Category Archives: Movies with a train setting

Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

throw momma 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Two guys trade murders.

Larry (Billy Crystal) is a creative writing teacher who’s bitter about his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) stealing his story idea and using it to write a successful novel that has made her rich and famous while he wallows in the realm of writer’s block. Owen (Danny DeVito) is a writing student taking one of Larry’s classes who is stuck living with his miserable mother (Anne Ramsey) who he’d like to see dead. After watching the movie Strangers on a Train he comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant solution. He’ll murder Larry’s ex-wife while Larry in turn will murder his Momma. Owen does his part, but Larry is reluctant to pull his end of the ‘deal’.

DeVito gets a lot of accolades for his acting, but in many ways I think he is an even better director and doesn’t get enough credit for it. This movie was way ahead-of-its-time and ushers in many interesting juxtapositions and edits that we take for granted now, but was considered quite novel back then. I loved the close-up of Owen’s Hawaiian shirt with palm trees and then a jet plane formatted over it, which is used to cut to the next scene as well as the scene showing Larry’s students sitting in class and then the camera panning over in one take to Larry sleeping on the sofa in his apartment. The segments with a camera spinning around the characters is good and gives it a very Hitchcock feel especially the one with Larry lying on the floor as the camera rotates above him, but the best directorial touch is when Owen goes bowling while imagining that the pins are his mother.

Ramsey’s performance as the ultimate mother from hell is another selling point and one that has made this a cult classic. The fact that the woman was dying of cancer at the time and was in severe pain during the entire time that the movie was being filmed makes it all the more impressive. My only complaint is that it would’ve been nice had there been at least one moment where her character revealed a softer side and made her seem at least slightly human. I also felt that her eventual demise was quite unimaginative especially for a film that was otherwise very creative.

DeVito scores as well in his performance of the nebbish grown son in a character that could’ve easily been unlikable had it not been perfectly balanced, which he does marvelously. Crystal is excellent as a sort of sane everyman stuck in a very insane situation. His best part comes when he paces his house endlessly while trying desperately to come up with the opening sentence of his novel, which I found to be one of the funniest moments in the movie and something every struggling writer can relate to.

The wrap-up is a bit too good natured and works against the story’s otherwise dark comical roots, but it still gets a few points for showing Owen’s children’s pop-up book that he made, which illustrates the film’s scenario.

throw momma 2

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 11, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Danny DeVito

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Terror Train (1980)

terror train 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Killer wears different disguises.

Some frat boys decide to play a nasty prank on a vulnerable student named Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) which causes him to have a mental breakdown and be sent away. Now, three years later the same group of college kids gets together on a train for a raucous New Year’s Eve costume party. The problem is so does a mysterious killer who after killing each of his victims puts on the disguise that they were wearing making it impossible to track him.

Supposedly the idea for the film is the brainstorm of executive producer Daniel Grodnik who after seeing both Halloween and Silver Streak woke up one night with the inspiration of combining the two films and making a slasher movie aboard a train.  I admit when I first saw this film many years ago I thought it was pretty cool, but now upon second viewing it seems formulaic and predictable. It takes too long to get going with the first hour spent focusing on the doings of stereotypically jaded college kids who aren’t very appealing. The scares are few with the only real intense part coming at the end when the Jaimie Lee Curtis character locks herself in a cage and the killer tries desperately to get into it. The gore is also sparse and not impressive including a decapitated head that doesn’t look anything like the victim’s.

There is also a lot of glaring loopholes including having the killer murder someone inside one of the train’s cramped bathrooms and then managing to clean up all the blood, which would have taken a lot of time seeing how much there was of it, and then carting off the dead body without anyone noticing. During the climactic sequence Curtis’s character stabs the psycho in his eye, but later when the killer gets unmasked his eye and face look fine without any indication of scratches or cuts.

Curtis is a fine actress, but her presence did nothing but remind me of Halloween and they would have been better off casting someone else. Ben Johnson, who is technically listed as the star, adds some much needed stature and it is nice having a middle-aged character not portrayed as a clueless out-of-touch drip like they usually are in these types of films. Hart Bochner looks and acts like the perfect caricature of a smart-ass frat boy and its fun seeing him turn from cocky and arrogant at the beginning to desperate and frightened at the end. Magician David Copperfield is on hand essentially playing himself and some of his magic tricks are the most interesting part of the movie.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

Breakheart Pass (1976)

breakheart pass 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chuck’s on a train.

John Deacon (Charles Bronson) is a prisoner on a train headed Fort Humboldt. The train is carrying medical supplies to help the people there who are suffering from a plague outbreak. Amongst the passengers on the train is a Governor (Richard Crenna) a U.S. Marshal (Ben Johnson), a priest (Bill McKinney) and a load of Calvary soldiers, but as the ride progresses strange things begin to happen. People disappear and then turn up dead. Everyone seems to have a secret to hide and what is inside the boxes labeled medical supplies isn’t medicine.

This is the first Bronson/Ireland production to be given a big budget and the wintry Rocky Mountain landscape is sumptuous. The plot itself is intriguing and full of interesting twists that grabs you right from the start and keeps you enthralled until the end. Based on the Alister Maclean novel who also wrote the script it is no surprise that it seems more like a spy/espionage thriller than a conventional western yet there is enough gritty elements to keep it passable at both ends. The mixture of the two genres is unique and exciting and for a bubblegum actioner this one hits the mark.

The stuntwork is impressive and one of the film’s highpoints. Some of the best moments are when a man is thrown from a train and you see him fall from a bridge all the way to the river below. What makes this stand out is that the conventional, lightweight mannequin was thankfuly not used. Instead it looks like a real human body that even thumps along the wooden posts of the bridge as it goes down making it vivid. Watching the trainload of soldiers spiral off the tracks and go crashing along the mountainside has the same realistic quality. The fight on top of one of the snowy train cars between Bronson and former boxer Archie Moore is well choreographed and the scene of a telegraph operator getting a bullet shot through his head is surprisingly graphic.

The supporting cast is good and for a while they outshine Bronson who seems in a way outclassed by their colorful personalities and different acting styles. However, as it evolves Bronson comes into his own and it becomes a lot of fun watching the way he singlehandedly outsmarts and outmuscles all of them.

Ireland is beautiful as always and manages to hold her own to the otherwise all male cast. The music becomes an excellent added element. The booming orchestral sound of the opening theme is reminiscent of ones used in classic westerns. The unique score played whenever the Indians appear on screen has an interesting beat and sound. This is an entertainment winner for not only Bronson fans, but for action lovers as well.

breakheart pass 1

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Tom Gries

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video