Color, 1985, 93m.
Directed by Jay Schlossberg-Cohen
Starring John Phillip Law, Richard Moll, Ferdy Mayne, Lu Sifer, Byron Yordan, Cameron Mitchell, Marc Lawrence
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) and dozens of budget labels
Released during the last great gasp of regional indie theatrical horror films was a perplexing little horror anthology called Night Train to Terror, which moved around the United States in the mid-1980s with a different ad campaign and poster design popping up from one state to another. A few lucky territories even got it with a ridiculous hand-drawn poster (seemingly etched in charcoal and crayon by a grade schooler) depicting the train of the title speeding into a roaring demon mouth, something very different from the other genre fare at the time like A Nightmare on Elm Street. It wasn't until later when the film hit home video that horror fans finally sussed out what they'd actually been watching: three other films, one of them unreleased in any form, drastically cut down and reedited to fit the anthology format with a new framing device.
Of course, it's this unifying story that really flings the film over the top as it combines new wave musical numbers (well, one song over and over) with God and Satan (Mayne and "Lu Sifer," reportedly '70s action actor Tony Giorgio of Foxy Brown fame) having philosophical discussions over a glowing table. They're all aboard the titular train ("some call it the Heavenly Express... others call it Satan's Cannonball"), which is destined to crash in 90 minutes and our two supernatural passengers trying to sift out the fate of humanity before it's too late. That means they watch the three stories unfold through one of the train windows, which means it's time for a scrambled version of the never-completed Scream Your Head Off (later kind of released years later as Marilyn: Alive and Behind Bars.) John Phillip Law stars as Harry Billings, a guy who winds up getting extreme treatment at an asylum after he drives his bride off a bridge. It turns out he's entangled in a bizarre plot involving organ harvesting from naked women handled by a sadistic orderly (played by Night Court's Richard Moll), and it's up to Harry (and a very long sword) to save the day.
Next up after another brief song and dance interlude comes the best film of the bunch, 1984's Death Wish Club, aka Gretta and The Dark Side to Love. This one's about a girl named Gretta who wins the heart of a frat guy/wannabe doctor named Glen, while his rival George tries to get rid of him by initiating him into a secret group devoted to weird games of chicken with death. That involves electrocution and a big stop-motion flying insect, among other things, though most of the actual story wound up on the cutting room floor. What's left is mostly the strange and violent highlights, but more on that one in just a moment. Finally we have a condensed version of the gory 1980 film Cataclysm (also released on VHS and DVD as The Nightmare Never Ends), which revolves around a surgeon named Claire (married to a "Nobel Prize winner" played by, yes, Richard Moll again). She finds her skills put to the test when she and hubby are roped into a nefarious and wholly nonsensical scheme involving police detective Cameron Mitchell, eternally young Nazis, and Satan himself hanging out at a disco. Of course, we also get some closure for God, Satan, and the break dancers when the train reaches its otherworldly destination, which must be seen to be believed.
Released on VHS by Prism with the most professional artwork of the bunch (featuring a bloody knife in a train track), Night Train to Terror swiftly fell into the public domain and appeared with hilarious frequency on a countless number of bargain bin collections, all of them heavily compressed rips from that same videotape. Even in the shoddiest presentations it's a pretty astonishing film, never anywhere even close to good but so bizarre you can't turn away for a second. Thankfully you can see it on its best behavior, relatively speaking, in Vinegar Syndrome's dual-format release. The Blu-ray looks pretty remarkable, actually, in much better condition than the pretty cruddy prints circulating back in the '80s. Colors look great, the detail's pleasing, and none of it looks digitally manipulated to look too "modern." Obviously the source elements for each story vary a bit (the first is in the roughest condition, not surprisingly), but that's understandable. The DTS-HD mono sounds so clear you'll be humming "dance with me, dance with me" for hours after viewing.
In a laudable effort to untangle to weird story of how this film came into existence, this release also offers a truly fascinating audio commentary with Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, the closest thing this film has to a "director," who touches on how he became involved but spends most of the time covering his unusual showbiz career. It's a whirlwind tour through a bizarre roster of names ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to unknown string pullers in exploitation cinema, including some great tangents about writer/producer Philip Yordan (El Cid, King of Kings) who had a hand in pulling this whole crazy thing together and getting around the X rating it originally received from the MPAA (via a method similar to Basket Case). You can't make this stuff up. (The story about casting hot women in Salt Lake City is pretty priceless, too.) A second audio commentary is also included with the hilarious gang at The Hysteria Continues (returning from their gigs on Death by Invitation and Savage Water), which is much looser and goofier as they cover their favorite moments in the film, riff on '80s horror filmmaking, and cover some of the directors for the segments within the film, including luminaries from projects ranging from Born Free to Dracula Sucks. Included only on the DVD is the full version of the second story (billed as Erskine Caldwell's Gretta, clocking in at 91 minutes and featuring the prologue missing from most prints). It's sourced from a one-inch tape master and looks dated, of course, but it's easily the best (and most complete) presentation you're likely to find. It also has a half-hour audio interview with editor Wayne Schmidt, who talks about getting started with Charles Band and becoming involved with this and other projects into the 1990s. Easily a candidate for the most unlikely and deliriously deranged special edition of the year.
Reviewed on October 5, 2013.