The horror anthology movie has been a staple of the genre for as long as there has been a genre, finding its beginnings with films like Waxworks in the silent era. The trend continues to this day, with successful franchises such as V/H/S and The ABCs of Death carrying the torch. Anthology films may have hit their heyday in the seventies with classics like Asylum, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror, but their popularity carried over well into the eighties with movies such as Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and countless others. One of those countless others was 1985’s Night Train to Terror.
Night Train to Terror is, predictably, set on a train. The train is packed with partying passengers, including a break-dancing new-wave band and their entourage. Also on the train happens to be God (Ferdy Mayne from Frightmare and The Fearless Vampire Killers) and Satan (Foxy Brown’s Tony Giorgio), because the train is destined to derail along the way, killing everyone on board. God and Satan sort through the passengers, arguing over which of them will take each person’s soul. First, they go over “The Case of Harry Billings,” about a man named Harry (Barbarella’s John Phillip Law) who is committed to a mental institution and given a drug that puts him under the psychic control of the doctors. Harry is used by his captors to kidnap people for the hospital to torture, kill, and eventually become cadavers for the hospital to sell to medical schools. Next, God and Satan review “The Case of Gretta Connors,” the story of a man named Glenn Marshall (Rick Barnes in his only role) who meets a young musician, the titular Gretta (Merideth Haze, also in her only screen appearance), who is involved in a pornography ring with a creep named George Youngmeyer (J. Martin Sellers, yet another one-timer). When Gretta falls for Glenn, George introduces Glenn to the Death Club – a group of people who get their kicks playing games that flirt with death – with the hopes that Glenn will be killed. Finally, there is “The Case of Claire Hansen,” the tale of a demonic man named Mr. Olivier (Hanger 18’s Robert Bristol) who, despite being thousands of years old, does not look a day over thirty. Dr. James Hansen (Richard Moll from “Night Court,” who also plays a bit part in the “Harry Billings” segment) is an author who has made his name writing books disproving the existence of God and Satan, but his wife, Claire (Deathwork’s Faith Clift), is a true believer who is recruited to do supernatural battle with Mr. Olivier over the fate of the Earth. God and Satan discuss and debate each soul, right up until the eventual and inevitable train crash.
There is quite a story behind Night Train to Terror. The different segments were all culled together from different feature-length movies, all written by Philip Yordan (The Day of the Triffids). “The Case of Harry Billings” was put together from an unfinished film directed by John Carr (The Talisman) called Scream Your Head Off which was later completed and released as Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars. “The Case of Gretta Connors was pared down from another John Carr movie called The Dark Side to Love (also known as Death Wish Club and Carnival of Fools). Finally, “The Case of Claire Hansen” was edited together from a film called Cataclysm (also called Satan’s Supper and The Nightmare Never Ends) that was directed by Phillip Marshak (Dracula Sucks), Tom McGowan (Manhunt in the Jungle), and Greg Tallas (Prehistoric Women). Because the sequences all came from different movies (and different directors), there’s a noticeable difference in quality amongst the stories – Harry Billings’ story is easily the best, while Claire Hansen’s is confusing and convoluted. The dreamlike, silly wraparound segment, directed by Jay Schlossberg-Cohen (Cry Wilderness), almost solves the continuity problem by being absolutely surreal itself; the hilarity of the band’s performance and their fans’ dancing provides a stark contrast to the serious discussions taking place between God and Satan. The segments on the train make Night Train to Terror feel almost like a coherent film.
Because Night Train to Terror is made up of truncated portions of longer films, the segments leave holes in the narration. The film solves this problem by including voiceover narration, provided by the Night Porter of the train as he explains parts of the stories to God and Satan. This narration is both necessary and distracting; it moves the story along by filling in the holes, yet the voiceover will often drown out the dialogue (or replace it entirely), leaving the viewer struggling a bit while trying to figure things out. The spoken word becomes a Band-Aid; it’s a symptom of the disjointed and non-continuous editing that comes as a result of compacting three films into one. The voiceover narration puts a common thread through the different sections of Night Train to Terror, helping to tie it together into a single vision.
For all of the inconsistency between the segments, the one element of Night Train to Terror that is constantly fun is the visual effects. The effects are nothing groundbreaking, and some of them aren’t even very well done, but they all have the spirit and camp to go along with the rest of the film. There are plenty of practical gore effects, provided by special effects artist Richard N. McGuire (who contributed blood and guts to Silent Night, Deadly Night and Re-Animator). There are also a fair share of cool monsters, courtesy of puppeteer Bill Hedge (Alien3, Piranha). The real fun, however, comes during the film’s stop-motion Claymation scenes that were put together by William R. Stromberg (The Crater Lake Monster) and Anthony Doublin (Carnosaur); the animation is a throwback to the techniques of Ray Harryhausen, but done so poorly that it kills any suspension of disbelief – there’s nothing real looking about it. By the end of the film, the audience is let in on the joke when the train derailment is actually shown; it is an obvious toy locomotive being shaken off the tracks mixed with stock footage of fire and explosions, accompanied by sound effects of a real train. The entire film is an exercise in camp, and the visual effects are par for the course. In the context of Night Train to Terror, the cheap effects look perfect.
The music for Night Train to Terror is just as schizophrenic as one would expect. Of course, the incidental music was written by many different composers, depending on the segment – Eddy Lawrence Mason (Tiger Town) for the Harry Billings section, Jaime Mendoza-Nava (The Town that Dreaded Sundown, The Legend of Boggy Creek) for the Gretta Connors, and Casey Young (Rocky IV) and Steve Yeaman (Apartment 1303) for the Claire Hansen. The music is a mixed bag of eighties cinema synth scores, all hilariously typical but awesome at the same time. The real musical star of the film, however, is the song that the band is constantly playing during the train segments. It’s a new-wave/dance number written by songwriter Charlene Brown called “Everybody But You.” The number, sung by Joe Turano (who contributed vocals to Disney’s The Little Mermaid), is insanely catchy. No matter what music the viewer hears during the segments, the “Dance with me! Dance with me!” refrain of the song’s chorus that the kids lip-sync their way through during the train wraparound is what sticks in the audience’s collective head. It would be annoying, if it weren’t so much fun – but, that could be said of the entirety of Night Train to Terror.
Anthology horror films are a dime a dozen. They’re popular, so new entries into the subgenre are being made every year. The ones that are remembered fondly are the ones that are either really good or really strange. Night Train to Terror is definitely in the latter category.