Wednesday 1 May 2013

Train to Hell (maybe 1993, but let's say 1998)

...featuring Malcolm McDowell as 'STRANGER'
First things first.  This is a 98-minute film called 'Night Train to Venice', except that the version I saw was only about 70 minutes long, and was entitled 'Train to Hell', and seems to be a shortened, retitled version of the original.  Wikipedia claims it came out in 1996, or possibly 1992, and Amazon says 1993, and the laserdisc thinks it was 1994, while IMDB suggests its original German release was 1995, and its appearance at Cannes was 1996.  Given the nature of my blog's project, I'd be very glad of any pointers on this.  Anyway It's an English-language German film with an Italian director, set in Venice.

It stars Malcolm McDowell and a young, not-yet-famous Hugh Grant, and is beneath their dignity.  It also prominently features Rachel Rice, a child actress of average quality who went on to win Big Brother in 2008.  It's an attempt at gothic horror, and it sees Hugh Grant play a writer taking the Orient Express to Venice, carrying with him the manuscript of his expos√© of neo-Nazism.  However, the train also harbours a number of skinheads, and a nameless slow-motion man of malignity, the frowning STRANGER.

It looks to be a doomed romance, but turns out just to be a romance.
How disappointing.
There's the germ of a good and frightening story here: a writer smuggling his book on neo-nazis on a train full of 'em, and arriving in Venice to find that they own the publishing house he's travelled to visit.  Unfortunately, the skinheads are played rather extraordinarily, and not in a good way.  The STRANGER, that malign Englishman who spends the film looking at people and causing them to hallucinate flashbacks and flash-forwards, is the film's real villain.  Or is he?  He's hardly hands-on, and while he clearly has some influence over minds, and comes across as habitually sinister, he never actually does anything.  Nothing at all.  He seems to have some influence on a crash late in the film, but since it hinders the skinheads far more than the heroes, perhaps The STRANGER is not a satanic being, but a force for good, albeit one with the manners of a pervert.

So yes, since the villains hardly bother him on the train journey (thus making the film's first half less exciting than it might have been), Hugh Grant has ample time to fall into a fairly nineties romance with Vera (Tahnee Welch).  It has all the hallmarks of a doomed romance, and a tragedy all-round, with omens erroneously portending the death of Vera's simpering daughter and a great number of allusions to 'Romeo and Juliet' (1595).  The film seems, up to this point, keen to ape 'Don't Look Now' (a credible horror film from 1973, which I've always preferred to call 'Don't Look Now, Vicar!' as if it was instead a mildly saucy farce) - but doesn't deliver on the promise of its horror.  It's rather disappointing, in fact, that the film doesn't end with the promised bloodbath, but with a long being-in-love montage of an amnesiac Grant smiling, and Vera smiling, and her daughter smiling, and everyone being generally glad, and a pigeon flying over Venice, and some sex-having, and then some more smiling.  All this for two or three minutes over a not-wholly-tuneful love-song.  It's my hope, though research has not yet backed it up, that there exists a version of this film with a more gruesome conclusion.

Will the child fall off the balcony?  I guess so.
'Train to Hell' is one of a trio of DVDs which made an unexpected appearance through my letter-box on Monday.  I'd heard it spoken of, and Andrew, who had done the speaking, realised that the best way to make me watch it (and I watched it immediately) was to get it into my house.

So, why do I suppose he thought I should watch 'Train to Hell'?  Well, we both help out on a young people's holiday-camp each August where, among other things, we help the young people shoot and edit videos.  He knows my penchant for either saving or ruining un-extraordinary scenes with alarming editing techniques: slowing down reaction shots to 10% of their proper speed, say, or cutting in fragments of footage from the wrong scene to give the audience something unexpected.  Both of these techniques, which I had never dared to expect in a professional work, are used with tremendous frequency throughout 'Train to Hell', with McDowell's ominously-looking-at-things shots, which make up the large portion of his action, routinely stretched to two or four times their original length, and intercut with shots of dogs and low-budget Nazi rallies.

The STRANGER, again.  Looking on in slow motion, again.
Ought we to boo him, do you think?
I'm especially glad that some people are willing to recommend me films which are unusual and bad, or at least not conventionally good.  Quite a lot of ordinarily imaginative people have recommended me 'Metropolis' (1927), as if it really needs any recommendations at all, and I'm sure that when I get to it I'll find it easy to watch and easy to enjoy, but almost impossible to write about in a new or interesting way, since everybody knows it's epic, beautiful and magnificent.  But the mysterious 'Train to Hell'?  There's far more meat here for The Penciltonian.  Andrew has recommended the similarly questionable-looking 'Ninja Terminator' (1985), and I'm reminded of Opai's distressing recommendation of 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977).  Wouldn't this blog be tedious if I only looked at the stone-cold classics?

On the subject of tedium, let's return briefly to the issue of what year I'm attaching to 'Train to Hell'?  A great deal of googling has revealed no real authority on the issue, but I have a theory, which I've backed up with another look at the closing credits.  Here's my idea: 'Night Train to Venice' was made in 1993, as any later and Hugh Grant would have been too famous.  That's presumably the 98-minute version, and was released some time between 1993 and 1996.  However, since this retitled version, 'Train to Hell', is rather shorter, I reasoned it must have been a significant re-edit (to make it shorter, better or simply different), put out a few years later.  There is indeed a small credit for 'Reedited Version by Toni Hirtreiter and Heinrich Richter', and a copyright date of 1998.  So let's go with that, shall we?  'Night Train to Venus' from 1993ish, and this snappily-titled cut-down released 5 years later, in '98.

P.S. Perhaps the closest amateur work I've seen to the tone of 'Train to Hell' is a short horror movie of dubious merit, made by my old housemate Chris Bambling, and entitled 'Retail II' (2009ish).  He gave up part-way through shooting, and eventually gave me the footage to edit, so I cut out all the punchlines to jokes, and made as much of a meal of the edit as I could.  The similarity between the two works is concerning for 'Train to Hell', but I feel 'Retail II' is somehow vindicated.  Watch its eight terrifying minutes here on Youtube, if you dare.

Should you have the urge to check my findings, here's the thing on DVD.  Enjoy, but beware!

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