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Ghost Train (1927)
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by Jay Seaver

"Vanished, only reappearing in strange circumstances!"
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: "Ghost Train" is long for a silent film, or at least one that is not a prestige drama, at 93 minutes, and you can see that filmmakers trying to fill it - which is kind of odd, considering that the original play must run roughly this length or more, and doesn't have some of the bits clearly designed for film that this one has. It's a fun little movie at times, but it's not hard to see why it sort of fell by the wayside.

If I were laying out a nation's railroad system, I think I might avoid making my passengers transfer at a place named "Hellbridge". In fact, I have some real questions about the people who both decide that this would be a fitting name for their community and continue living there. But, that's the name of the town where one transfers to get from Andover to London, and some folks are about to be stuck there: Miss Ophelia Borne (Ilse Bois), a priggish temperance activist; newlyweds Peggy (Hilde Jennings) & Charles Murdock (John Manners), newlyweds on the way to their honeymoon; Richard (Erno Verebes) & Elsie Winthrop (Agnes Korolenko), not-so-newlyweds heading for a divorce; and Teddy Deakin (Guy Newall), who caused them to be late by pulling the emergency stop when his hat flew out the window. Now they're sick in the station overnight, with station-master Saul Hodgkin (Louis Ralph) seeing the scene by telling them about how the previous person in the job caused a derailment by dying at the switch, leaving the station haunted and prone to mysterious deaths ever since.

The film starts off with some slick opening titles, as a skull's eye sockets dissolve into tunnels from which model trains emerge, and that's not the end of the nifty special effects that pop up in this movie. The train derailment is some very nice miniature work, for example, and while the ghosts are primitive in appearance, director Géza von Bolváry uses them effectively, either for scares or comedy, when the right moment arrives. There's even some impressive mixing of live-action and animation when a character gets drink enough to start seeing things.

The cast is also fairly game, with the two singletons being especially entertaining: Ilse Bois is given a character designed to rub people the wrong way, but she loosens the mean spinster she's given up with some quality physical comedy later on, while Guy Newall plasters an especially stupid look on his face to make Teddy the guy one would really rather not get stuck next to on a train (it actually does pay off). The others are not quite background to those two, but kind of run familiar patterns - Hilde Jennings & John Manners are a likable pair often used mainly to set up others' distaste for their public displays of affection, while Erno Verebes & Agnes Korolenko mostly bicker, although the moments when they don't are generally funniest.

A few more characters get introduced toward the end of the film, when the filmmakers seem to finally remember that they started the film out with a mystery plot and they should probably get back to that and wrap things up. It's an odd shift, not exactly negating what came before - the characters' antics are still pretty funny - but giving strong hints that this could have been even more entertaining, instead of meandering and then doing a sharp course-correction.

The film would be remade as a talkie 14 years later, so it was even easier for this Anglo-German co-productions (whose only surviving print, naturally, has all the titles in French) to fade into obscurity. That rarity now makes it an intriguing curiosity, an amusing little movie with enough interesting to get some attention when it does pop up for a screening.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29187&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/02/15 01:59:51
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