Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I didn’t really grow up with anime as a child, or even a teen. It was something I first explored in my early twenties in the aughts when it seemed like the last remaining sanctuary for hand-drawn animation in modern cinema. And even since then my familiarity with anime has been very surface-level, defined by major genre touchstones like Miyazaki, Sailor Moon, and Satoshi Kon. The one major exception I can think of in this late-to-the-table anime exposure was my childhood VHS tape of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an 80s relic (and a Japanese-American co-production) that I watched countless times as a kid despite it being a drowsy, unhurried mess. Watching its contemporary peer Night on the Galactic Railroad for the first time recently felt like a weirdly comforting return to those childhood viewings of Little Nemo – one of the rare anime titles where I felt at home with the tone & artistry instead of in over my head with a genre I don’t know nearly enough about. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a soothing, hypnotic film for me, which is odd because it’s intended to play as a devastatingly somber fantasy drama.

This is an adaptation of a popular 1930s children’s novel from Japan, in which a lonely young boy escapes the isolation of caring for his sick mother in a small town where hardly anyone notices him by riding a magical late-night train with his only friend his age. For reasons unexplained, the movie decided to remain faithful to the book’s plot but recast most of its characters as talking cats. But not all of them! It’s in no rush to emphasize or justify this major alteration to its source text (or to clarify exactly why most characters are cats, but some remain human). In fact, it’s in no rush to do anything at all. It takes nearly 40 minutes for the titular magic train to arrive, before which we mostly watch our melancholic feline protagonist attend to his daily chores at work, school, and home. Once on the train, he has lowkey conversations about the immensity of the galaxy and the meaning of life with a series of passengers – including his aforementioned bestie and, most surprisingly, passengers of The Titanic. The tone is grim & low energy, slowly chugging along to a major reveal about what riding the train symbolizes in its closing minutes, long after an adult audience would have guessed the twist. If young children had the attention span to follow its story and parse out its symbolism, it’s devastating enough that it could really fuck them up. Instead, it plays like a minor-notes lullaby, a warm naptime blanket made entirely of grief & regret.

Besides my recollections of Little Nemo, Night on the Galactic Railroad reminds me of when I had Final Fantasy on Gameboy as a kid but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would just wander around the game’s villages talking to fictional strangers. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie and the feline character designs stray disturbingly close to online furry art, but it still works like a soothing salve on a troubled mind. This film is potent catnip for anyone who can lose themselves in the pleasures of looking at cute cats & outer space imagery for the eternity of a lazy afternoon. Its unrushed tedium isn’t boring so much as it’s a time distortion device, making 100 minutes stretch on for 100 pleasantly melancholic hours – like contemplating the nature of Death while drifting through outer space all by your lonesome. It’s not the dazzling, intricate artistry and propulsive excitement of anime that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years as I’ve sought out the legendary standouts of the medium, but rather the dozy nostalgia-prone slow-drift of 80s anime that I grew up with as a kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Slugs (1988)

Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón is a kind of enigma to me. How could the same man responsible for Pod People, the infamous MST3k episode that brought the world Trumpy, also have directed the gruesome splatter comedy Pieces, which nearly gives The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a run for its money in both humor & brutality? Some of the works listed in Simón’s resume look genuinely unwatchable, both in the sense of quality & in availability, but then there’s titles like The Rift that are reported to be one of the greatest practical effects horrors of all time. Simón’s American co-production Slugs seems to split the difference between the director’s notably amateur, almost kid-friendly horror and the masterfully technical special effects gore of his better-remembered works. It doesn’t exactly provide enough context to make the director’s schlocky oeuvre feel comprehensibly congruous, but it does fit comfortably on both sides of the fence that divides his work: the hopelessly juvenile & the disturbingly violent.

In the tradition of natural horror pictures like Alligator and Night of the Lepus, Slugs is a profoundly silly film about a supernatural invasion of, well, slugs. The movie makes direct nods to its likely genre influences, including an opening scene that riffs on the Jaws series by having the slugs drown a skinny-dipping teen in a lake. Then there’s the third act effort to explain that these especially violent slugs were mutated into their monstrous form by illegal toxic waste dumping, a tradition that dates back at least to Them!. There really isn’t much else to the film besides that basic slug invasion premise. The smartass health inspector of the small, rural town where the slugs attack makes it a personal mission to spread the news of the exact nature of the threat that’s killing the town’s already minuscule population. No one believes him until it’s too late, of course, and there’s a last minute effort to stop the little monsters in their slimy tracks once many, many lives are already lost. The plot is aggressively simple & overly familiar, especially for anyone who’s ever seen more than a few natural invasion sci-fi/horror films before. Simón manages to make Slugs an ideal version of that very much rote genre model, though, and he accomplishes that entirely through the novelty and the brutality of the film’s kills.

While the basic premise of Slugs is both silly & clichéd due to the size & nature of its titular threat, the violence & technical skills of its various kills elevate the material to the exact kind of goofy brutality people are looking for in cult classic drive-in fare. These giant, juicy black slugs not only carpet the ground and invade homes from the drains of sinks & toilets; they also bite with sharpened fangs and burrow into unsuspecting victims’ skin. In lesser natural horrors, the slugs’ dirty work would be depicted through a discovered, picked clean skeleton. Here, the little bastards turn their victims into exploding, bloodied meat, covering the sets and nearly the camera in untold excess of blood & gore. While never approaching the art film weirdness of the ants invasion piece Phase IV, Slugs similarly finds a genuine, basic discomfort in watching its slimy, little, slithering pests in what plays like nature footage caught in unnatural environments. It’s in applying that very real grossness to over the top gore that slugs could never possibly pull off at their size or mechanical ability where the movie sets itself apart. In one exemplifying scene, a man in a greenhouse chops off his own arm to alleviate the pain inflicted by slugs attacking it. In the struggle, he clumsily disturbs his gardening chemicals and the greenhouse explodes. What Slugs might be missing in the inventiveness of its basic DNA, it makes up for in the over the top excess of it’s bloody, defining details.

I don’t know if I’m any closer to understanding the full scope of Juan Piquer Simón’s career after watching & enjoying Slugs. I’d have this see more of his films to say that for sure. (I’m especially excited about checking out The Rift.) Slugs does seem to be a perfect balance of both the silly & the horrifically gory sides of the director’s aesthetic, though. It’s a movie both willing to include a line like, “Slugs, snails, what’s the difference?” as a meta joke on the inanity of its premise and feature a minutes-long scene of a poor, unsuspecting teen writhing on the ground as an army of tiny monsters bloody every inch of her body, inside and out. The film sacrifices a little momentum when it gets lost trying to track down & explode the offending slugs at their nest in the sewers and it may go a little too far in its cruelty when it unnecessarily depicts an attempted rape that has no direct bearing on the plot, but for the most part it’s the exact kind of half dumb, half shockingly brutal horror formula that goes great with a rowdy midnight audience and a case of cheap beer. It’s my favorite film I’ve seen from Simón so far, Pieces included, and it brought me just a little bit closer to understanding how the same artist responsible for Trumpy could also have helmed such grotesque, upsetting works as that splatter film classic.

-Brandon Ledet