THE SLEEPING CAR (1990) is not exactly a slasher movie, but because it says “Forget Freddy. Forget Jason. Here Comes The Mister!” on the cover it officially qualifies for Slasher Search. Congratulations, THE SLEEPING CAR!
When I saw that title I thought, “huh?” but then I saw the train on the cover and I thought oh, I get it, not a passed out automobile, but the place on a train where you sleep. Okay. I’ll go with it. Actually, this looks kinda good.
But it does not open promisingly. Some guy is making out with some woman in a train car. She strips down to her historical panties and giant boobs and they giggle and make out while the score by Ray Colcord (My Two Dads, AMITYVILLE DOLLHOUSE) erupts into erotic saxophone. The engineer (John Carl Buechler, director of FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE NEW BLOOD) comes in and yells at the guy to stop fornicating and do his job. He chooses instead to continue with the fornicating, and then the engineer jumps off the train right before it crashes head on with another train and then he yells into the sky like newly minted Darth Vader when he finds out Padme is dead.
Cut to unspecified years later and suddenly the movie seems a little classier. David Naughton (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) plays Jason McCree, former managing editor of a newspaper who quit to go back to journalism school because he got the job through his rich wife Clarice (Nicole Hansen, AMERICAN CYBORG: STEEL WARRIOR) and nobody respects him there. (Also he left his wife.) He finds a furnished apartment to rent, and it’s actually a rail car owned by Mrs. Erickson (Ernestine Mercer, “Woman Being Interviewed,” CASPER). And we realize this movie is kind of unusual as we hear the smart allecky back-and-forth quips between these two: “No cats, no hanky, and no panky.” “That’s okay, I practice safe panky.”
Pretty much everybody in the movie talks like that. Naughton is good at it, and some of the lines are cute, but they might work better if they weren’t so wall-to-wall, or if they were more free of clunkers like when he says, “You want frightening? Try shopping with my ex-wife.” That sounds like it was written by a terrible ‘80s comedian. Also, Jeff Conaway (director of BIKINI SUMMER 2) plays Jason’s journalism professor Bud Sorenson as if he’s a terrible ‘80s comedian. He dresses cool and basically just tells jokes in class and makes sexual comments to the female students, who all smile like he’s charming. When Jason comes in late wearing a tie he sits him next to Kim (Judie Aronson, FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER, WEIRD SCIENCE, AMERICAN NINJA) because, he says, she “likes older men,” and they smile at each other and then they’re just a couple for the rest of the movie.
Unfortunately Bud also starts hanging out with Jason. They go out to bars together every night and he’s always on in that incredibly annoying way of someone desperately trying to be funny at all times. I would hate this character even if he was a nice guy instead of a guy who goes out with a student and when she says she doesn’t want a drink says, “Then you don’t want an A.” And I get the feeling that’s supposed to make him funny, not sleazy, but I could be wrong. Either way he’s basically the Stiles from TEEN WOLF except he’s not just the protagonist’s horny dipshit friend, he’s also his teacher. Luckily we don’t have to put up with him for the movie, because he gets killed by a ghost when he drunkenly goes into the rail car to call 976-JIZZ using Jason’s phone.
The casting of Naughton makes me suspect they were going for an AMERICAN WEREWOLF feel. Despite all this aggressive quirkiness, the horror aspect is treated very seriously, making for a pretty decent tone (if the jokes were better). Jason starts to have disturbing dreams, like one where he smothers his ex with a pillow, his eyes demonic like he’s possessed. Later, while he’s having sex with Kim (once again with saxophone) a ghost watches them and then possesses her and makes her try to strangle him.
He has a mysterious neighbor named Vincent Tuttle (Kevin McCarthy, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE) who he never sees until he starts to get concerned about the weirdness and kinda barges in. Turns out Vincent is a practitioner of “white magic” whose train car is filled with candles and crucifixes to ward off “the Mister,” the ghost of Mrs. Erickson’s dead husband, who we eventually learn was the engineer from the opening scene. He’s “hanging around so he can scare the shit out of anyone getting lucky” since he blames his co-worker’s on-train dalliance for the trainwreck that ruined his life. (And now he’s dead. And a ghost. It’s not the most elegant storytelling.)
There’s an odd tangent in the middle where Jason gets in a fight with Kim because students are protesting a neo-nazi speaking on campus. Jason and his inappropriate professor buddy think the protesters are stupid because “freedom of speech,” which pisses off Kim because even if people are allowed to say whatever they want it’s still the duty of every non-piece-of-shit to tell nazi punks to fuck off. Unfortunately they quickly make up without resolving anything, but I thought it was interesting that this scene about a generational divide could be used word-for-word 31 years later. Everyone acts like it’s a new phenomenon, but it seems we will always, always, always have the argument between I Am So God Damned Brave For Welcoming All Nazis And Bigots Into My Home To Give TED Talks About Their Genetic Superiority Because Freedom of Speech vs. Yeah We Know There’s Freedom of Speech and We Have the Freedom To Tell These Nazi Assholes We Don’t Fucking Like Them At This Place Where We Live Saying Their Asshole Nazi Shit To Each Other.
For the finale “The Mister” does take on a pretty cool looking zombie-ish ghost form, played by TAMMY AND THE T-REX screenwriter Gary Brockette in makeup designed by Buechler. Vincent (who at one point says, “I’m peculiar, but I’m not stupid”) figures out a novel way to stop him – by forgiving him! So Jason hugs him. Genuinely a bold ending. I love it.
But he’s still haunted by visions, one of them involving a hide-a-bed that opens and sprays blood.
THE SLEEPING CAR is directed by Douglas Curtis, whose only other film as a director was THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CAMPUS CORPSE (1977), but he has producer credits on many notable films including THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT, BLACK MOON RISING, NEXT FRIDAY, FREDDY VS. JASON, SHOOT ‘EM UP and SORORITY ROW. Screenwriter Greg Collins O’Neill has a story credit on TUFF TURF and wrote a few episodes of Wordplay, Zorro and Pacific Blue.
There are many things wrong with this movie, but at this stage in trying to find undiscovered slasher-ish movies it’s a fucking miracle to find one with this much going for it. The premise and tone are unique, the monster is kinda cool, the lead is good, some (though not all or most) jokes are kinda funny. It’s interesting at least. I’m good with that.