Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Death Train, The (1978) (TV)

... aka: Death Train
... aka: Der Geisterzug von Clematis (The Ghost of Clematis)
... aka: El tren asesino (The Killer Train)
... aka: El tren de la muerte
... aka: Ghost Train of Clematis

Directed by:
Igor Auzins

While on his way home after work, elderly Herbert Cook's (Colin Taylor) car breaks down, forcing him to make the rest of the trip by foot. While walking through his own yard, he has a fatal run-in with something strange, bright and loud. That something sounds exactly like a train, accompanied by the sounds of train wheels barreling down a track and even the familiar train whistle... yet Herbert wasn't walking on train tracks when he was struck down. Herbie's domesticated hubby (yes, hubby), John Loomis (Max Meldrum), goes outside to investigate a similar train noise and finds his partner's shredded and bloody body lying on the ground. Three months later, insurance investigator Ted Morrow (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is sent to the same small town - Clematis - where the death occurred to investigate matters. His job is to ascertain Herbert's cause of death so that John - the beneficiary of Herbert's life insurance policy - can collect his 100 thousand dollars. The main issue for Morrow to clear up is that Herbert's cause of death has been documented as a train accident and yet the nearest set of train tracks are 50 miles away.

The backwoods town of Clematis has such a bad reputation that a bus driver refuses to go anywhere near it and drops Morrow off five miles from town. Thankfully, a cute, flirty, carefree hippie girl - Vera (Ingrid Mason, from Picnic at Hanging Rock) - also happens to be passing through the area and agrees to give him a lift. After Vera drops him off, Morrow is met with leering eyes from the odd townspeople. An old man and a playground full of children seem to vanishing in the blink of an eye and, at an empty saloon, dozens of people who weren't there a few seconds earlier suddenly materialize just as quickly. Strange notes are all over the place from people who aren't where they should be. Nobody in Clematis appears to be normal and its citizens range from aloof and flaky to inhumanly happy to to rude and inhospitable. They do have one thing in common, though: their love for and obsession with money.

Before Morrow is even able to make any headway in his investigation, a bitchy hotel clerk (Aileen Britton), a car rental agent and a taxi driver (Terry Camilleri) are trying to dig deep into his pockets any way they can. And the local police are every bit as rude and shady as the everyone else, though stuffy Sergeant 'Mac' McMasters (Ken Goodlet) eventually does start to warm to our hero. Still, a private detective's gotta do what he's gotta do, so Morrow goes about his business. He meets John and gets a door slammed in his face, but persistence pays off and soon he's sharing a carrot juice with the eccentric old man, who tells him a story about a ghost that supposedly haunts his land. Many years earlier, an engine driver was married to a beautiful but unfaithful woman who started having an affair with the station master. Because of the wife's refusal to leave her husband, the station master murdered the driver in a fit of rage and then took the newly-widowed woman as his bride. Ever since then, the area has been haunted by the engine driver, who sweeps through in his ghost train hoping to wipe out the station master and all his descendants. That includes a grandson; Herbert,

Despite how this was marketed and how it's categorized various places online, this isn't a horror flick so much as a lightweight, kooky mystery with supernatural elements and a boatload of eccentric, unpredictable characters. There's a lot of comedy in here; much more than I was expecting actually. Much of the time is spent with Morrow going around town interviewing various bizarre people, including John's senile neighbor (Geraldine Ward), a doctor (Ron Haddrick) who loves going into gory detail about the shape of the dead man's body, an always-chipper construction company boss (played by Brian Wenzel) who was a friend of the gay couple's and numerous others. In other words, this follows Morrow in a series of mostly-comic adventures as he tries to determine how Herbert died and who - if anyone - may be responsible. This film does include some genre elements, including the opening murder, a seance with use of a Ouija board, a spooky Theremin score, a nightmare sequence where Morrow is chased by a bulldozer and, of course, the very possibility of the ghost train. Still, don't expect too much in the way of horror in this one.

The good news is that this is an extremely enjoyable little movie that refuses to pigeonhole itself. The writing (by José Luis Bayonas) is sharp, the characters are likable and oddly charming, the cast (particularly Keays-Byrne and Meldrum) is wonderful and there are some very funny moments scattered throughout. While they go a bit overboard trying to make nearly every character a quirky weird-o, they at least manage to get lots of laughs from the various encounters the investigator has with these people, so it all works in the end. The mystery itself, which treats the supernatural elements rather matter-of-factly, is also fairly enjoyable and well-structured. Alan Tew's "The Big One" (which would later be slightly reworked and become the famous theme song for "The People's Court") plays during one key scene.

The American release of this Aussie TV movie came in 1984 with a VHS distributed by Paragon Video Production and the film has sadly never been revived since. In played on television in Germany - under the title Der Geisterzug von Clematis ("The Ghost of Clematis") - and in Spanish-speaking countries as either El tren asesino or El tren de la muerte. Director Auzins made another genre TV movie, The Night Nurse (1978), the same year. It was also distributed in the U.S. by Paragon.


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