October 23, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 5.11.15 PM

Every Halloween, what’s old is made new again as Hollywood pumps out horror franchise sequels (Paranormal Activity 4, Silent Hill 2) and re-packages their money-making library scare flicks. The major home video release this season is the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection set, which includes HD upgrades of eight of that studio’s classic creature features. But along with that big ticket item are some smaller cult curiosities that merit closer attention. Shout! Factory licensed  Terror Train (1980) and The Funhouse (1981) from Universal for their Scream Factory imprint, and put them out on well-appointed Blu-Ray editions last week. Both films were relatively cheap affairs set out to capitalize on the slasher box office boom initiated by Halloween, but manage to wring visual and thematic interest out of the venerable psycho killer and inbred freak genres.

In the early 1970s Roger Spottiswoode had become the favored editor for Sam Peckinpah’s slow-motion farragos (on Straw Dogs, The Getaway and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), and was later brought on as a kind of “editor doctor” to various troubled productions. Sandy Howard was one of the producers who hired him for such surgery, and later remembering the favor, hired Spottiswoode for his directorial debut on Terror Train. Spottiswoode recalled that he was initially asked to write the script and refused, only to discover that his name was included on promo material anyway. Howard wanted the film to be a Canadian production, presumably hoping to get state funding, and Spottiswoode was born in Ottawa. Then, Spottiswood says, “I pointed out to Sandy that this really wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t take someone else’s writing credit. It wouldn’t work. So my name came off it and he said, “Why don’t you direct it?” And I thought, well, this I might do…”

It was a seat-of-the-pants kind of operation, as Spottiswoode reworked the script by T.Y. Hilton into a shape he could live with before starting on the 25-day shoot. The key was to get another Jamie Lee Curtis slasher film onto screens before the fad kicked off by Halloween (1978) had passed, and the harried nature of the project shows in its clunky exposition and flat performances. The college guys are interchangeable lugs, while the estimable Ben Johnson (Wagon Master) dutifully cashes a paycheck as the genial engineer. Jamie Lee plays Alana, a popular college co-ed whose boyfriend holds a raucous New Year’s Eve party aboard a train. One by one her pals (and a magician played by a helmet-haired David Copperfield) get picked off by a masked psycho. There is no mystery as to killer’s identity, as his backstory is revealed in the opening scene, of a pencil-necked nerd who gets brutally hazed by a gaggle of frat brothers.

What makes Terror Train watchable is the low-light cinematography of John Alcott, who had just come off an incredible series of collaborations with Stanley Kubrick. He began as an assistant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and became a cameraman on A Clockwork Orange (1971) before being promoted to director of photography on Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980). Instead of a light meter, Alcott just watched the light reflect off of his hand before determining the f stops of his cameras. Spottiswoode recalled to the Terror Trap:

I was proud to meet him but frankly, I wondered why he would want to do Terror Train. So I met with John and I asked him. I said, “Look, I’ve got twenty-five days to shoot this. I’m going have to shoot thirty set-ups a day. I’m gonna have to go like the wind. And he responded, “Well, Roger, if you can shoot thirty set-ups a day, you’ll make me a very happy man. I’m not used to that. On The Shining, I did ONE set-up a day.” It was the same with Barry Lyndon. It was often one or two set-ups a day and he thought it was boring! “I adore Stanley,” he said, “but thirty set-ups a day means a lot of fun for me.” (Laughs.)

Alcott’s work on Terror Train is kind of Lyndon by nite-light instead of that film’s famous candle light. The cabin interiors are quite dark, but instead of the warm flicker of lit wicks, the figures are etched in by the warm ceiling lights which Aclott had electricians install, while he highlighted eyes with pen lights he would shine himself. The movie is all edges of bodies and dumbstruck pupils, creating the feel of eternal night.

Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse is a more complete film, with a witty screenplay from Lawrence Block (not the great crime fiction writer), the hot colors of DP Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors) and the classical slow-burn tension that Hooper elicits from his balanced widescreen frame. Where the opening of Terror Train dispenses with backstory, The Funhouse sets up a whole world of resentments. An homage to Psycho, Hooper re-stages that film’s famous shower scene as a psycho-drama between brother and sister. Universal horror fiend Joey (Shawn Carson), whose poster of Frankenstein crowns his bedroom, stalks his older sister Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) into the bathroom, and gives her the fright of her life with a rubber machete. This frightful joke, set up with POV tracking shots through a suburban hallway, is the rehearsal for the horrors to come, as the monsters on Joey’s wall manifest themselves at the local carnival, where Amy goes on a double date with her pot-smoking pals.

Amy wants escape from the ‘burbs, from her creepy brother and her boozy, inattentive mother, who is half in the bag for the entire feature. Instead of Jamie Lee’s blank slate in Terror Train, Amy has a fully sketched out life, one in which her urge for adventure and escape becomes sadly believable. Hooper had an entire working carnival built in Florida, on the old set of the Flipper TV show, so he could display the event’s shabby glory in full with the help of a 150-foot crane, which provides vertiginous shots of the seedy bacchanal. The parade of hammy grotesque includes a gloriously debased turn from Sylvia Miles as a fake-Gypsy fortune teller who rasps at her callow teen clients and offers rough sexual favors on the side. The creepiest carnies though, are embodied by Kevin Conway’s gloriously skin-crawling performances as three different carnival barkers. They are all varieties of desiccated perverts, whose lascivious lowered-eye stares don’t make your skin crawl as much as gallop.

It’s his Funhouse barker though, who emerges as the bogeyman, a drunken abusive father, whose malformed son is forced to wear a Frankenstein mask while operating the ride. Behind the mask is one of makeup artist Rick Baker’s great creations, of what looks like a predatory naked mole rat with a deviated septum. But as with Frankenstein’s monster, it is the master has unleashed evil, not his benighted creature. Prodded and cajoled into a life of abject misery, the son’s violent actions are those of a wild animal absent of any human traces. This unbalanced freak’s connection to Joey is unsettling, as both are seemingly sociopathic boys with absent parents (Joey easily sneaks out to the carnival alone), yet only Joey has the face of a human, easier to blend in with the rest of polite society, continuing the cycles of neglect and reprisal.


September 22, 2009


Two horse traders straddle a wooden gate in a stationary medium shot. The boyish one, Sandy (Harry Carey, Jr.) doffs his hat in an exaggerated curtsy to the passing Mormon travelers. The ruddy-faced Prudence (Kathleen O’Malley) peeks back nervously from her cart, embarrassed to display her interest in the cute stranger. Sandy whoops it up even more in response, waving his cap with adolescent bravado. He turns to fence-mate Travis (Ben Johnson), lamenting the fate of “all those women and children” making the journey across the desert towards the San Juan river. Travis gibes, “yeah, and that red-headed gal” too.  After the wagons recede into the distance in a painterly long-shot composition lensed by DP Bert Glennon, Sandy turns to Travis and starts singing: I left my gal in old Virginny. And Travis finishes the phrase, fall in line on the wagon train. Without further deliberation (aside from another verse), he tells Sandy, “looks like we got a job.”

It’s no surprise it took this long for Wagon Master to appear on DVD. It contains no stars, and the entire film proceeds on this soft-spoken, economically paced path. But thankfully Warner Brothers brought out this sublime piece of Fordian drama last week, in a stunning transfer that includes an anecdote-rich audio commentary with Peter Bogdanovich, Harry Carey, Jr., and an early sixties interview with Ford himself.


In the simple scene I described, John Ford compresses the story material, Sandy and Travis decide to lead a Mormon wagon train, into a ballet of gestures and emotions. He turns a basic scene of exposition into an expression of character: Sandy is impulsive and sentimental, Travis is contemplative and decisive. He conveys this through the twirl of Sandy’s hat, the curl on Travis’ upper lip, and the ease in which they fall into song. It’s an adventure they cannot pass up, for the moral reasons Sandy sets forth, but also for the pure romance of the journey. When Glennon returns to the shot of the wagons receding into the distance, Johnson’s horse races parallel to the fence towards the vanishing point, the plot effortlessly moving forward.

On the audio commentary, Harry Carey, Jr. notes that John Ford was in a great mood during the shoot. So good he thought he might be ill (he was not known for his cheery disposition). Perhaps feeling a little more freedom on this low-budget outing, he made the production a family affair, as biographer Joseph McBride has helpfully noted. He gave his brother Francis, a silent star, a role as a mute drummer, the script was co-written by his son Patrick, his daughter Patricia was the assistant editor, “and the assistant directors included his brother Eddie O’ Fearna, brother-in-law Wingate Smith, and nephew Francis Ford, Jr.”

The mood is laid-back charm and casual mastery. This starts, of course, with Ford’s eye for the landscape of Moab, Utah, but it seeps into the performances of Ben Johnson and Carey, Jr., who were both ace horse riders. Johnson caught Ford’s eye as Henry Fonda’s stunt-man on the set of Fort Apache, McBride relates, when he saved three actors in a munitions wagon from being dragged by spooked horses into a “sheer rock wall.” Ford rewarded him with a seven-year contract. Johnson repays him with a performance in Wagon Master of refined nonchalance, as if he were silently etched out of the Utah landscape by sandstorms, and wasn’t set into motion until Ford and Glennon’s cameras started rolling. This gritty reserve is beautifully played off of Carey Jr.’s aw shucks bashfulness. Ward Bond provides the comic relief as Elder, the hot-headed Mormon always on the verge of cursing and eyed by his own elder, a silently admonitoryAdam Perkins (the extraordinary visage of Russell Simpson). This, as McBride suggests, could have been a subtle jibe by Ford at Bond’s support of the House Un-American Activities committe, which Bond was enthusiastically endorsing at the time. In casting him as a man persecuted and expelled from society because of his ideology, Ford must have been aware of the satiric parallel.

But as much as Ford could ease out the natural humor and personality of his performers, his overriding concern is always that of the community, and Wagon Master is probably his purest statement on the matter. It’s at least the favorite of his films, as the director stated many times. Sandy and Travis become the unlikely leaders of a group of outcasts, all rejected by some facet of society. The two horse traders are derided for their shady profession, while the Mormon’s are being kicked out of town because of their faith. Along the way, the wagon train picks up a trio of drunken medicine show performers, and has a run-in with a sympathetic group of Navajos, who consider Mormons to be lesser thieves than the regular run of white men. Ford envisions this traveling society through his favorite means: the ceremonial dance. He stages two versions – the first a Mormon hoedown, which depicts Carey’s continuing flirtation with Prudence and Travis’ nascent pursuit of Denver (Joanne Dru), the medicine show girl. The beat is kept by a wooden leg, and the group joyously unites in a twirling show of arms, legs, and hopes of utopia. The second is set in the Navajo camp, another circle dance that shocks the straight-laced Mormon women, but which Sandy is enthusiastically joins. These two sequences, along with the music of the Sons of the Pioneers that weave throughout the film (and are occasionally sung by the characters themselves, make the film a kind of “horse opera”, as Tag Gallagher playfully mentions in his critical study John Ford: The Man and his Films.

This is a film where the plot takes a backseat to gesture, landscape, and character. There is a conflict and a resolution, ably provided by Charles Kemper as the huffing and puffing Uncle Clegg, leader of a family of thieves, but it’s handled so swiftly and without emphasis it’s obvious Ford’s concerns are elsewhere. He’s focused on the manner in which Ben Johnson whittles a stick of wood, Joanne Dru stares from the back of a wagon, or Harry Carey twirls his hat. After watching Wagon Master for the first time, you’ll consider it minor, a trifle of Western whimsy. Then images will linger in your mind, and you’ll wonder why. It’s a mastery that sneaks up on you, that speaks quietly and calmly about a world within our reach. The image that stuck with me this time is Ford pushing in slowly on Joanne Dru, after she rejected an oblique offer of marriage, reflectively smoking at the back of a wagon, weighing the value of her independence. Next time it will be something different, and, of course, something extraordinary.