‘The Ghost Train,’ hovers between comedy and suspense
Directed by Walter Forde
Written by J.O.C. Orton, Val Guest, & Marriott Edgar
Starring Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, Kathleen Harrison, and Carole Lynne
UK, 85 min – 1941.
“I say, I wonder if I could teach you to talk. I wonder if you could say ‘Heil Hitler.’ Eh? No, not with a beak like that.”
A train speeds down the railroad, with nothing but dark, shadowed tracks ahead. Suspenseful nondiegetic music plays. The train accelerates, approaches and passes through the names of people involved in making the film – producers, stars, writers, and the director. This continues, until the audience no longer sees the journey from the train’s perspective. The train materializes out of a tunnel and the audience is placed at a safe distance from the suspenseful ride. These are the opening credits of Walter Forde’s The Ghost Train.
The basic plot follows the story of a group of train passengers, who miss their train connection. They end up staying overnight at a lonely railway station. The stationmaster tries to usher them out, but has no luck. He then warns them about a ghost train that travels through in the middle of the night. It is a train that crashed over forty years before and has left a haunting presence on the abandoned railway. The passengers disbelieve the stationmaster, until a series of bizarre things begin to happen. Soon after, they get to the bottom of what really hides behind the tale of a doomed train.
The Ghost Train is both suspenseful and comedic. The suspenseful sections come from the ghost story itself. Is it true or not? Can the passengers believe it? Will the passengers be alright staying overnight in a haunted railway station? These questions and more are set up perfectly for what would be a straight suspense thriller or horror film, in any other era. However, it is also quite funny.
Much of the humor comes from Tommy Gander (Arthur Askey)’s vaudevillian style gags and his ‘confrontations’ with the other passengers. He fails in his attempts to lighten the mood and the passengers, including uptight Richard Winthrop (Peter Murray-Hill) and lovestruck Teddy Deakin (Richard Murdoch), blame him for their missed connection. However, when something frightening occurs, a point at which the viewer would feel suspense, Gander pokes fun at the situation, just to make sure everyone (audience members included) understands that what occurs is not real. For example, he makes fun of the stationmaster’s ghost, pretending to trip over the apparition’s leg. His humor distances the viewer from believing in the film’s supernatural aspects and thus foreshadows the fact that the ghost train story is not at all what it seems.
Constantly being taken out of suspenseful moments allows the film to have a lighter mood. What would be an interesting concept for a horror film, in any other decade, must in the 1940s be related to the war effort. Therefore, even the horrific must raise morale (although comedy chillers were also popular in Britain in the 1930s). What better way to get people to believe in secret Nazi espionage on English soil than to make it part of a film (or two, three, four…)? The eerie comedy chiller asks viewers not only to accept horror’s comedic side, but to also understand how easily Nazis can be thwarted. Even the silliest of comedians can spot a Fifth Columnist threat.
On the other hand, placing these ideas in such an amusing way also distances the viewer from seeing the threatening parts of what the film suggests. The darker aspects become hilarious gags and suddenly there is no need for elaborate discussions on death, ghosts, espionage, or Nazism. Nazi sympathizes being the root cause of the the problem is enough, particularly since those sympathizes are never allowed to get away with their deeds.
Contrary to what one would expect from its title, The Ghost Train is not a straight horror film. The film chills with superstitious talk of ghosts haunting the living. Yet, it mocks these very same beliefs, using the vaudevillian style humor of Arthur Askey’s character Tommy Gander. Like in the opening credits, the viewer hovers between feelings of suspense, feelings of amusement, and even sometimes both. This way, the horror-comedy separates the viewer from the darker topics of death, hauntings, and yes, even Nazism (because it is 1941, after all). Somehow, this still works.