Retro Review: ‘Hellbound Train’

The month of February in the United States is recognized as Black History Month. This is to honor the rich history of struggles and triumphs African Americans have gone through, as well as to acknowledge the work left to do. In honor of Black History Month I have decided to focus my Retro Reviews for the month on important films of black cinema. In 1930, married African-American evangelist duo Eloyce and James Gist decided that the art of cinema to reach more people with their gospel message. The end result was the fascinating silent film Hellbound Train which at a very basic level is an incredibly early example of a Christian scare film, but there is an artistry to this picture that is completely lacking in the other films of this niche genre which came about in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

The movie is very basic, there is a Hellbound Train ominously chugging along towards the underworld with Satan at the helm. The title cards tell us along the journey what kind of sinners are passengers in each carriage of this train. From thieves to gamblers to alcoholics to prostitutes. From there we go to these various sinners in the very actions which damned their souls. To be honest what this Hellbound Train lacks in narrative it makes up for in artistry. While the Gist’s may not be filmmaker by nature, the two do have a talent that is on full display here. I do not know if they simply did not have access to a tripod or what, but their kinetic cinematography is captivating. The camera is constantly in emotion which in a way makes the audience feel like they are actually there in the thick of the action. The best way I can describe it would be a proto-documentary combined with a surreal 90’s music video. The actors onscreen capture life in the African American community of the early 20th century in a hyper-realized way. Given that this was an America where Jim Crow and segregation was at full strength, this picture was probably the first time many white moviegoers may have seen what life in black communities across the country was like. No doubt, they were likely shocked to see the people who live in this world were normal people dispelling any myths they may have built up. It is a world both grounded in reality with exaggerations of citizens in various dens of inequity while Satan is constantly on the prowl. Granted their Satan is clearly a man in a cheap Halloween costume, but with the way they shoot him combined with the ultimate grainy nature of their footage it creates an unintentionally eerie devil who delights in the suffering and evils of humanity.

I will be honest in that I was spoiled in my first viewing of Hellbound Train. My local arthouse theater screen the movie accompanied by a live performance from acclaimed gospel singer Elizabeth King added an extra power to what was onscreen. Even without this musical accompaniment, Hellbound Train is still a film truly worth watching. As any lover of movie history will tell you, the Silent Era was filled with visually stunning works and this one is no exception.