Night Train To Terror, Vinegar Syndrome's Nutty Masterpiece (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Here's a blu-ray I never thought I'd see... a loaded, special edition restoration of Night Train To Terror. There have been plenty of DVD releases of it in the past, but they've all been generic, no frills full-frame transfers, often in big compilations of public domain horror titles. But Vinegar Syndrome has raised it up out of the pit, given it a new 2k scan from a 35mm print, and a surprising collection of extras.

Part of why I'm surprised to see it get the special edition treatment is because it's such a goofy movie. On the one hand, I suppose it's pretty terrible. I'm sure plenty of people have caught some of this movie on cable or video and shut it off like it was total garbage. And it kind of is. But it's also delightfully insane; a movie I used to rent repeatedly as a kid (when I wasn't accidentally taking home Terror Train instead) and can still go back to and have a blast today.
Night Train To Terror is an anthology film, telling individual horror stories within the context of a little  wrap-around plot, a la Tales From the Crypt. In this case, though, the stories come in varying degrees of incomprehensibility. And that's mainly because, instead of being three original tales shot for this compilation, Night Train is made up of three totally separate films in varying states of completion and release. So it's three movies edited down into short films, which means cutting out roughly two-thirds of each movie and trying to have them still make sense. What's more, the director of the original wrap-around plot, that takes place on the titular train, has also shot new footage, involving new stop motion effects - which aren't realistic, but still quite entertaining - into the older footage, mixing things up even further. So things may not make 100% sense, but the spectacle and the creative weirdness never stops. And if the worst sin a movie can commit is to be boring, than this one's downright angelic.

And the divide between the divine and the Satanic is an apt comparison, 'cause that's what Night Train's all about. See, the most 80s band in the world, a troupe of pop rockers and break dancers, are on board the same train as God and the devil. The band is living a constant music video while God and Satan debate who gets to keep their passengers souls. And somehow those decisions hinge on the outcome of three stories, which are of course our three features edited down into short films.
 
In the first, a man gets into car wreck, killing his new bride, and wakes up in an asylum. Of course, the asylum is run by a mad scientist and his wife, who's using patients for experiments or something. But they kind of get side-lined by the orderly, played by Night Court's Richard Moll, who likes to chop people up. There's some killing, conflict, sleazy nudity, and it all comes to an entertaining conclusion.
Next, a guy meets a girl at the fair, and thinks she's nice and pretty. But if you want to party with her, you have to join her little circle of friends. And her friends just happen to be the most eclectic collection of eccentrics in the world, and they love playing Russian roulette. But they don't just play with a revolver and a single bullet, they expand the general concept out to demented scenarios that involve letting giant killer insect creatures out in their midst or strapping themselves to giant, computerized electric chairs. This entry's less about "how far will you go for love?" and more about look at the crazy scenarios we've contacted, sort of like the Saw movies before the Saw movies, but campier.
Finally, Richard Moll returns - as a totally different character - in the final and longest story, about an author makes a deal with the devil. This results in people getting killed by a demons, and only tough police detective Cameron Mitchell is on the trail. Even though a lot of the coolest demon stuff seems to be the new stuff added for Night Train, this still feels like it would be the strongest stand-alone film in its uncut form.

Now, like I said, this film's seen a number of budget DVD releases over the years; and they all share roughly the same video cassette-based transfer. So let's see how much better Vinegar Syndrome's new, widescreen scan looks. And since that's a blu-ray/DVD combo, we can compare those, too.
Vinegar Syndrome's blu on top, their DVD middle and Mill Creek's DVD on bottom.
Vinegar Syndrome's blu left, their DVD middle and Mill Creek's DVD right.
So, naturally, the two Vinegar Syndrome transfers are virtually identical, slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1. The print's grainy and soft enough that there might not even seem to be much benefit in the HD boost. But on closer inspection, as you can see in the close-up, the DVD has a pixel-y splotchiness that cleans up nicely on the blu. They're certainly both leaps ahead of the old, smeary DVDs, not the least in terms of their fresh, vibrant colors and of course the framing. The old DVDs do give a little more picture along the top and bottom, but they compromise in cutting a good chunk off the right and left sides. And looking at the blank head room on the old discs, Night Train was clearly meant to be framed the way Vinegar Syndrome has it. Sure, maybe if the original negatives available, this film could look even better; but this was always a rough little film, and I doubt we'll ever see it looking any better than VS was able to get from their print.

And the extras are exciting and very illuminating. Especially considering what a curious hodge-podge this film is, even the most informed cult film scholar certainly had a lot of questions. And they're largely answered between the film's two commentaries. One is by producer/director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, who put the whole project together, directed the train sequences and also created the new footage inserted into the three other films. Unfortunately, he uses the commentary as more of a biography than a scene-specific way to talk about Night Train, but he does eventually get to the film and explains a lot about how these strange films were funded and lensed in Utah with the help of some church groups. The second one is by The Hysteria Lives podcast guys, and while they unfortunately waste a lot of time joking at the film's expense, and of course don't have any first-hand experience with the production of these movies, they are pretty informed and manage to point out a lot of facts and even differences between the separate films as they were originally released vs. how they appear in Night Train. There's also a substantial (about 30 minutes) interview with the film's assistant editor Wayne Schmidt, which fills in the commentary's gaps, and a pretty cool theatrical trailer.
And best of all, Vinegar Syndrome has included the entire full-length film Gretta, the very rare film that made up the second segment (about the Russian roulette cult) of Night Train! This was one batty film, where the cult winds up playing almost a small in the extended tale of the guy seeing a girl in stag film and falling in love with her, only to track her down in real life and discover she's completely crazy. When they first meet, she's been in the bathtub for two days because she thinks she's a fish. It's kind of a goofy love-triangle between those two and the older guy we saw running the cult in Night Train. It's hard to even determine what kind of movie the filmmakers were going for; but I guess they figured as long as they included enough nudity, they could get as self-indulgent as they wanted. It's a very different movie than Night Train, and not at all horror, but still strangely interesting.
Vinegar Syndrome's blu on top, their DVD second, Mill Creek's DVD third and VS's Gretta on bottom.
Gretta was apparently sourced from a 1" tape, but it doesn't look too bad. Softer, but with strong colors. It's certainly preferable to the clips we saw of it on Mill Creek's Night Train DVDs. As a bonus feature, you definitely can't complain. It almost makes you wish VS had rounded up the other two films, maybe just for a limited "ultimate edition" or something. But as it is, it's already a pretty amazing package, and certainly way more than I ever would've guessed we'd see for that silly, nonsensical movie I used to rent as a kid. You won't see many labels do better than this.

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