again the contribution of Stromberg and associates), replacing the Tanzanian Winged Beetle – which moved in the original on a string and through quick editing – with the more mobile stop-motion substitute (the payoff sequence of the beetle stinging the male half of a lover’s lane couple and his explosive demise was also a newly created scene), and affording the electric chair victim a longer, smokier, and meltier demise. The countess’ residence is also switched to a castle via a very unconvincing establishing shot of a scale model. Although NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR only lists Byron Wardlaw (MONSTROID) and Art Fitzsimmons (who shot CATACLYSM) as cinematographers for GRETTA, the feature version also lists Frank Byers (later DP on TWIN PEAKS and CSI) who receives sole DP credit in NIGHT TRAINS credits for HARRY. Exploitation composer Jaime Mendoza Nava wrote some additional music (Schlossberg-Cohen wrote “Gretta’s Theme”) and supervised the film’s post-production sound work.
HARRY derives from a then-unfinished production directed by Carr and penned by producer Yordan. According to the film’s original assistant editor Wayne Schmidt (DINOSAUR ISLAND) – interviewed elsewhere on this release – the film was finished and an answer print struck, but it remained unreleased until it appeared in abridged form here. It is certainly the goriest and most unpleasant of the three films, with Schlossberg-Cohen working in probably all of the nudity and gore at the expense of suspense (we see Harry eyeing potential victims but none of the actual drugging or abduction, just a cutaway to the already nude and captive victims being menaced by Otto). Harry’s fate at the gory climax (which includes a splattery decapitation and Fargo under threat by a scalpel-wielding lobotomized Brewer) is elided so that God and Satan on the train can debate whether he’ll be going to heaven or hell. GRETTA’s Barnes has a small role as the quickly-done-away-with husband of another victim in HARRY. In a past issue of Video Watchdog, writer John Charles brought to our attention the film’s existence as a Simitar Entertainment VHS tape sporting a ragged, still-incomplete, dupey, workprint-quality seventy-odd-minute cut titled SCREAM YOUR HEAD OFF (Yordan had licensed several of his titles to Simitar in the nineties and most were given DVD releases including NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR, albeit from old tape masters). Charles’ report gave details about plot elements entirely missing from the shorter version (the hospital also engages in a side racket of selling off white slaves to an Arab sheik), but makes the longer version sound just as much a mess. SCREAM YOUR HEAD OFF never made it to DVD, but a third version did via Trinity Entertainment under the title of MARILYN ALIVE AND BEHIND BARS, in which Carr shot new footage in 1992 with John Philip Law and Francine York as Marilyn Monroe!
NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR really has no right to look as good as it does on Vinegar Syndrome’s 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC Blu-ray which features a 1.85:1 transfer from a 2K master of a 35mm print. Apart from the two faded opening title cards on black – which may have been derived from the included theatrical trailer (2:39) – the rest of the transfer is great to very good. The wrap-around footage on the train is newest and looks the best with a nicely saturated gel lighting and eighties outfits of the dancers while the God/Satan scenes have a more restrained palette that is nevertheless nicely rendered. The individual stories are more variable with Carr’s HARRY and GRETA looking clean if a little muddy during darker scenes. The source of CLAIRE was a higher-budgeted and better-photographed film, and that is reflected in the transfer of that portion of the film (including filtered bits with flaring highlights), with the additional bits re-photographed by the NIGHT TRAIN architects looking even better. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is also subject to the original mixes of the individual films - the oldest film CLAIRE sounds a scratchy during the original passages - and the bursts of the theme song “Everybody But You” in between the stories demonstrating the fidelity of the track at its strongest.
If all Vinegar Syndrome’s NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR had to offer were an attractive new transfer, I would probably say skip it (unless you felt the need to upgrade your Simitar or Mill Creek DVDs or had already collected the various releases of the three individual films), but they’ve compiled another worthwhile package here. Besides the aforementioned feature version of GRETTA, the disc also includes two commentary tracks for the main feature. The first commentary track is actually an audio interview with director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen conducted by Joe Rubin; and it is pretty much his life story starting with his very eventful college education (three colleges in three years before eventually settling on NYU’s film program) and his stage career. It’s a very linear narrative (“It’s like a Dickens novel, my life”), so he does not really get to discussing the film at hand or his five year association with Yordan and John Carr in Utah until nearly a half-hour into the feature and a few minutes into GRETTA, and almost fifty minutes before he starts talking about NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (of which he has very little specific to say). He instead discusses his relationships with the extremely predatory hucksterism of Yordan (who had established a studio in a Mormon clapboard church), tempestuous editor Gene Ruggerio (who had been editing in Hollywood since the forties), and what he learned from music editor Ralph Ives (WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN). The projects they worked on were less memorable or him (downright “shitty”) than the experience of working with these classic Hollywood “characters” and the stories they told him about other “characters”.
The second track is a typically humorous affair (well some jibes between the commentators fall a little flat) from the podcasters of The Hysteria Continues (previously featured on Vinegar Syndrome’s aborted release of SAVAGE WATER/DEATH BY INVITATION, as well as the reissue of DEATH BY INVITATION with the DUNGEON OF HARROW). It is also the more informative track with regards to the film, as participants have seen the film and the individual films and make more scene-specific observations than Schlossberg-Cohen. At least one of them has seen all three versions of HARRY and points out that episode’s doubling of Moll for the gore and sex inserts (which do not appear in MARILYN ALIVE AND BEHIND BARS, while some nude shots seem to have been shot in alternate clothed takes as well). They also point out the aforementioned material reshot for GRETTA and CLAIRE including the non-gore/special effects inserts and draws some other connections between the three films that had eluded me.
As with their combos of PUNK VACATION and GOODBYE MISS WYCKOFF, the DVD side of this package also includes a bonus feature film: in this case, the aforementioned full version of the GRETTA story. While that film was released – as mentioned above – as DEATH WISH CLUB and CARNIVAL OF FOOLS, the onscreen title here is indeed GRETTA – actually “Erskine Caldwell’s GRETTA” – and it is preceded by a presentation card for “Television Corporation of America” (the same company behind the Utah-lensed HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES). Although anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), the source is a 1” tape master that appears to be all that survives of the full cut (apart from the VHS releases). Apart from the some specs and scratches here and there, the presentation looks quite good for a digitized analog source. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is problem-free.
The film is accompanied by a thirty-minute telephone interview with assistant editor Wayne Schmidt (who had long ago written a letter to Video Watchdog elucidating NIGHT TRAIN’s troubled history) also conducted by Rubin. Schmidt got into filmmaking through his friendship with editor Steve Nielson who had worked with Charles Band on LASERBLAST. Through Nielson, he was able to pitch Band what became THE DAY TIME ENDED which Schmidt would end up writing and producing. Neill became involved with Yordan and brought Schmidt in to work as an assistant editor on HARRY. While he worked on editing HARRY, he recalls that there were two more waves of shooting for GRETTA that included the addition of comic relief in the form of a Jewish couple who listen in on Glen’s bedroom antics with Gretta and later Helen, as well as the bookending carnival footage (Rubin mentions that the pre-credits introduction of Youngmeyer was not present in the VHS versions). Rubin also asks Schmidt about some of Yordan’s other Utah films including the Schlossberg-Cohen directed “Bigfoot” film CRY WILDERNESS and the odd thriller BLOODY WEDNESDAY, while Schmidt in turn asks Rubin for the details of Carr’s aforementioned MARILYN ALIVE AND BEHIND BARS. Rubin also tells Schmidt (and us) that the only negatives available for NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR are solely for the new footage – hence the mastering of the Blu-ray and DVD from a 35mm print – and that the negatives and interpositives for GRETTA and HARRY may be lost because they were chopped up for integration into NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (Rubin points out that Carr’s director’s credit can be seen fading out over the opening shot of the Gretta’s story in the film). NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR might not be the best film Vinegar Syndrome has released, but the total package is yet another example of their true dedication to the films and their fans. (Eric Cotenas)
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