Monday, June 19, 2017

"2,000 Years Is But a Sneeze" - Amok Train (1989)


We return to the work of producer/director Ovidio Assonitis (see Tentacles and The Visitor) with Amok Train, also known as Beyond the Door III and Death Train. Directed by cartoon writer Jeff Kwitny and produced by Assonitis, Amok Train is one of the finest cinematic depictions of a train going amok that has ever been created.

As usual with films of unique cinematic brilliance, your universe's critics, particularly those on IMDB for some reason, have little respect for Amok Train. Reviewer Justin Stokes writes, "This is a really bad movie with some truly lousy gore scenes....the effects are terrible, several of them using blatantly obvious dummy heads." (Clearly Mr. Stokes would prefer if the filmmakers had used real human heads.) Reviewer jet66 writes, "Magnificently incompetent on every level, this film features some truly absurd special effects, awkward and amateur acting, clumsy dialogue, and a very disjointed narrative." Reviewer leofwine_draca writes, "A largely unwatchable mess that alternates between crazy special effects, graphic gore, and unrelenting tedium."

No, these reviews are not correct. Read on for a clear picture of this masterwork.

The film opens, as so many classic films do, at a gathering of robed, candle-holding cult members in a warehouse, intercut with a blind woman performing a tarot reading but using photos from a family tree as the cards.

This mysterious opening gives way to a college class, set in "Los Angeles, today," according to a helpful title card, where the class is planning a trip to Yugoslavia. One of the girls, whose mother is Serbian, has a mysterious pink birthmark on her stomach. This is Beverly. Her mother gives her a book from the region of Yugoslavia where her father was born.

When the girl's flight takes off from LAX, the film reveals its first surprise. Instead of following the college students on their trip, we watch as Beverly's mother takes a taxi home. The unmistakably American taxi driver wears sunglasses, a cowboy hat, and a red cowboy kerchief.


The taxi takes the 405 freeway north from LAX, but when it exits near Sunset Boulevard, the scenery becomes unexpectedly rural.


A flatbed truck carrying a cargo of steel bars stops suddenly in front of the taxi, and a girder slides through the taxi window, reenacting a familiar primal scene and impaling Beverly's mother, killing her.

Meanwhile, across the globe, the college students check out of the Hotel Yugoslavia, where presumably you can both check out and leave, to meet their local guide, the Professor, played by Bo Svenson (who, the audience might be surprised to learn, is not in fact the same actor as Bo Hopkins of Tentacles fame).


We get the feeling something unexpected is going on in Yugoslavia when a somewhat Henry Gibsonian little person gives the Professor a telegram about the death of Beverly's mother, but the Professor tosses the telegram into the river.

The students board a river boat, where the Professor informs them they will see a play that dates back 2,000 years. He says, "two thousand years may seem like a long time to you who are from a country which was founded only 200 years ago. However, in the scope of the passage of time, 2,000 years is but a sneeze."

Then the Professor gives each of the students the same gift: a creepy, sharp, red pin that matches the shape of Beverly's birthmark, a fact upon which one of the other girls, having seen the birthmark, comments.

Beverly is also repeated called a virgin throughout the riverboat scene, subtly foreshadowing later events.

Another little person, this one more Lionel Standerish than Henry Gibsonian, greets the group at the shore of the river. They trek through a deep forest to find not an amphitheater but a circle of thatched huts and a population of roughly 200 villagers wearing black and brown. The students are shown into huts, where the Professor introduces Beverly to Vessa--surprisingly, the blind tarot woman from the opening!

Something is afoot in the village, a fact we realize when the peasants nail all the students' hut doors shut. Belying the reputation of American college students as pushy, these students simply lie in their beds helplessly.

Perhaps at this point in the film, the viewer's mind wonders about the titular train, as we have seen no trains yet, amok or otherwise.

But the film's pleasures are soon to begin. First, Bo Svenson psychically sets the students' beds aflame.


The flames prompt the students to break out of their huts and run into the forest, though one student, Richard, simply sits on his bed and goes up in flames.

It is here that the film begins to fulfill the promise of its title, as the students see a train racing by. Of course, they all yell, "Stop! Stop!" to get the train to stop, as travelers often do. 


Shockingly, the train does not stop for them.

However, they are able to jump aboard the train, though two of them, a man and a woman, are left behind, unable to run fast enough to board the moving vehicle.

On the train, a conductor ushers the students into an empty car, where a hooded young man named Marius plays a flute. The tune is reminiscent of a mid-to-late-1990s video game.


Back in the woods, the students left behind walk for a few miles until the man says, "I think it's broken," referring to his leg. They decide they need to make a splint.

Back on the train, the engineer forces the vehicle to stop to avoid a conflagration on the tracks ahead. A man stands in the blazing fire, and the first of the film's elaborate set pieces occurs.



A red scarf--we recognize it as the Professor's--snakes by itself along the tracks and ties the engineer down to the railroad tracks. Then the train mysteriously begins moving, fueled not by wood or coal but by the body of a worker who is mysteriously sucked into the furnace! As the train moves forward, the engineer is decapitated by the cow catcher.


To make matters even worse, the friendly conductor is (somewhat confusingly) crushed by the collision of two train cars, his body exploding into a torrent of blood.

Heroically, Beverly climbs by herself across the coal car and into the engine cab. She finds it empty. She grabs a Thermos and clings to it desperately. Then a radio lights up and she hears a voice call to her in Serbian-accented English. "You must go with me. Everything was decided many years ago. Before you were born. Before your mother or your mother's mother was born." The voice explains helpfully that Beverly must take part in a ceremony that will crown her princess of darkness.

She argues with the disembodied voice first that she is dreaming and then that she is going crazy.

To prove she isn't going crazy, the voice shows her a white woman in the corner of the cab with a small dog, or perhaps an even smaller dinosaur, emerging from between her legs.


"Beverly, I'm your mom," the apparition says. Beverly screams, "Mama!" Apparently this event was designed to make Beverly realize she is completely sane.

At this point, the film doubles down...on quality. We see a busy train station waiting for our not-yet-amok train. A little boy is bouncing a ball. The ball bounces onto the train tracks. The train approaches, and at last it appears to be truly amok. It does not slow down as it blasts past the station.

We do not, however, see the fate of the little boy. Or his ball.


On the train, the American students attempt to rescue Beverly by climbing across the coal car to the cab. "There's no one driving the damn train!"

   

It should be noted that at no time does any character attempt to pull the brake. It is a mark of the film's efficiency that it wastes no time with such logical, but clearly futile, actions.

They find Beverly in the cab and return to the passenger car. The girl who is not Beverly develops a theory to explain everything: Beverly lost her virginity to the engineer in the cab, and naturally she killed the man. Beverly slaps her in the face, and in the process reveals there are maggots crawling on her hand.

Later, the girl who is not Beverly attempts to seduce the remaining male student. "What do you like about me?" she asks.

Annoyed, the boy responds, "I don't know. Your hair, your mouth, your eyes, everything."

They kiss, and the boy spits out a cocktail of blood, maggots, and worms, while the girl's head splits down the middle and she tears off her face.

Next, in perhaps the film's best demonstration of its own promise, we watch as the train tracks, represented by excellent model work, split apart. The train flies off the tracks and continues through the Serbian countryside unimpeded!

   

It then returns to a different set of tracks and resumes its hellish journey.

Meanwhile, the two students not traveling by rail have found an empty hut and a boat. Naturally, worried about the boy's broken leg, they take the small boat out onto the river.

Alarmingly, the train tracks move by themselves again, this time creeping toward the river.


The audience can see what is in store for the boaters, and sits rapt in suspense. The amok train intends to murder the boaters by entering the river and ramming them!

The train's murderous plan comes to fruition, in slow motion no less, and scored with classical music from an on-screen radio. We can only watch helplessly as the train skims across the river, bursts through a thicket of bushes, and slams into the boaters, poetically decapitating the girl.

   

Said disembodied head shows up, somehow, on the train, carried by Beverly into the passenger car. "I've been the instrument of the devil," she says. "I don't want anyone else to die because of me."

The others tie her up so she cannot commit suicide.

The dramatic story of the American students is intercut with the attempts of the Serbian train officials to stop the runaway train. They remove a small section of the track, an action which we know is doomed to failure. They pile three heavy trucks on the tracks, including for unknown reasons a fuel tanker.

The result, a massive conflagration that sends geese running along the tracks, is predictably unsuccessful.


Beverly's pact with the devil results in more deaths as the male students are sliced in half and impaled on a railroad crossing's safety bar, and a female thief named Saba who refers to herself intermittently in the third person is blown up by her own dynamite in another futile attempt to stop the train.

Finally, with Beverly and the silent flute-player Marius the only survivors, the train stops of its own accord. It appears to have returned to the village seen earlier.

Marius and Beverly lock eyes. Their clothes disappear. The villagers knock rocks together (Note: not a euphemism) to accompany Beverly's wedding ceremony...with the devil.


Bo Svenson reappears in a black horse-drawn coach to take Beverly to her nuptials. He explains that she will have everything after the ceremony.

"Passion, greed, and envy will run rampant in the world?" she asks.

"The Master will be so pleased," says Mr. Svenson's Professor.

The coach, not nearly as amok as the train, reaches another village, this one equipped with an outdoor bedroom at the top of a wooden staircase, surrounded by trees. As Beverly lies down, the groom, a man with unusually long fingernails, appears, lifted to her bed by a glass elevator.

   

At the crucial moment, however, the witch Vessa, who has been performing a rather personal exploration of Beverly, makes a frightening discovery: Beverly is not a virgin!

The villagers erupt in fury.

The devil explodes in a shower of sparks.

The Professor decomposes before our eyes.

We realize that Beverly was deflowered by Marius earlier. We see Marius one last time, waving angelically at Beverly from afar as she boards the airplane home.

On the flight home, turbulence rocks the plane. The audience is worried that the plane will next run amok, but there is another surprise: a demonic hand smashes through the plane window and grabs Beverly by the throat, pulling her out into the stormy night--though a coda implies that this is merely a dream.




Amok Train is the high point of Jeff Kwitny's directorial career, which includes the ski resort slasher movie Iced (1988)--famous for featuring The Addams Family's Lisa Loring--and a Lynda Carter movie called Lightning in a Bottle (1993). Mr. Kwitny went on to success in a different venue in the late 1990s: writing cartoons with exclamation points in their titles such as Mummies Alive! and Histeria! as well as cartoons without exclamation points in their titles such as Animaniacs and Cow and Chicken.

Amok Train has many lessons to impart. For one, Yugoslavia is a dangerous and mystical place where one may meet devils, angels, witches, and possessed vehicles. An exciting vacation destination! For another, assuming a college student is a virgin based on no direct or indirect evidence is perhaps not the most effective way to bring the devil's heir into the world.

Another lesson that is driven home by this superior film is that movie series (or "franchises") do not have to be connected with previous films in the same series in order to be entertaining. Amok Train was released as Beyond the Door III but it does not appear related to the original Beyond the Door (1974), co-directed by Ovidio Assonitis, or to Beyond the Door II (1977), a retitling of Mario Bava's last film Shock. Despite the absence of possessed pregnant women and the ghosts of dead husbands, Amok Train's possessed train is a wonderful addition to the horror pantheon and a fitting continuation of a film series whose entries are entirely unconnected.

The most fascinating lesson I learned from the film, however, is that Bo Svenson and Bo Hopkins are not, in fact, the same person. Mr. Svenson appears here as the Professor, while Mr. Hopkins appeared in Ovidio Assonitis' earlier Tentacles. Both are charming blond actors, but, I repeat, they are not the same person. I can only imagine Mr. Assonitis' confusion working with the two of them, albeit 12 years apart, in these two wonderful films. I wonder when Mr. Assonitis became aware of their individual identities. I am sure he would have fascinating stories to tell about working with the two Bos.



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