Tuesday, September 29, 2015

‘Amazing Stories’, episode 1 “Ghost Train” review

“Ghost Train”
Original airdate September 29, 1985
Teleplay by Frank Dees
Story by Steven Spielberg

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Shrouded in the trademark Spielberg secrecy of the time, “Ghost Train” was the lead off hitter in the “Amazing Stories” lineup. The hype throughout the summer of ’85 had been omnipresent and the soaring expectations for the series were beyond ridiculous.

To add to the already tense atmosphere, Spielberg did not provide any advanced tapes or review screenings for critics. For Spielberg, this was a way to avoid spoilers and was similar to the way he handled his movies. But for television this was unheard of at the time. TV critics took this as a slap in the face.

They were already pissed about Spielberg’s two year guaranteed contract with NBC. They were pissed off about the secrecy surrounding the show. They were pissed off “E.T.” made so much money. And now they were really pissed this guy had the gall to shake up the system. “Who does he think he is?” was the prevailing attitude.

Finally, “Ghost Train” premiered and the next day critics went berserk. The show was savaged with some of the most over the top vitriolic reviews imaginable. Viewers and genre fans were not much kinder. The next month’s Starlog Magazine letters section was packed with reader’s expressing their disappointment in the series and “Ghost Train” in particular. Even my favorite genre analyst of all time, the astute John Kenneth Muir wrote in Terror Television that “Amazing Stories” was one of the greatest disasters in the history of television (I’m paraphrasing).

“Ghost Train” is the story about an old-timer named Opa Globe (played by Roberts Blossom) who is waiting for a train called the Highball Express to return and take him to his destiny—a train that he thinks he caused to crash seventy-five years earlier.

The episode focuses on the special bond Opa has with his grandson Brian (played by Lukas Haas, one of the best child actors at the time and fresh off of co-starring with Harrison Ford in “Witness”).  Unlike Brian’s parents, he gets his grandfather. He listens intently when Opa tells the story about the Highball Express and what is about to happen—and he believes.

In a Spielberg story only children or—people with a childlike sense of wonder such as Opa—have a true sense of the transcendent—the world beyond—the fantastic. Regular adults (such as Brian’s parents) going about their mundane lives of stressful banality are far too distracted and cynical to see what is going on around them, until it (in this case literally) comes crashing down into their lives.

Spielberg is a true visual storyteller. He tells his story in a series of artfully composed images that seamlessly take us from point A to point B. There is usually not a whole lot of intricate or complex plot or a great deal of verb-age. Back in 1985, this was highly unusual for television which at that time was a very static medium visually. TV in 1985 was dialogue heavy, plot driven and full of talking heads—very un-cinematic. And here comes this visually oriented director telling a this little thirty minute story with a series of sweeping pans, push-ins, and tracking shots, cut to the soaring themes of John Williams.

It was something audiences had never seen in a television series and were not very receptive to it.

Much of the problem here is the length as well as the format. In a two hour film in a darkened theater the director has time and space to tell his story through the visuals and allow the audience to immerse themselves into the movie as Spielberg skillfully leads them on a physical and emotional journey. “Ghost Train” does not and cannot work the same way as a Spielberg film because he simply does not have enough time to work his magic and bring us come to the emotional catharsis we so desperately require.

The director’s segment in “The Twilight Zone Movie” suffered in a similar way and “Ghost Train” has the added burden of playing on a (at the time) tiny screen amid a household full of distractions, not to mention having to break for toilet paper commercials every ten minutes.

And make no mistake, “Ghost Train” plays more like big budget experimental short film than it does a television drama.

Technically, it is beyond reproach. As noted above, the John Williams music is superb, very much in line with the emotionally potent material he was creating at the time. And if you do seek this show out, see it on DVD or at least streaming at Netflix (and not the illegal grainy pixelated copies uploaded at YouTube) because “Ghost Train” looks fantastic. It was shot by my favorite Spielberg cinematographer Allen Daviau, who also lensed “E.T.”, “The Color Purple”, and “Empire of the Sun”.

So the plot is somewhat bare-bones, the visuals and music and direction superb, but what is “Ghost Train” really about?

Much like “Poltergeist”, it is about the sins of the past. It is about the falsehood of “American Exceptional-ism”, this notion that United States has always been this virtuous beacon of justice and our past a romanticized utopia where everyone was happy and prosperous and spiritually fulfilled. The “Ghost Train” in this episode is not so much about Opa, who merely seems to be hitching a ride into the afterlife.

It is really about those other passengers on the Highball Express, who were heading out west to take over the lands of the Native Americans. Native Americans who were either herded into concentration camps, or outright slaughtered, by the United States Army. The people on that train are prisoners—destined to roam forever over the blood-soaked lands they sought to grow fat and rich off of after the United States government had taken care of the only thing that stood in their way—that pesky “Indian Problem”.

The above reading is not such a reach when you consider that Spielberg would go on to make a film about another genocide called “Schindler’s List”.

Bottom line: *** out of four.

Beautifully shot, staged, and scored, “Ghost Train” is interesting, but is just not Spielberg at full steam.

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