Adjust Your Tracking: The Sleeping Car (1990)

Matty caps off his John Carl Buechler binge with a lil’ look at a horror flick that features the sorely missed FX maestro in a rare starring role.

According to Douglas Curtis, THE SLEEPING CAR’s script triggered a bidding war between several small companies before the helmer settled with Vidmark due to the creative freedom the shingle’s boss, Mark Amin, afforded him. Hyperbole or an error of judgment on Amin’s part: though The Sleeping Car appears to tick the right boxes for any outfit looking to establish a horror franchise in the Elm Street mode, its characters and dialogue are awful. However, if such flaws are the result of Curtis’ directorial autonomy — well, maybe there’s an argument for controlling producers after all…  

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to enjoy in this eminently watchable mess (albeit — appropriately — in a train wreck kind of way). The plot finds a divorced journalist (David Naughton) re-enrolling in college and moving into the eponymous digs — a converted train carriage — whereupon he falls afoul of a vengeful spirit called The Mister. A gruff, puritanical old engineman driven insane by a crash he was unable to prevent, The Mister’s human form is inhabited by John Carl Buechler, a full sixteen years ahead of the late, great FX wiz’s scene-stealing cameo as the piss-drinking Jack Cracker in Adam Green’s Hatchet (2006). Clean-shaven and slathered in excellent, self-designed prosthetics, seeing Buechler ham it up in The Sleeping Car’s wacky prologue (“Get your filthy, fornicating ass back on watch!”) is a delight matched only by the quality of the stunningly ghoulish make-up effects that he and his MMI squad pepper the rest of the film with. Buechler’s future Ghoulies Go to College (1991) star, Kevin McCarthy, also submits a fun turn as a white witch — but the less said about the bored-seeming Naughton or, worse, Jeff Conaway’s obnoxious performance the better. 

Despite failing to reconcile the frights with the chuckle-free dark ‘comedy’, Curtis establishes a potent nightmare milieu and actually succeeds in making the Kruger-esque Mister’s inherently silly killing machine — a sofa bed, of all things — a surprisingly formidable presence (even if one of the device’s gore punchlines is a flagrant Elm Street lift). The Sleeping Car was the first film Curtis had directed since oddball thriller The Curious Case of the Campus Corpse (1976). In the interim, the former industrial filmmaker produced The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), Black Moon Rising (1986) and Nice Girls Don’t Explode (1987) for New World Pictures. Subsequently, he served as a consultant and production executive on a bunch of big projects for New Line, namely Lost in Space (1997), Cellular (2004), and — fittingly — Freddy vs. Jason (2003).

Shot across thirty days in April and May 1989, The Sleeping Car was scheduled for theatrical distribution the following autumn. For whatever reason, Vidmark nixed the cinema run. Instead, they debuted the film on cassette in February 1990. It landed on tape here in the U.K. six months later. Incidentally, the artwork used for The Sleeping Car‘s British VHS sleeve was repurposed for the Retromedia DVD of Death House (1988) (aka ‘Zombie Death House’) in 2004.

USA ● 1990 ● Horror ● 84mins

David Naughton, Jeff Conaway, Kevin McCarthy, John Carl Buechler ● Dir. Douglas Curtis Wri. Greg O’Neill

Above: The Sleeping Car‘s U.S. video cover, and some behind-the-scenes snaps of John Carl Buechler from issue #4 of Horrorfan.

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