The Death Train

I first ran into the name "Igor Auzins" on the back of a video box, in a pile of second-hand tapes at one of the few places in my area that sells them. The tape was a former rental from the mid-eighties, of a species most horror fans know only too well: bad cover art, lurid synopsis... the movie was called Night Nurse, and from the cover art and jacket description, it looked dreadful. Now, I'm rather fond of dreadful movies, and I know very well that beneath unpromising video boxes there are often hidden treasures waiting. Had the price been right I would probably have bought the video immediately. As it happened, they were charging just a little more than I thought the experience would be worth. I put the tape back, but the odd name of the director stuck in my head.

Not three days laater, I found a stash of tapes in a thrift shop. These were going for a dollar a piece, which is much more reasonable for VHS these days. Among the tapes I found another badly-designed dime store special from the eighties, called Death Train. Flipping the box, I read the synopsis. It seemed to have a good premise... I wondered how well it would be handled. Turning the box back over again, I noticed the director's name: Igor Auzins. Ah. Well, the gods rarely speak so clearly, and for a buck? I'd take the chance.

It wasn't until a few weeks later that I had the time and inclination to sit through The Death Train (note the definite article, which is missing from the box). I was prepared for almost anything, I thought. After all, I've suffered through bad movies of every kind. Though I had braced myself for the worst, when the film began I was completely taken aback: the movie wasn't bad at all. In fact, it was charming, for want of a better word. First off, it wasn't a horror movie at all, in spite of the claims on the box. It was a sort of mystery, with vague supernatural overtones; but above all it was a comedy. On the whole, it reminded me of a superior made-for-TV mystery, which for all I know it may have been. While it really doesn't hold together as well as it might have, it's still a very entertaining film, and I know that if I ever have the chance to see another film by Igor Auzins, I won't balk at the price ever again 1.

The basic premise of the film is that a man has been killed by a speeding train. In his garden. Where there was a train once, but where no train has run for many, many years. Imaginative viewers will have leaped to three possible explanations for this setup:

1. The supernatural explanation: there really is a ghost-train, and it's come back for unearthly vengeance.
2. The sci-fi explanation: the tracks are located on a fault in time, so that the train passed into the present at just the wrong moment.
3. The rational explanation: someone's using the legend of the ghost train to cover up a clever, but mundane, murder.
Much to the delight of the first-time viewer, The Death Train decides to toy with each of these three possibilities for most of the running time of the film. Unfortunately, it's this same playfulness which makes the film a little unsatisfying. Auzins's refusal to provide a single tone for the film, which seems quirky and unsettling on first viewing, becomes irritating once the real explanation is known.

The movie begins with a prologue. A fussy middle-aged man is preparing dinner in a house filled with railroad memorabilia. From time to time, Auzins' meditative pans across the house and its decor are interrupted by scenes of another man, evidently the first man's life-partner, making his way home rather late. The second man's car breaks down; as he gets out to walk the rest of the way home, he hears the sound of a train approaching...

The hour having grown very late, the first man falls asleep. The second man walks home with increasing apprehension, because somewhere in the darkness behind him, he hears the impossible sound of a train coming nearer. Suddenly, he is bathed in a blinding white light and overwhelmed by the sound of a powerful steam engine. He throws up his hands to defend himself...

The body of the story concerns insurance investigator Ted Morrow, a man from the city who comes to the remote Australian town to settle the matter of the dead man's life insurance. The man left his partner a substantial sum as beneficiary, but there's the little matter of the cause of death that must be sorted out first. "Death by phantom train" may satisfy the local police, but it doesn't satisfy the insurance company. And it certainly doesn't satisfy Morrow.

In the role of Morrow, Hugh Keays-Byrne carries the film. He plays Morrow as a likeable, put-upon yet cheerful fellow, who lets nothing distract him from the job at hand. This includes Ingrid Mason, playing a free-spirited girl Morrow meets in his travels. Mason, who is on hand mainly to be pretty and winsome (and does her job very well), is also a convenient plot device for getting Morrow from place to place when necessary.

When Morrow first arrives in town, he notices an awful lot of properties are for sale. Later it will be revealed that the dead man's property is extremely interesting to some foreign investors: Explanation #3 rears its ugly head.

Morrow stops to talk to an old man sitting on a bench; behind the old man, a large group of schoolchildren is playing. Morrow looks down for an instant at a pice of paper he's carrying; when he looks up again, both the man and the crowd of children have completely vanished. Morrow then goes to a pub, which he finds empty. As this is Australia, he finds this puzzling. Exploring the building, he finds a note on a door telling someone to meet in the pub; Morrow returns to the pub, only moments after having left it, and finds it full. What's more, it looks like these people have been there for some time. Explanation #2 suggests itself.

The pub's surly landlady, and her exchanges with the gullible stranger Morrow, provide some of the best comedy in the film. Naturally, there are a lot of people anxious to get the better of the city-slicker, but few people are anxious to go out of their way to give him information. At first, this also seems to be true of Mac, the town's only policeman, whom Morrow meets filling out a report on his typewriter one (THUNK!)... letter (THUNK!)... at (THUNK!)... a (THUNK!)... time (Oops: wrong letter.). It later turns out that Mac is simply a good-natured, slow-witted bull of a man, who initially resents Morrow for telling him how to do his job. Once he realizes that Morrow is an honest fellow who only wants his help, Mac becomes a valuable ally.

Morrow also has to deal with the other loopy inhabitants of the town, including an owlish old Scottish woman, the sinister town doctor (who also happens to be the town's coroner, a position he seems to relish), and the manager of a local construction company, who seems to be the only sane person in the area... a fact Morrow notes with suspicion.

All along the way, the film teases both Morrow and its audience with broad hints about what's really going on. Early on, Morrow finds a neighbor with an enormous stereo setup... powerful enough to imitate the sound of an oncoming train. The trouble is these people have only just moved into the area (you didn't think it was going to be that obvious, did you?). Later, there's a séance at which some eerie and decidedly supernatural events take place; immediately afterwards, Morrow (in his underwear) is confronted by the man he's certain is the real, live killer... only to wake and discover that the confrontation has all been a dream.

So what's the real explanation? Track this film down and find out. It's no classic, but it'll give you an entertaining evening with some memorable (if superficial) comic characters. Both Auzins and Keays-Byrne work wonders with their thin material. There are certain off-kilter moments, like the brief scene in the chicken farm, that work much better than they should, considering the light-heartedness of it all. Even if it doesn't add up to much in the end, even if the music sounds like the theme from "People's Court", and even if we see Keays-Byrne running around in his boxers a bit too frequently, The Death Train is still an amiable little movie that doesn't take itself seriously for a moment.

I immediately went back to see it Night Nurse was still on the shelves. It was gone. I have to admit I was a little disappointed, and even though I don't intend to make a special search for it, I'll still keep my eyes open for it in the future.

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