From the very beginning of cinematic history, there have been movies about trains. One of the first “Actualitiés” by the Lumiére Brothers in 1895 was Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat. In 1903, filmmaker Edwin S. Porter introduced the world to composite editing and location shooting with The Great Train Robbery. The horror world has given audiences Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and the seminal slasher Terror Train, as well as modern classics like Snowpiercer and Transsiberian. And that’s just the tip of the symbolic iceberg – there have been plenty more, lesser-known train horror movies. For example, in 1941, after Porter but before Hitchcock, a horrifying locomotive pulled into the station in the appropriately titled The Ghost Train.
The Ghost Train is about a group of travelers who end up stranded at an isolated train station during a torrential downpour for a night. While there, they are told the legend of an old stationmaster named Ted Holmes who died from a heart attack and, therefore, was unable to close a bridge, thus causing a train to derail into a river forty-three years earlier. A phantom train is said to careen past the station periodically, causing everyone who looks upon it to die. The group awaits the arrival of the ghost train that may or may not show up, wondering who will be brave enough to look, and what will happen to them if they do.
Based on the play of the same name by Arnold Ridley, the screenplay for The Ghost Train was written by J.O.C. Orton with dialogue provided by Marriott Edgar and Val Guest, the same trio who wrote Hi Gang! and The Frozen Limits. It is actually the second adaptation of the oft-filmed play by director Walter Forde (Rome Express); the first was ten years earlier, in 1931, but all surviving copies of that version are incomplete, so it is largely considered to be a lost film. The film is divided neatly into three parts, with the first act providing mostly comedy (and a scene that was copped by Richard Lester for the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night), while the second act dishes out the spooky campfire expositional aspects, and, finally, the third act turns into a whodunit of sorts, full of mystery and intrigue. That may sound schizophrenic, but The Ghost Train is a very coherent movie. And an entertaining one, too.
So, because it is based on a play, The Ghost Train is a very economic production. The simple approach to storytelling has a very minimalistic feel, but there’s enough atmosphere to keep things cinematic. The script is very smart, making plenty of literary and pop culture references, quoting and name-dropping everything from Shakespeare and Dickens to Charlie Chan and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. For a simple ghost story, The Ghost Train is surprisingly intelligent.
Where this version of The Ghost Train strays from the original source material is in the treatment of a character named Tommy Gander. Gander is a comic entertainer, and he is constantly performing his act, even to the point of annoying his fellow travelers. The comedic sections of The Ghost Train are essentially vehicles for the actor who plays Gander, British comedian Arthur Askey (Band Waggon), to strut his stuff. There is no off button on Askey, as he spends the entire movie as if he was appearing in a vaudeville show, cracking jokes, doing impressions, and performing slapstick routines – he even breaks into song at one point, belting out a time-killing tune to the consternation of his unwilling companions. As irritated as the other passengers get with him, Askey’s Tommy Gander is entertaining, so his fellow characters’ loss is the audience’s gain – Askey is a lot of fun.
As magnetic as Arthur Askey’s personality is, he is not the only member of the cast; there’s a substantial ensemble at the core of The Ghost Train. Stuart Latham (The Man in the White Suit) and Betty Jardine (A Canterbury Tale) appear as a young engaged couple. Peter Murray-Hill (House of Mystery) plays a batsman for the English Cricket Team, and Carole Lynne (Asking for Trouble) plays his wife. The passenger group is rounded out by Richard Murdoch (The Terror), Kathleen Harrison (The Ghoul), and Morland Graham (Tower of Terror), and all of them are joined by a mysterious couple who shows up out of nowhere (portrayed by Children of the Fog’s Linden Travers and The Mummy’s Raymond Huntley). The credits are completed by Herbert Lomas (The Ghost Goes West) in the role of the stationmaster. It’s crowded in that station, but there’s a lot of talented folks included in the cast of The Ghost Train.
From a technical standpoint, The Ghost Train looks great. It was shot by cinematographer Jack Cox, who did many of Hitchcock’s early British movies like The Ring, Murder!, and The Lady Vanishes, so it’s got just the right amount of detail and depth within the shadows and fog. Walter Forde was able to salvage some train accident footage from his 1931 version of the movie, and although the miniature model crash-ups look good, they’re a little out of place when juxtaposed with Cox’s artistry. Still, for what is basically a glorified filming of a theatrical play, the photography in The Ghost Train is on-point.
Between television and cinemas, The Ghost Train has been adapted for screens somewhere around a dozen times over the years. Thanks to a combination of its elegant simplicity and its naïve charm, Walter Forde’s 1941 version remains the best known.