The Sleeping Car (1990): All Aboard, Next Stop, Terror!
As I don’t live in an area where commuter travel by train is a viable option, my only experience with trains is the hellish undertaking known as a cross-country trip by rail. Spending anything beyond four hours in coach on a train is akin to spending the greater part of the day in the DMV, and your fellow travelers are suspect at best. I don’t feel at all bad making this generalization about them because, in turn, I expect they feel the same about me. I’ve always suspected the way to go is to have your own car, and my wife and I have visions of a Nick and Nora style existence where rail travel would mean a number of cocktails and silk robes for all. However, I don’t think I could extend this desire for sleeping car life to living in one that has been remodeled as a trailer home. The same can’t be said of today’s protagonist who finds not being able to resist the kitschy allure of stationary rail living can be a hazard to your health (and life expectancy). So come along and hitch a ride hobo style while I tell you folks a little bit about The Sleeping Car.
It all begins with a massive rail accident in which two trains slam headlong into each other. The conductor is one of the only survivors, leaping free of the train. While the blame for the accident would fall on the conductor, he knows the real culprit is his watchman, who was entrusted to make sure the track is clear, but was busy having sex with a girl he had snuck on the train. Let go from the work he had known all his life, the conductor became a bitter and mean old man. He moved one of the train’s remaining cars, a sleeper, out behind his house, and for years he took out his rage and anger on a number of innocent young girls. Years later, Jason (David Naughton), a middle aged student just getting a start in college, takes up residence in the train car turned apartment, but he, along with his girlfriend (Judie Aronson) and suspect professor (Jeff Conaway) soon find out that while Jason might be the only one living there, something else still exists.
I must admit that I was attracted to watching The Sleeping Car for the same reason I have enjoyed films like Death Bed and Attack of the Killer Refrigerator, the absurdity. What I really didn’t expect was for The Sleeping Car to actually be a serviceable piece of cheese which actually contained a smattering of horrific moments. Director Douglas Curtis only had only one other directorial effort to his name, 1977’s The Hazing, though later in his career he would transition to being a producer with films like Freddy vs. Jason and Shoot Em Up to his credit. Even so, Curtis clearly knew what went into a horror film, and working with cinematographer David Lewis (The Hills Have Eyes 2, Night of the Demons), he built a decent level of suspense with the film’s visuals. Unfortunately, he also set up an uneven tone for the film. The Sleeping Car cannot decide if it wants to play it straight emphasizing the supernatural entities’ murders and rapes, be a comedy leaning on Jeff Conaway’s journalism professor for laughs, or something in between. It also greatly suffers from a soundtrack dominated by pan flute more at home in a martial arts epic than in the confines of a haunted rail car film.
What really makes The Sleeping Car work is the cast who got the memo about what kind of film The Sleeping Car would be. David Naughton, star of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, wisecracks with his tongue firmly planted in cheek throughout, but he still easily makes the transition when the film veers out toward the horrific. Jeff Conaway, who is still probably best known from Grease (or Celebrity Rehab), is a full on larger than life personality here full of braggadocio and douchy tendencies. In short, he seems much like Jeff Conaway. The real question for me is how his character became a journalism professor and who would want to take his class? When I think ethical media practices, Jeff Conaway is hardly the image that springs to mind. There are also two great performances from supporting cast. First off is Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Kevin McCarthy, who appears as Naughton’s New Agey neighbor who knows all about the evil residing in the train car. McCarthy is gloriously over the top, and it was fun to watch the veteran actor chew up the screen. The last memorable performance is Judie Aronson. Playing Kim, a college age girl caught in a love (or lust) triangle between Naughton and Conaway, Aronson holds her own against the two more experienced actors and manages to come off as more than cinematic fluff.
If you’re looking for a horror film which will scare the bejeebers out of you, then The Sleeping Car is not the film you want. However, if you’re looking for a flick with a few laughs, some decent enough scares, a smattering of gore, some ghostly supernatural notes, and Jeff Conaway, then look no further as you’ve found it. The Sleeping Car, a high concept idea given low concept execution, yet still miraculously turned out to be something more than the sum of its parts. It’s the kind of underappreciated cult film that makes the constant digging though dreck worth it. It will cause me to take chances on dozens of other films. It will lead me to look for other train inspired horror films or other terrors featuring people living in strange places. It will give me faith that there are still plenty of obscure gems out there still well worth discovering. While The Sleeping Car may not be a classic of modern cinema, it is the kind of flick that will keep a love of cult horror on the rails.