Review: The Sleeping Car (1990)

The Sleeping Car

Directed by Douglas Curtis
Starring David Naughton, Judie Aronson, Kevin McCarthy, Jeff Conaway

Most direct-to-VHS horror movies are easy to figure out. A half-potted screenwriter cobbles together a script composed of drunken memories of the last Friday the 13th movie before handing it to a film school dropout, whose job is to make something worthy of an eye-catching box design used to lure sticky-fingered 10-year-olds into carrying the tape to their exhausted parents and begging for a one-night rental. Occasionally, a talented filmmaker will emerge from the VHS cesspool and hit it big, but most of these directors release their trashterpiece and disappear into the night wind, never to be seen or heard from again. Other times, they simply give up their illogical “creator” pipe dream and become a producer. Douglas Curtis is one of those.

But the weird eccentricities of The Sleeping Car can’t entirely be pinned on its director. It might be Curtis’ fault that the film never quite collects its disparate parts into a recognizable heap, but what about the bewildering premise? The cheeseball dialogue? The desperate, melancholy subtext?

In his first and final feature film screenplay, Greg Collins O’Neill introduces us to Jason McCree, a 38-year-old college student who accidentally resurrects “The Mister,” a deceased train engineer/serial killer, by moving into a sleeping car rented out by the engineer’s widow. Upon disobeying Mrs. Mister’s “no hanky, no panky” rule, Jason begins to suspect that the foldout sofa is committing violent murders when he is away.

The Sleeping Car‘s basic premise is reminiscent of about a thousand different horror flicks, but its plot details are another story. Jason is a recently-divorced former journalist going back to college to obtain a degree. The Mister was a train engineer who lost his job after being wrongfully blamed for an accident caused by a distracted, horny teenager. He succumbed to alcoholism and was forced by his wife to move into an abandoned sleeping car next to their home, to which he lured young girls with the promise of alcohol and murdered them during the night, later burying their bodies next to a nearby river. When Jason moves into the sleeping car, The Mister resumes his premortem hobby, only now he uses a foldout sofa to crush his victims or impale them with springs. Yes, you’re reading that right.

If all this isn’t strange enough, the better part of the movie takes place at Jason’s new university, where he butts heads with his journalism professor and picks a fight with a dim-witted jock over a shot at dating classmate Kim. The most interesting scenes of The Sleeping Car depict Jason’s struggle with returning to school and his aversion to putting effort into his studies. David Naughton, of An American Werewolf in London fame (and singer of this awesome song), lends a personable face and affable demeanor to an otherwise unlikable character – a character who frequently makes groan-worthy jokes about his ex-wife and severely dislikes almost everyone he comes into contact with. Even worse is Bud, his professor friend played by Jeff Conaway, whose natural state is a Denis Leary-level of smug, toothy antagonism. Rounding out the cast is Kevin McCarthy, a veteran b-movie actor whose claim to fame is starring in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here, he plays a desperately lonely and inoffensively loopy warlock who surrounds himself in pentagrams, crucifixes, and melting candles. These are the people we spend time with – a hodgepodge of recognizable faces and wildly discordant personalities trapped in a singularly offbeat screenplay written by a singularly affected creative voice.

O’Neill spends far too much time indulging himself in Jason’s hatred of his ex-wife, going so far as to meaninglessly kill off the character shortly after introducing her. As movie ex-wives go, she’s par for the course: Uncommonly mean, impossibly smug, and endlessly hateful. This is an ex-husband’s fantasyland version of his ex-wife, and it reveals an uncomfortable amount of deep-seated bitterness on O’Neill’s part.

In the film’s climax, The Mister, O’Neill’s undead antagonist, is revealed to be an allegory for the hatred and perversion we all keep inside ourselves – qualities that we have to learn to accept instead of destroy. Jason defeats The Mister with a heartfelt hug, a hug that The Mister (a rapist serial killer, remember?) gladly returns. At this point we are way too deep inside O’Neill’s head, peering under rocks that should never have been peered under, uncovering secrets that the screenwriter should have kept to himself. The blurred, incomprehensible subtext suddenly twists into focus: O’Neill went though a divorce and hates himself. This is what The Sleeping Car is about.

Douglas Curtis did the best he could with the material. Some scenes are choppy and unfocused, but it retains a few ounces of respectability thanks to some truly disgusting special effects and one or two effective scares. The use of natural lighting inside the sleeping car creates a tangible atmosphere of claustrophobic dread and the music score is ’80s electronic bliss – a melancholy, tearstained effigy for the restless undead.

But the only impression left by The Sleeping Car is that of its screenwriter, whose uncomfortably personal vision is little more than a desperate cry for help from inside a dust-covered cardboard box sitting on the last shelf of a crumbling, condemned video store.

Links:

YouTube – Original Trailer
Netflix – The Sleeping Car

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