October 23, 2012

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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.