Friday, 15 March 2013

Terror Express (1980) - review

Terror Express
Starring: Carlo De Mejo, Werner Pochath, Silvia Dionisio

This obscure sleaze epic is yet another Italian Last House on the Left rip-off, set on a train (a la Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders), featuring an ‘all-star’ cast: Silvia Dionisio (ex-Mrs. Ruggero Deodato), Werner Pochath, Zora Kerova, Carlo de Mejo, Venantino Venantini and Gianluigi Chirizzi. A group of passengers is waiting to board an express train to Switzerland. Among the commuters are a unhappily married couple - arrogant, bored Anna (Kerova) and her wealthy older husband, a lecherous old businessman who orders his assistant to buy every porno magazine from the newsstand for him, a family: father (Venantini), mother and nubile teenage daughter, Evelyn, an elderly man and his bedridden wife, a prisoner, Peter (Chirizzi), under arrest for ‘political reasons’ and his minder, and a beautiful young woman, Juliette (Dionisio), who we soon discover is a high-class prostitute. At the train station, Juliette is harassed by a trio of obnoxious men, Ernie (de Mejo), Dave (Pochath) and Phil while talking on a public phone. The passengers board the train and it is soon revealed that the trio is also on board. They proceed to make a nuisance of themselves in the restaurant carriage, much to the disdain of the other diners. Dave trips up the waiter and is reprimanded, provoking Ernie to spew out a torrent of inane counter-culture psychobabble, including: “…it was a small and banal accident, provoked by the forces that dictate the destiny of humanity…mysteriousness…the pharaohs…the druids…and punk rock!” Airhead Anna applauds his statements, and soon they are making love in his compartment (de Mejo, who is supposed to be the film’s ‘hunk’ (complete with gold chain, open-neck shirt and big hair, has a not particularly prepossessing nude scene)) They are joined by Phil, who rapes Anna. Meanwhile, Venantini’s unhealthy interest in his daughter is revealed when he obtains her nightgown and asks Juliette to wear it while having sex with her, in a decidedly uncomfortable scene. They are interrupted by Dave, who is fed up with waiting for his turn with Juliette. She refuses him, and all hell breaks loose as the trio take over the train. Dave threatens to rape Evelyn, and her mother pleads with Juliette to comply with his demands. Reluctantly, she does (cue yet another tedious sex scene), then Dave offers her to all the men in the train. Peter, the young prisoner, goes in, but is kind to her. Juliette tells him about her sad childhood and soon they fall in love. Ernie promises Evelyn that no one will hurt her, and gets her a glass of water. The drippy girl is then his next conquest. The train suddenly stops, and the trio panic. Ernie accidentally suffocates the elderly bedridden woman when trying to quieten her, and feels remorse because “we weren’t supposed to kill anyone”. Peter manages to escape from his compartment and predictably manages to dispatch of the trio. End of movie.
This very politically incorrect thriller differentiates itself from the other Last House… rip-offs by being virtually bloodless, instead focusing on the more sexploitative elements of the subgenre (all of the lead actresses have gratuitous nude scenes). The script (written by Joe d’Amato regular Luigi Montefiori/George Eastman) and direction are mechanical, and it is difficult to feel sympathy for the characters, as Ferdinando Baldi has deliberately made most of them as unlikable as possible. The antics of the trio of degenerates provide the most interest, and it is highly amusing to see de Mejo and Pochath (who were obviously at least in their mid-thirties at the time) playing ‘young delinquents’. There’s also a great Kraftwerk-esque electronic score by Marcello Giombini (sadly most of the master tapes for Giombini's soundtracks are believed to have been lost).

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

'Personal Nightmare' - please remake this long-lost classic horror adventure!!!

Back when I was a kid in the late 1980’s, one of the most popular gaming machines at the time in Australia was the Amiga 500. Amongst the myriad of games I plowed through, one particular title has stuck with me to this day – a sadly long-forgotten horror-adventure called Personal Nightmare. Thumbing through a August 1989 issue of Computer + Video Games, I came across a review of Personal Nightmare, and was immediately struck by its crisp, detailed graphics and stylish design (for its time). Also, already being a horror fan at age 10, I was also intrigued by its storyline – the main character returns to the remote English village where he grew up and discovers that several residents, who are under the influence of the Devil himself via possession, have been committing satanic rituals and murder. Several young girls from the area and neighbouring villages have also gone missing, presumably kidnapped to be used as sacrifices in said rituals (shades of ‘The Wicker Man’ anyone?) The object of the game is for you to defeat the power of the Devil by finding and eradicating him (he has ensconced himself somewhere in the town), but not before discovering who the possessed villagers are and bringing them to justice for their horrific crimes. There’s also a bunch of archetypal horror villains (vampire, witch, devil dog) thrown in for good measure. Of course the warning at the end of the article, “There are some quite horrific happenings, and the game is certainly not recommended (even by the authors) for children” only whetted my appetite for the game even more!
immediately begged my older brother to track down Personal Nightmare, and sure enough, a few weeks later he triumphantly presented me with a copy of the game, which comprised of a whopping 3 discs. We booted up the first disc in anticipation and were thunderstruck by its audacious opening sequence – the town’s vicar, delivering a sermon in church, is struck by a bolt of lightning, is engulfed by flames...and then re-emerges from the inferno as THE DEVIL! (complete with ear-splitting demonic roar). Your character then arrives at your accommodation, the local inn, where literally upon five minutes of arrival a local man is killed outside the inn in a hit-and-run accident. Thus begins your ‘Personal Nightmare’.

However, the first of the game’s glaring flaws soon appeared. We discovered how incredibly easy it was to die – simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time resulted in a quick garrotting. It didn’t take me long to get mighty sick of the sentence (“You are suddenly strangled from behind with a garrotte...”). A unique feature of Personal Nightmare was its revolutionary use of ‘real-time’ – you have 4 days to complete the game before complete demonic oppression engulfs the village. However every single event in this game was set to run according to the real-time structure with no flexibility, for example if you happen to miss witnessing the hit-and-run at the start (where you have to search the body to find some essential evidence), you may as well give up as there’s no way of finishing the game without those particular artefacts.   

In addition to having to arrive at particular locations exactly on time to advance story progression, another hindrance was the sheer complexity of many of the puzzles. I daresay that 99.9% of people who’ve played Personal Nightmare would never be able to complete it without at least some reliance on the walkthough (easily found via a quick Google search).  Releases of the game were also hampered by careless bugs inexplicably not detected during the development and testing stages. These unfortunate flaws (as well as an ill-advised, tacky marketing campaign featuring Elvira) no doubt contributed to Personal Nightmare being a commercial flop, banished to $5 bargain bins (my brother scored an original copy for that price several months later), and soon sinking into unfortunate obscurity. However the emergence of the World Wide Web soon revealed a small group of hardcore fans dotted around globe fondly reminiscing about this classic adventure on retro computer game websites and forums. A compilation of the game’s varied death scenes created by my brother a couple of years ago has received no less than 17,000 views on YouTube. Not bad for a little-known, 23-year old game!
But what made up for these pitfalls was a genuinely eerie, unnerving atmosphere. As day turned into night in game time the chills would increase tenfold as you never knew what terrors could be stumbled upon roaming the village streets at night – the vampire emerging from his crypt in search of his next victim, a gaggle of ghosts swirling around the cemetery at the stroke of midnight, and the mysterious ‘strangler’ never lurking too far away in the background. The inn is no safe sanctuary either – there’s the risk of being shot by toy soldiers conjured to life by a possessed orphaned child lodging there (!), or a stabbing to the head by a watery demon that emerges from the kitchen sink after closing hours (!!) Add a touch of soap opera drama to the proceedings -  the wife of the hit and run victim is engaged in a torrid affair with the local garage owner in between attending  black masses (!!!) and you have one lost gem that’s crying out for a remake.

Personal Nightmare was initially released in 1989 by the long-defunct Horrorsoft, a UK-based video game developer established by Mike Woodroffe, also head of Adventuresoft (who had previously released a series of text-and-graphic adventures based on the hugely successful Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks). Having obtained the rights to market horror icon Elvira, Woodroffe decided to release a series of horror adventure games featuring her prominently on the packaging (though this did nothing to help boost sales of Personal Nightmare), and even made her the star of two (fairly successful) games – Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and Elvira II: Jaws of Cerebus.  Mike Woodroffe has now retired from the gaming industry following the disastrous failure of his highly anticipated Call of Cthulhu in 2006. However, his son Simon Woodroffe, who followed his father into the game design business, is a prominent and respected figure in the industry. Hopefully one day, and particularly considering the current mainstream popularity of horror games, movies, and books, he might look into a reboot of Personal Nightmare?
Original magazine ad
The Computer + Video Games review that led me to seek out the game (click on the following link to zoom)


Lotsa screenshots