So, another year passes. Which means only one thing- the seasonal Britmovie double-whammy is upon me, and, charged with the unenviable task of reviewing two suitably Yulesque flicks for the site, I find myself once again asking “what exactly constitutes a Christmas film?” It’s a fair question…..
Does it have to be set at Christmas? No. Does it have to be something regularly shown on TV during that season? Possibly. But most of all, does it have to have some kind of innate warmth, something cosy yet eerie, which aesthetically radiates and resonates with the environs of twinkling lights, fir trees and olde gaslamps, best watched through a haze of port and mincemeat gluttony? Er, yes. Trouble is, as a writer, I find myself struggling each year to find such titles, or at least ones I can be bothered to write about- which explains why this December I’ve chosen Night Train To Murder, a film which some may feel is really scraping the barrel. Not that I’m one of them, I hasten to add- but it’s definitely an “odd one”.
Initially made for television, and only screened theatrically later the next year as support to even lesser features, its notoriety stems mainly from the fact that it represents Morecambe and Wise’s last onscreen outing together before Eric’s death from cancer not long afterwards, and, that as final throws of the dice go, most are of the opinion that it isn’t actually very good. Well, I won’t bullshit you, chaps and chappesses, it definitely ain’t no classic. Indeed, it’s a strange, stilted feature, its unevenness reinforced by its seemingly being shot on both film and videotape at different times and by an anachronistic theme tune (over which the mirthsome twosome interject several jokes) more redolent of a 70s cop picture than the mid-40s in which it is actually set. In fact, as either a horror movie or a thriller, the film’s as an entity is anachronistic- its subject matter and style, as well as a supporting cast boasting bitparts from the likes of Edward Judd, Frank Coda and Penny Meredith, all belonging somewhere between 1961 and 1975 rather than the Voorhees-addled early 80s.
It’s also one of the few movies I can think of which manages to seem both overlong and too short at once, featuring both padding and paucity sometimes within the same scene. Yet somehow all these quirks, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings make it all the more fascinating, as if its flawed nature were in some way a reflection of the pair’s tumultuous friendship. And with its blend of scares and jokes, its country house setting a staple of so many great thriller-chillers, and the requisite amount of antique furniture on show, I think it more or less qualifies for inclusion as “seasonal”. So there you go. Plotwise, it’s no great deviation from the tried and tested Old Dark House formula- an elderly relative has died, meaning several family members are summoned to hear the reading of the will, after which strange murders, unexplained accidental deathings and elaborate “accidents” abound, with secret panels, eyes behind paintings, clanking suits of armour and femme fatales (the extremely phwoarrsome pairing of Lysette Anthony and Pamela Salem in this case) aplenty – except that directorially, while he may have excelled at episodic television, McGrath is no James Whale, William Castle or Peter Sykes.
Be fair, though, he probably wasn’t asked to be- remember, Night Train is simply another vehicle for Eric and Ernie, with whom he had worked for some considerable time, so anyone expecting cinematic gold or Ealing-worthy genius is probably barking up the wrong tree. Ergo, when Morecambe’s eligible, tres glamorous niece (Anthony) is approached by Fulton Mackay, playing, surprise surprise, a family solicitor called Mackay (did he ever play anything else except in Fraggle Rock?) and asked to visit said mansion, the plot doesn’t exactly thicken- in fact, it’s pretty thin to begin with and reaches somewhat of a plateau thirty or so minutes in- but as homages (in this case to a genre the duo were particularly fond of, hence their ongoing comedic usage of Peter Cushing) go, it’s pretty spot on. And, despite what I said earlier about anachronism, there is just about enough nastiness and grue, particularly in one scene involving blood dribbling out of an eyeball, and another involving the hanging of another relative (Richard Vernon) on a pointy thing, to occasionally distract the viewer from the cosiness.
As expected, M & W play themselves all the way through, quite literally- only this time it’s 1946 and they’re an ailing music hall act on their last legs (now there’s irony for you) treading the boards on an endless circuit taking in the delights of Carlisle and Darlington, “changing trains at Crewe”, calling all pianists Ambrose, and staying in a litany of down-at-heel hotels, where, of course, they get into bed together nightly without being in any way gay or camp. Like they always did, only this time their asexuality is made even stranger by the fact that Salem clearly wants Eric to give her one and isn’t afraid to blatantly say so- and vice versa. And you know what, though Morecambe’s frailty is visible, and not all the gags work, when they do (look out for the faulty gramophone, and that old classic song “Charlie Chan, You’re A Different Man (Since You Backed Into The Electric Fan”) they’re hilarious- while on the horror and suspense fronts, there are still, even within such an obviously family-oriented film, several sudden jolts and scares which would have given me the willies at a tender age. And that’s to say nothing of a fiend in a creepy mask, an eerie, 6”7 Karloffian butler (Roger Brierley), a ‘man of a thousand faces’ worthy of Lon Chaney himself, a truly surreal false reality gag involving the comedians relating the story to the viewer of the death of the actor playing “Big Jim”, and a supposedly haunted “Scottish” mansion (probably actually in Berkshire or Middlesex, but again, that’s all part of the magic), all thrown in for added atmosphere.
Sometimes, watching Night Train To Murder almost makes you feel as if you were conducting your very own search for a hidden inheritance, digging for treasure ‘neath its unfathomable, half-TV, half-movie veneer- but if you take off your analytical head and commit yourself to the principle of sheer enjoyment, while retaining an eye and ear for the absurd, you’re guaranteed to find something of interest, and seriously, the more you sit back and let its strangely detached atmosphere wash over you, the more of a uniquely dreamlike experience it becomes- possibly because by all laws of logic, such a film shouldn’t exist, and after its 72 minutes are up, you still can’t quite believe it does. Plus, if you’re a Bonzo Dog Doodah Band aficionado, or just a lover of vintage popular song, there’s also a quite macabre rendition of “Little Sir Echo” to look forward to, though I won’t tell you how it figures into the storyline.
Nor will I tell you the ending, disclose the quite frankly bizarre final few jokes, or throw in a few more of the oblique references which make the film a goldmine for culture-spotters: frankly, I think I’ve gone into enough detail to alert you to the film’s merits and warn you of its pitfalls (although I will add that for ironic incongruity, nothing quite matches watching two people, one soon to die and the other now also long-departed, singing the line “we’re really glad to be alive” to an audience designed to look as if they’re not even glad to be in the room….)
If it is a Christmas film, it’s a quite unconventional one, even within its own nostalgic paradigm, but on reflection, I like my festive season to be a strange, haunting and unclassifiable experience. Sure as hell beats throwing up in the Thames. Nearly 30 years on, it’s quite apparent that Night Train To Murder, while not that good, isn’t that bad either: there are a lot worse things you could watch at this time of year, most of them on television, and whatever its faults, it’s probably the most unusual and interesting coda to anyone’s career I can think of. Old chaps, your legacy remains safe and unsullied.