An eccentric slice of cinematic cannibalism, as obscure and unfinished films are chopped, changed and rendered incoherent in a portmanteau of pointlessness.
God (Ferdy Mayne) and Satan (Tony Giorgio) are travelling together in the carriage of a Las Vegas-bound night train while a troupe of excitable Eighties youths prance around to their abhorrent non-hit Everybody But You (think Kenny Loggins attempting new wave). To relieve the boredom, the avuncular deity and his reptilian nemesis engage in philosophical discussion and mull over the afterlife options of the subjects in three ‘case studies’ as cinematically presented through the window of their carriage. E Voila! An appropriately bizarre framing device for a trio of tales culled from three other movies – two unloved obscurities and an unfinished project – all heavily edited to fit the anthology format. A unique strategy, clearly designed to make a fast buck with minimal outlay. Of course, it doesn’t take a hardcore cinephile to tell you that hacking-off an hour of a film’s running time and splicing together the leftovers will give… errm.. unorthodox results, particularly when the original films are already decidedly offbeat in their right and the gore quotient has been boosted by the addition of newly-filmed special effects.
The first sinner for appraisal is Harry Billings (John Philip Law) who, following a serious car crash, finds himself in a sinister medical facility where he’s pumped with a mind-controlling serum and sent out to charm, sedate, and abduct young women. On regaining consciousness, the semi-clad girls are molested and terrorised by a thuggish orderly (Richard Moll) before being eviscerated to provide stock for an international organ harvesting enterprise (cue a rapid-fire succession of lurid scenes chockfull of nipples, bad hairdos, rubber body parts, and relentless screaming). All goes swimmingly until head honcho Dr Fargo (Sharon Ratcliff) starts to fall for Harry whose moral conscience inconveniently resurfaces as the drug begins to wear off.
What begins as surprisingly intense – if incoherent – Grand Guignol eventually degenerates into a hilarious broad farce. The undoubted highlight comes when a freshly-lobotomised surgeon returns to the operating theatre as a mumbling imbecile eager to perform some unwarranted, cack-handed brain surgery on his former colleague. There’s also a startling decapitation denouement that oozes a crowd-pleasing, early eighties video nasty charm – half-convincing prosthetics and torrents of unctuous stage blood.
Grim, grungy but leavened with much unintentional humour, Harry’s tale makes for an amusingly demented opener. In 1992, the original source material was apparently used to produce a full-length feature that somehow managed to crowbar Marilyn Monroe into the tawdry proceedings! Ahh, the wonderful world of exploitation cinema.
After another snippet of Everybody But You, God and Satan consider the case of Gretta (Merideth Haze), a slutty fairground worker who becomes the love object/ musical protégé of George Youngmeyer (J Martin Sellers), a wealthy middle-aged oddball. Soon enough, Gretta begins a romantic liaison with a much younger man whose interest was initially piqued while watching her perform in a porno loop (!). The story then takes a severe left-turn as Youngmeyer inducts the pair into a bizarre social club where thrill-seeking patrons play variations on Russian Roulette involving, in turn, a venomous insect (brought to life by creaky stop-motion animation), an electric chair, and a suspended-wrecking- ball contraption straight out of a sixties Batman caper. The gory pay-offs that close each sequence are pleasingly garish, especially the megavolt execution in which the actor is craftily replaced by a ridiculously toothy mannequin whose latex eyeballs explode spectacularly as the wattage reaches max.
The Gretta segment seems to be based in some alternate universe where conventional moral values have been skewed and characters’ real motivations remain worryingly ambiguous. The story has a dreamlike ambience – the kind of a dream a drunk depressive might have after nodding-off watching a 1981 TV movie matinee. It’s too absurd to work as a pure horror film but certainly strange enough to unsettle and linger in the memory. Much of that uneasiness comes from the central character – a sexually-charged vixen with a simmering psychosis lurking behind those come-and-get-me eyes. It’s a shame that Haze would never grace the silver screen again. She has an intoxicating charisma here – sexy, mischievous, mysterious, and, perhaps, dangerous. Thankfully, you can see a lot more of her on Vinegar Syndrome’s blu-ray as the full version of the 1983 film (aka Death Wish Club and Carnival Of Fools) is included as a bonus feature. Even without the riotous, special effect inserts, the film stands-up as an intriguingly peculiar and sleazy love- triangle melodrama with Gretta even crossing the gender line for a proportion of the running time!
After yet another blast of that song (this time with added break-dancing), we’re into the final story – a cut-down version of 1980’s Cataclysm. Older UK readers may remember the oh-so-tasteful swastika/stabbing frenzy illustration on the pre-cert VHS box but could be excused for forgetting the convoluted, rambling occult thriller contained within. James (Moll, again) is a late Seventies Richard Dawkins promoting his latest philosophical masterpiece – God Is Dead. For unclear reasons, his atheist stance greatly irritates demonic playboy – and immortal SS officer – Olivier (Robert Bristol). The evil pretty-boy then spends most of the running time attempting to convince the amusingly starchy writer that, while God may be dead, the Devil still has mankind squeezed tight in his sweaty clutches. Luckily, James’ wife Dr Claire Hanson (Faith Clift) doesn’t share her husband’s cynicism and sets out to destroy Olivier using an ancient Catholic rite and her brilliant heart-surgery prowess. The climax, suffice to say, is quite messy.
Rather turgid yet intermittently engaging in its original form, Cataclysm is given considerably more punch in this digest version. It’s still rather talky in places though some of the dialogue is quite entertaining – particularly James’ stiff, stentorian TV presentation (“Some of you may even hate me…”). Of the three tales, this is the most cinematic and slickly-produced; gel-lighting, elaborate sets, and artsy compositions give certain scenes a strong visual impact that the material probably doesn’t deserve. Closely competing with some incredible disco-dancing by a white tuxedo-clad extra, the highlights of the film come courtesy of yet more wacky stop-motion animation. Where the original Cataclysm would leave a character’s fate hanging in the air, new inserted footage depicts their plasticine effigies being tossed around or flung onto lolly-stick crucifixes by gigantic red-eyed demons. Even back in the pre-CGI days of the mid-Eighties, this would’ve had them rolling in the aisles.
Certainly the weirdest horror anthology of the 1980s, Night Train To Terror is essential viewing for the connoisseur of surreal low-budget kitsch. Just don’t blame me if that song penetrates your subconscious so deeply that every future waking moment – including your mother’s funeral – is mentally soundtracked with “come on and dance with me, dance with me, come on and dance with me, everybody’s got something to do, everybody but you….”. Such is the power of bad pop music.
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